Alertness, Fire and Vigour from the CBSO Youth Orchestra in Birmingham

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Clyne, Szymanowski, Copland: Tasmin Little (violin), CBSO Youth Orchestra / Cristian Măcelaru (conductor). Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 24.2.2019. (RD)

CBSO Youth Orchestra at a previous concert in Symphony Hall

Anna Clyne – This Midnight Hour

Szymanowski – Violin Concerto No.1, Op.35

Copland – Symphony No.3

This imaginative and taxing programme makes huge demands on its players. What is required is not just proficiency, but brilliance and virtuosity across the board. And this it received, in abundance, from the 14 to 21-year olds of the CBSO Youth Orchestra. Their professionalism is fabulous, and astounding.

These gifts were evident immediately at Symphony Hall in This Midnight Hour, from the London-born Anna Clyne, who has conquered America, picking up awards galore. You can hear why she was Composer-in-Residence to the Chicago Symphony from 2010-15. One vital orchestral work, Masquerade, was conducted by Marin Alsop at the Last Night of the Proms. In the present work, so much is densely packed into its dozen minutes – power, colour, expression, tautness, emotion – it never ceases to dazzle, delight and impress. And here it was sensationally, rivetingly well played.

The violent cellos and basses which launch the work, taken up by upper strings, set the pace and tone. By the time riding woodwind begins to coast over the top, you might think we were somewhere in a Sibelius symphony. Indeed Clyne’s mastery may be compared with such greats. There is nothing posy, or trite here. One was staggered how unfazed every department proved itself. The young lap up new compositions as if there was nothing daunting about them. Their appetite for discovery is insatiable.

The work is partly inspired by a famous Baudelaire poem, some of whose expressive phrases seem to haunt the piece. Clyne does not seek actually to imitate, but the atmosphere is surely perfumed by the French poem. She generates a myriad colours: helter-skelter flutes, piccolos blaring; urgent rushings, secured below by trombones, tuba and double basses, with eloquent woodwind acting occasionally as a kind of pivot. Meanwhile a tune wells up, weighty and tonal, part Sibelius again, its waltzing, recalling the ‘melancholy waltz’ of the Baudelaire. Near the end, the feel is positively ethereal.

If This Midnight Hour is a scintillating score, the First Violin Concerto of Karol Szymanowski is simply stunning at every turn. Szymanowski’s always electrifying music is normally categorised in three stages: early Romanticism; the lush, sensuous music of the Great War period; and the tinglingly folk-infused music that followed in the middle 1920s. The First Violin Concerto, heard at this concert in a shiveringly beautiful performance by these mind-blowingly talented young players, is, like Szymanowski’s Third Symphony, a masterpiece from that second phase. The work calls for phenomenal subtlety, both in the conductor, here the Romanian-born Cristian Măcelaru, and from his eager protégés. The opening was perhaps a fraction too loud, overstating the gossamer textures and tweets that inhabit it. But most of this undoubted masterpiece was exquisitely teased out, gloriously phased, phrased, timed and shaped.

Tasmin Little, the soloist here, is allotted some of the most glorious, soaring, yet also intimate writing of any late Impressionist work; and likewise the orchestra as a whole. There are plums for all sections. The string playing, not least from both lower strings, was exquisite; the woodwind revealed a depth and quality of solo playing that left one aghast. The brass as a whole, and a wild array of percussion, shone. This was a performance and a half. When Little retires from performing in 2020 she will be sorely missed on the concert platform.

After the chattering start, lulling strings are joined by the soloist, by trombone and tuba exclamations, and an exquisite rocking effect that yields up the mesmerising descending motif which plays such a tantalising part in the whole. What’s more, these young players seemed unable to put a foot wrong. No fluffs, no approximate rhythms, no hint of tuning issues: they nurtured, embraced and cherished this music, showing a subtlety that was an easy match for professional orchestras. There was much to wonder at: the busy work of two harps; one rallentando and diminuendo perfectly masterminded by Măcelaru; fabulously alert inputs, often impish, from solo woodwind; mighty climaxes unleashing wonderful subsidings, letting the soloist shine through (just once or twice she was overborne). Also, the way the percussion infiltrates itself and then as rapidly evaporates, before cellos and half a dozen double basses (plus again, percussion, with flutes) pave the way for the soloist, shadowed by a lovely solo horn. Something more is in the air: a well-engineered accelerando to an explosive outburst, and again, a sudden disappearance heralding the cadenza, played with an exhilarating sense of both urgency and relaxation: an uplifting experience, before the woodland twitters of the start cheekily recur. Symphony Hall’s truly lucid acoustic worked wonders: every instrumental detail spoke eloquently through the textures. A manifest triumph.

The addition of Aaron Copland’s (also wartime) Third Symphony left one feeling utterly spoiled. The composer’s personal imprint is on it from the start. Though this is essentially an immediate post-war expression of joy, there soon emerges a sad, chorale-like sequence, languorously played. During the ensuing tutti, with dominant brass (not a note astray), everyone, rather as in the Szymanowski, succeeds in infiltrating their own little detail. Eloquent touches abound, a solo trombone paired with solo flute, for instance – a kind of appetising counterpointed melody. By the time massed brass takes over, all five flutes (two piccolos) are in full flow. A gorgeous salient clarinet, and bassoons, are added (these woodwind players were without exception one of the real treats), heralding a lilting pattern. The long subsiding is tweaked by an impudent ping on the xylophone. Enter a scherzo, blustering and bustling. The trio is a joy, pastoral in manner, played with exquisite sensitivity, featuring enchanting oboe and some admirably relaxed percussion. An unexpected climax and a rising arpeggio figure herald what is to follow: a statement of Copland’s Fanfare for a Common Man, incorporated here to underline the celebration.

Delicate upper parts are needed for the andantino: wafting, shy, profoundly tender – almost brushed strings, nudged on by flute and oboe. A perfect accelerando heralded a dance-like passage, almost skipping, again typical of Copland. Yet strangely, inexplicably, there follows a curiously dull strings sequence. It feels like little more than lacklustre note-spinning: even these enterprising players could not make it blossom. Solo woodwind relievingly, and cheeringly, provide a way out.

Now into the final movement, the trumpets make the running, before skedaddling semiquavers in adroit woodwind translate to the strings and an enchanting, enriching solo horn, heralding a fugue-like passage of extraordinary bursting energy. What then follows is first more prancing and dancing, then sizzling, then blazing. The distinct feeling of celebration surges up. A link formed by the individual woodwind instruments and the horn soloist summoning back the Fanfare and a brassy, one might say Bernstein-like, tutti: As a charming afterthought, the percussion goes briefly, almost hilariously, crazy.

What alertness; fire and vigour – and astonishing precision – from these young performers! And what intelligence. This was a gratifying, in all respects perfect, concert from a truly electrifying orchestra, all sections included. They deserved a loud loud cheer – and from the enraptured audience, they got it.

Roderic Dunnett

For more about the CBSO Youth Orchestra click here.

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