NYO at the Barbican Hall: a musical celebration of the power of youth

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Hanns Eisler, Britten, Shostakovich: National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain / Jaime Martín (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 5.1.2019. (CC)

National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain & Jaime Martín (conductor) © Jason Alden

Hanns Eisler Auf den Strassen zu singen Op.15
Britten Sinfonia da Requiem
Shostakovich – Symphony No.11 in G minor Op.103, ‘The Year 1905’

This was a triumph, a celebration of the power of youth: not only in the quality of the performances, but in these musicians’ ability to convey a message. The Eisler, designated as a ‘demonstration song’, was sung, in English, by the 160 members of the orchestra with the sole addition of a side-drum; the songs Shostakovich used as thematic material were, again, sung before the relevant movements of the symphony, with the exception of the directly attacca movements; the song ‘You fell as a victim’ was given as a kind of encore.

It was remarkably effective. The idea of protest and of strived-for egalitarianism combined with the optimism of youth is a potent combination: ‘the wealth of the world is for all men, for all men by right!’; ‘Claim that promised land where truth and justice are’ – both quotations are from the Eisler. Rousing it certainly was; and undeniably an emotional experience. Diction in this ‘demonstration song’ was perhaps not what it could have been – it could conceivably have been sung in the original at times – but the spirit was all there.

The power of Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, too, was huge, although in some ways this was the least successful panel of the concert. The NYO is simply huge (the likes of seven flutes and eight horns), and it would take a greater conductor than Martín fully to delineate Britten’s carefully constructed score; they were also, incidentally, battling against the loud clicking of a photographer until an audience member intervened. That said, there was a real sense of unhurried unfolding in the opening ‘Lacrymosa’; the flutter-tongued wind in the ‘Dies irae’ had a real sense of foreboding verging on panic, as graphic in its way as anything in Shostakovich’s often quasi-cinematic score. Britten’s ‘Dies irae’ found the NYO in their element. This is highly gestural music, the players relishing each and every opportunity to shine. The tread of the ‘Requiem aeternam’ had much of the inevitability of the ‘Lacrymosa,’ except here the tone was identifiably valedictory. The cello solos of Danushka Edirisinghe were particularly noteworthy.

Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony is a magnificent edifice. Mstislav Rostropovich proved that for evermore in a performance with the LSO in this very hall (March 2002, reviewed here and mercifully enshrined forever on LSO Live). While this NYO performance did not climb the same exalted heights of extreme emotion and visceral tension, it was not so far off. The sheer power of the strings as they dug in was remarkable, as was the disturbing turbulence of the shifting string mass at the opening of ‘The Ninth of January’; but how, also, the young musicians maintained the sense of suspended tension in the glacial ‘The Palace Square’, or in the long pizzicato opening of ‘Eternal Memory’ and the ensuing, seemingly never-ending theme on violas. The most gestural movement is surely ‘Tocsin,’ and here there was no doubting the laser focus of the NYO, each syncopation, each whirling woodwind, delivered with complete immersion.

If 31 January 2020 turns out to be the momentous political event it seems inevitably to be, it is more that likely that the members of this great orchestra will now be denied entry into the European Community Youth Orchestra. This is made particularly potent when, in a printed interview in the programme booklet, Jaime Martín talks about his own experiences with the ECYO, playing under the likes of Abbado (with Jessye Norman as soloist), and touring Europe and India with Zubin Mehta. That UK musicians can make such a bold statement in such an unforgettable fashion is a matter, surely, for huge pride, and gives hope for a global future that seems, currently, so very uncertain.

Colin Clarke

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