The NYO Open Up and Let Loose with great aplomb at Warwick Arts Centre

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Adès, Frank, Rachmaninoff: National Youth Orchestra / Andrew Gourlay (conductor). Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, 7.1.2022. (CP)

National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain performing recently in the Barbican Hall

Adès – Dawn (Chacony for Orchestra at any Distance)
Gabriela Lena Frank – Three Latin American Dances
Rachmaninoff – Symphonic Dances

‘If we could go ahead, we would go ahead’, declared Sarah Alexander, National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain’s Chief Executive. In these infection-ridden times it is an astonishing achievement to bring 160 young musicians together at Warwick University to plan and deliver two concerts ‘with a difference’ at the Barbican Hall (previous Monday) and now at the Butterworth Hall. Firstly, divide the 160 into two groups of 80 for their respective concerts, then support the ‘go ahead’ infectious bravery of the Butterworth 80 to bookend the Adès, Frank and Rachmaninoff programme with hugely creative group activity never seen before in the concert history of the hall.

Seven lonely double basses lying in on their sides as the audience begin to take their places is the only evidence of NYO players in the house. One of those lonely double basses belongs to Brooke Simpson from Bromley who at the pre-concert talk declared her strong view that ‘the double bass is the driving force of the orchestra’. Don’t be surprised if we hear more from her later in the concert!

Gone is the shuffling on of players as they take their positions on platform;   one ring of the tubular bell is the signal for the players to enter the hall by the numerous entry points – brass to the balconies, wind to the choir stalls, strings to the extended platform to play their own ‘opening up with a difference welcome’ – a composition entirely of their own, put together in the few days at Warwick University. How wonderfully creative and brave. No sign yet of Andrew Gourlay and, to the late arriving audience members, this sounds like the traditional warming up. Far from it, this ‘work’ is carefully designed to show these young talented musicians are ready to ‘let loose’. Soon enough the single oboe in A signals the arrival of Gourlay taking his charges seamlessly into the Thomas Adès work composed when it was illegal for musicians to play closer than two metres apart. NYO played to the rules and remained the two metres apart throughout. Adès recognised that orchestra, sinfonias and chamber groups could be severely reduced in number at no notice during these last two years. This work, a chacony, premièred at the 2020 BBC Proms is a work full of lush harmonies which NYO built to a climax with soaring flute arpeggios.

Having demonstrated their facility to ‘open up’, how would NYO and Gourlay demonstrate their ‘let loose’ proposition? Gabriela Lena Frank’s Three Latin American Dances was well chosen to engage the vast percussion section of which Sophie Sunday Warner from London showed she fully understood the ‘let loose’ message, with some dynamic eye-catching timpani playing whilst her colleagues were more than occupied with the most elaborate display of percussion instrument-playing from vibraphone, xylophone, kettle drum, tambourine, rattle, bongo, cymbals, tin sheet, and many more. The only instrument missing was the anvil! Not going unnoticed, too, was the fine playing of two harpists.

Frank’s work is the inspiration of several seductive South American rhythms, notably Peru and Ecuador and their successful integration into a western classical framework. With opening bars reminiscent of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, the hard-working percussion section, backed up by strong trombones and precise wind playing, created an environment of tuneful rumpus with the magic of muted horns floating above the gorgeous dancing strings.

These brassy dances gave way to a further example of the immense creativity within this NYO team with an arrangement for string quartet of Florence Price’s Levee Dance, a work usually associated with the piano. How do they find time to produce such an innovative orchestration during their intense musical retreat?

NYO’s ‘with a difference’ theme was best exemplified with the scene-setting by both Ross Donaldson (horn) from Glasgow and Ella Harrison (cello) from Harpenden as they fluently highlighted the personal pressures facing Rachmaninoff in his later years whilst composing his three movement Symphonic Dances. The Russian opening set is full of brass and a haunting alto sax in the hands of Rosemary Ball from Royston with the long flowing passages strongly encouraged by Gourlay. NYO’s Butterworth leader, Londoner, Maxim Lavrov, took responsibility for the delightful second movement solo contribution, accompanied by subtle pizzicato playing from his colleague strings. Lavrov’s efforts preceded the ultimate ‘let loose’ with Sophie Stevenson from Manchester taking the timpani lead as the dazzling brilliance of the final dance brought together the emotive bassoons, harps, tender horns, building to the most sensational climax soon to be followed by the well-deserved applause.

Remember the double bass player Brooke Simpson? No sooner had Gourlay finally left the platform, than Simpson left her instrument on its side again to take centre stage to lead the unaccompanied Panda Chant by Meredith Monk, with all 80 players involved – a truly wonderful sight! As the strings began to leave the platform, the brass and percussion broke into an impromptu jazz jamming session. What a night; one for which the NYO team can be very proud.

Clive Peacock

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