The National Youth Orchestra lift the national gloom with a refreshingly brilliant Odyssey

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Britten, Clyne, R. Strauss: National Youth Orchestra / Alexandre Bloch (conductor).  Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, 7.1.2023. (CP)

The National Youth Orchestra conducted by Alexandre Bloch © Mark Allan

Britten – Four Sea Interludes
Anna Clyne – RIFT
R. Strauss – Also Sprach Zarathustra

New Year feelings of gloom and despondency were jettisoned thanks to the National Youth Orchestra’s residency at Warwick University near Coventry. Faced with 160 young instrumentalists conductor Alexandre Bloch was fearful their Odyssey programme of Britten, Clyne and Richard Strauss could be too challenging. Those 160 would have none of it, Bloch was happy to admit he was extremely proud of what had been achieved in just a few days together. Their individual preparations had been impressive, their energy unstoppable and their enjoyment of the practice sessions a constant reminder of what fun young people have making music. NYO delivered hugely successful performances at London’s Barbican, Nottingham and Warwick before trekking north to Liverpool. For those in the audience at Warwick Arts Centre, the feelings of melancholy and gloom were replaced; Nietzsche’s 1888 proclamation that ‘without music, life would be a mistake’ given added credence.

‘Connecting with the teenagers of today’ is the programme thread, notably Anna Clyne’s 2016 composition, RIFT, which takes the sad events of the 2015 Bataclan concert venue massacre in Paris as her inspiration. Britten’s Four Sea Interludes were extracted from his opera Peter Grimes which describes the hounding of the eponymous misanthropic lone fisherman. Teenagers today face similar turmoil in their lives as they struggle with the harassment of gender identity and woke issues. Thanks to Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, most teenagers will connect with the opening bars of Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, a fragment of the whole now commonly used to announce the arrival of the latest pop phenomenon!

With such an abundance of talent amongst the players, the standard orchestration for Four Sea Interludes of two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets and up to four horns was quickly disregarded and coping with eight flutes and similar numbers of oboes, clarinets and horns – plus eighty or more strings – is a complication conductor Bloch was no doubt delighted to have. Seldom have those eight flautists enjoyed themselves so much as their early efforts gave way to the super strings and their sweeping melodies. Not to be outshone, the eight or so clarinets interjected with shimmering arpeggios in Dawn; and Sunday Morning presented the woodwind section the opportunity to shine too. By the time the Storm came, the very, very busy – and vast – percussion section combined with the ten horns to produce an astonishing sound so seldom heard in the Midlands!

Anna Clyne’s three-movement RIFT takes her audience from darkness to light, from sadness to harmony. The chaos of Act 1 Dust with its immensely impressive pizzicato string playing, through Act 2 Water with four harps fully employed providing bursts of energy before the calm of Act 3 Space and the more ordered beauty of a hallowed place. Finally, Clyne encourages the enthusiastic NYO players to progress to a fine culmination. With Bloch managing to keep matters under control throughout, never could the composer have imagined so many players would be consumed by her work at the same time.

It has been a long time since the Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra has been delivered with such power and energy. His work is an expansion of the tone poem model he used for his Till Eulenspiegel in 1894. Inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s novel Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the expanded model developed by Strauss in 1896 is a remarkable example of how audiences can be moved by music. With such immense resources at his disposal, Bloch takes every opportunity to engage, involve and encourage all sections to contribute to exciting climaxes, requiring sensitive phrasing to deliver an incisive performance. Bloch’s initial thinking about how the programme would be too challenging finally, fully dispelled. Every musical necessity for an authentic reproduction of the work is provided, including a one-ton church bell, plus numerous percussion instruments, seldom, if ever, available to any visiting professional orchestra!

NYO: Odyssey at Warwick Arts Centre was another remarkable event in their annual calendar which now includes extensions of their outreach initiatives: Oldham schools will be the beneficiaries of their workshops which follow their Liverpool concert. Founder Dame Ruth Railton would be so proud of their development.

Clive Peacock

1 thought on “The National Youth Orchestra lift the national gloom with a refreshingly brilliant <i>Odyssey</i>”

  1. I attended this concert but also the rehearsal session in the morning which was delayed by half an hour as the instruments had not arrived. As about 20 of us were led into the hall the members of the orchestra were being led through a physical warm-up exercise session. Apparently this improves their breathing. Then Alexandre Bloch joined them and spoke to them for a long time but unfortunately we could not hear what he was saying. I was anticipating a rehearsal of the tricky moments of the Sea Interludes or the Strauss but none of it. The whole orchestra launched into the Radetzky March. The volume was a physical shock. The Butterworth Hall has been refurbished and it has given a brighter, more immediate sound. Then more talking and the orchestra started to vocalise the march, one section of the orchestra after the other. We realised they were rehearsing the encore which went over magnificently at the end of the concert – instruments first and then just the players vocalising and finally the orchestra triumphant again.

    If you missed the NYO Daphnis et Chloé catch it on the BBC iPlayer because the orchestra was the chorus in that too, except for the final scene where I guess they were all busy.

    I find the NYO totally inspirational and I urge you all to support them through their donate button.


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