National Youth Splendour

Published by Daily Mail

Prom 38: Vaughan Williams, Mark-Anthony Turnage and Beethoven (Royal Albert Hall)

National Youth Orchestre Prom38

Vasily Petrenko conducts the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain at the BBC Proms ©BBC/Chris Christodoulou

A free main-evening Prom in the Royal Albert Hall. What a great idea. And before anyone bleats about the outrageous cost of elite arts subsidy to the poor BBC licence fee payer, no musicians were paid in the making of this Prom. In fact, I am assured that no money exchanged hands at all. Tickets were allocated on a first-come-first-served basis, and they flew out of the box office faster than semi quavers in an allegro. This was real orchestral outreach – making music available to anyone and everyone. Sir Henry would have been proud.

I had two boys sitting directly in front of me, one about seven years old and the other maybe 12 or 13. The younger one squirmed and fiddled on his swivel chair and ate wine-gums throughout, skilfully dissecting each one with his thumbnail before it entered his mouth. The older one – I assume a brother – was more relaxed and attentive. But their raw and uninhibited reactions to the music were fascinating to watch, so they are woven into this review.

The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain was joined by a quartet of youth choirs – Codetta, the Irish Youth Chamber Choir and the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain. They were conducted by Vasily Petrenko, who looked about 20 himself. These fresh faces began with Vaughan Williams’ Toward the Unknown Region, and it was a rendition of thrilling depth and great spiritual force. The orchestra was technically precise; the choirs meandered through hymn-like darkness toward metaphysical enlightenment, colouring each phrase in turn with agony – ‘Darest thou now, O soul..’ – and ecstasy – ‘..we float in Time and Space..’.

The boys weren’t remotely fazed by this: the younger one had been flicking indifferently through his programme and had gleefully lighted upon a picture of Daniel Radcliffe in the West End production of The Cripple of Inishmaan: Harry Potter had happily diverted him from the transfiguration of Vaughan Williams. But they were a bit young to be considering the mysteries of death and immortality.

Then came Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Frieze, a world premiere co-commissioned by BBC Radio 3 with the Royal Philharmonic Society and the New York Philharmonic. And what a thoroughly entertaining piece it was. There were four movements – from ‘Hushed and expansive’, through ‘with veiled menace’ with ‘More relaxed’, and then to two sections denoted solely by metronome frequency. With allusions to Beethoven’s Ninth, the violins soared and oboes responded with an inverted melody. There were exotic bells and ethnic drums, sounding brass and tinkling cymbals. I know I shouldn’t name individuals when an orchestra is a true ensemble, but percussionists Jake Brown and Matthew Farthing were absolutely riveting to watch. They were perched to pounce on their xylophones at every moment, and they did so with athletic precision: every frenzied beat was breathless and immaculate.

And it was those two who mostly kept my boys (I’d adopted them by now; parents were nowhere to be seen) quite happy. In fact, to the evident irritation of the grown-ups sitting in front of them, their little bodies bounced to every syncopated thrill. There was some distinct foot-tapping discernible in the fidgeting, and their eyes were welded to the volatile percussive action. It was a wholly accessible piece, infused with rhythmic energy from its tremolo fifths to its booming discord. As a young person’s polyphonic introduction to the orchestra, Turnage gave us a frenetic Nintendo WiiU, reducing Britten to a pedestrian Xbox. At least that’s how the boys saw it.

The second half consisted of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the commissioning of which by the Royal Philharmonic we were here to celebrate in the Society’s bicentennial year. I had to wonder why the NYO had chosen this complex, tortuous epic as their finale: it surely needs bearded maturity and emotional breadth to convey its revolutionary drama. But it wasn’t a bad shot: Petrenko was meticulous in eking out of them their absolute best. Some of their more vigorous crash-bang-wallop moments obliterated the subtleties, and a spread of split notes from the horns occasionally felt like an 18-year-old trying to play King Lear. But what they occasionally lacked in finesse and autumnal nuance they more than made up for in youthful eagerness and professional dedication.

The massed choirs were passionate in their unified declaration of joy, and I have no doubt that mum and dad and grandpa and grandma and an arena crammed with sisters, cousins and aunts roared and cheered these talented youths to the top of the dome. For me, the NYO and Choirs are a true reflection of the nation’s confident youth and inspirational models of community artistic expression.

But my boys weren’t quite transported to Elysium; indeed, wine-gums now exhausted, programme trampled underfoot, their heavy eyelids drifted up to gaze at the bubbled ceiling. The youngest sat through the entire third movement with his arms crossed high around his throat; whitened fingers clasping the back of his chair; his weary head leaning left and then right, squirming for respite. He was too tired to enter Schiller’s holy shrine.

I’m all for a free annual prom, and laud every effort to attract a new demographic to sustain Henry Wood’s legacy. But you can’t expect a seven-year-old to sit through a 70-minute choral epic of esoteric brotherhood, especially if Harry Potter isn’t around to explain it all.

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