Page 14, 23rd January 2009

23rd January 2009
Page 14
Page 14, 23rd January 2009 — Fresh faces with a few rough edges

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Locations: LONDON


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Fresh faces with a few rough edges

National Youth Orchestra


It's a rare thing, these days, for significant orchestral concerts in London to venture north of the Euston Road. There's a belief well-founded, probably — that audiences go where they know; and where they know in London is the handful of big, central venues that accordingly take all the business.

But there was a time — some 30 years ago — when that amazing former train shed north of Camden Town, the Roundhouse, flourished as a centre for contemporary music. Rescued from its derelict industrial past, it had been seized on by Pierre Boulez (then the chief conductor of the BBCSO) as a place without the social implications of a formal concert hall, ideal for introducing radical new work to curious young listeners. And looking back, that whole enterprise ranks as a key moment in the cultural history of modern Britain.

Afterwards, of course, the Roundhouse lapsed back into dereliction, was rescued a second time, and now accommodates everything from Shakespeare to circus spectacles -. or everything, that is, but serious music, which hasn't featured prominently in its programmes through the last few years of resurrected life.

But last week it hosted one of the too-infrequent London appearances of the National Youth Orchestra: a remarkable organisation that by its nature only conies togethe,r three times a year (during the academic holidays) and is never quite the same beast from one year to the next as its membership constantly renews.

This arrangement has its disadvantages, and they compound the limitations of a youth band: it would be naïve to go to NYO performances expecting the technical brilliance, immaculate ensemble or interpretative sophistication of the Berlin Philharmonic.

But what you get instead is the bold, fresh-faced, fresh-eared enthusiasm of 150 or so prodigiously talented youngsters who haven't had the opportunity of seasoned professionals to settle into routine. They play everything like it's the first time — as it probably is — with keen, alert commitment.

And this was what we heard at the Roundhouse last week in a programme that started, very much in the spirit of Boulez and the Seventies, with an semi-improvised, experimental piece by Peter Wiegold (crude but harmless), followed by Luciano Berio's seminal, late-Sixties avante, garde collage Sinfonia.

With its turmoil of instruments picking their way through Mahler parodies or snatches of Ravel, and voices chanting random chunks of Levi-Strauss, Sinfonia feels, these days, like period performance: if you didn't know that the voices were originally the Swingle Singers, you could have guessed.

But however its colour and energy may have faded, the NYO players gave it their determined, youthful best; and though the reading was patchy, it made a stronger impressior. than Strauss's monumental Alpine Symphony in the second half.

Both were conducted by Semyon Bychkov: a big name in Germany with a formidable reputation, built largely at the Dresden Semperoper, as a Strauss interpreter. So he certainly knew what to do with the Alpine. But whether he knew what to do with a youth orchestra I'm not sure.

It's a good thing for ensembles like the NYO to have someone with experience, and maybe glamour, guesting on the podium. But they also need someone who really knows how to train young musicians. And the rough edges in the Strauss (more than my knowledge of the NYO led me to expect) suggested that the preparation hadn't been as effective as usual.

But that said, it was still a show that sent you home feeling you'd heard something special. And although the current configuration of the Roundhouse isn't acoustically ideal — the sound is smothering — it's the right sort of venue for the NYO in terms of image and outreach. So let's hope some kind of relationship develops — preferably with some kind of internal re-arrangement. If nothing else, they need a better way to deal with the offstage cowbells that turn up at pastoral moments in Strauss and Mahler. As they were, they sounded more like someone cleaning out his kitchen cupboard.

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