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Summer concert reviews 2012
Reviews are in for our Summer concerts!
NYO Summer 2012 reviews
National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain
Joanna MacGregor piano
Cynthia Millar ondes martenot
Vasily Petrenko principal conductor
Varèse Tuning Up
Nico Muhly Gait (premiere)
Anna Meredith (composer) and David Ogle (choreographer) HandsFree
Fiona Maddocks in the Observer
‘Varèse’sTuning Up (1947) […] is a work of organised chaos which parodies the tuning process and is hideously difficult to bring off. These young musicians delivered it with humour and panache at the start of a programme of 20th- and 21st-century music, performed in Birmingham, Aldeburgh and, in emotional conclusion to their year together, at the BBC Proms in the Albert Hall last night. The orchestra also gave the premiere of Nico Muhly’s Gait, a BBC commission revelling in perpetual motion and inspired by the rhythmic patterns of walking and running, whether in animals or mankind.
By splitting the players into what Muhly (b.1981) calls “homophonic ensembles” – groups of the same instruments so, say, all seven clarinets or all 10 horns – this dense piece proved an exuberant yet finely nuanced showcase for the outsized orchestra. Messiaen’s almighty Turangalîla-Symphonie, the chief work in the programme, with Joanna MacGregor (piano) and Cynthia Millar (ondes martenot) as expert soloists, was noisy, wild and riotous in the best sense. This was a whirlwind performance, tubas, trombone and trumpets blasting out thrillingly, cymbals crashing with a celestial grandeur the composer would have loved. At the end, the swooning, elastic, electronic cries of the ondes martenot rode these torrents of sound like a storm-tossed Neptune surfing the waves. As an encore the NYO performed part of Anna Meredith’s HandsFree, in which instruments are abandoned and the body – clapping, stomping, hissing, clicking – becomes music, ending with nearly 200 teenagers thrusting their arms in the air in perfect unison.
John Quinn for Seen and Heard
Messiaen’s vast, ten-movement symphony is a huge test, even for seasoned professionals. Even nowadays the lavish scoring and the length of the piece mean that it is a relative rarity in the concert hall. It’s a compliment to the stature of the NYO that they had attracted two top rank soloists. Joanna MacGregor is a leading exponent of contemporary piano music – and notable also for the amount of work she does with young musicians – while Cynthia Miller is one of the world’s leading players of that strange and exotic instrument, the ondes martenot; she has taken part in over 100 performances of Turangalîla. Both soloists were superb. Even immersion via CD can’t prepare you adequately for the sheer physical impact of Turangalîla in live performance. And this performance certainly had impact. In fact, if I have a criticism of the performance, it had too much impact at times. The NYO deliberately fields a large orchestra in order to maximise opportunity and that’s entirely understandable and right. However, though Messiaen’s scoring is lavish to the point of being over the top even he can’t have envisaged involving 10 French horns, 8 trumpets and 8 trombones! The size of the forces meant that some of the climaxes were truly ear-splitting – the Theme of Statues, declaimed by the trombone section, was even more massive than usual. However, I must immediately correct any impression that this was merely a “blast” through Messiaen’s score. True, there were several occasions when one feared for the stability of Symphony Hall’s roof but there were also innumerable moments when the delicacy of the orchestral writing was splendidly realised. For example, the quiet playing by the woodwind and by the gamelan members of the percussion section in alliance with the ondes at the start of the third movement, ‘Turangalîla I’, was superb. And here one registered the presence in the scoring of a solo pizzicato double bass; that’s a detail that doesn’t usually come over on CD. Speaking of sensitive playing, I can’t overlook the sixth movement, ‘Jardin du sommeil d’amour’. Here the strings played the Love theme in a simply gorgeous manner, combining with the ondes really beautifully. Meanwhile the piano, some of the percussion players and extremely sensitive woodwind soloists delivered magically and with great finesse what Leonard Bernstein, who conducted the symphony’s first performance, referred to as the “quiet commotion” of birdsong and insect noises. What was most remarkable about all this was that all the players involved sustained their concentration and hushed dynamics over the 12 minutes or so that it took to play the movement.
We needed that repose after the tumult of the fifth movement, ‘Joie du sang des étoiles’. Petrenko set a sensible yet buoyant tempo for this riotously colourful movement. In this movement Joanna MacGregor was working flat out at the piano keyboard but so full is Messiaen’s scoring that much of what she played was all but inaudible. That’s not a criticism of the NYO, by the way; one realises when one hears the work live the extent to which in such passages the piano is “miked up” on radio or CD. The other great exuberant showpiece in this work is the last movement, ‘Final’. After some seventy minutes of demanding performance the NYO still had reserves of energy, enthusiasm and, one suspects, pure adrenalin, to deliver a performance of this movement that was full of vitality and sheer joie de vivre. Petrenko, conducting with the clarity and energy that had galvanised his players throughout the evening, inspired them to bring the symphony to a triumphant conclusion. The ovation from the audience was richly deserved.
Gareth Jones in the East Anglian Daily Times
This extraordinary concert was all about two of the best things in life, youth and love. Youth was represented by the outstanding players of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain and their charismatic conductor Vasily Petrenko. In addition, the first half contained two works written this year from composers in their early thirties, Nico Muhly and Anna Meredith. Muhly’s recent work Gait was written especially for the NYO and its conception lay in the composer’s interest in watching animals move. He has created a fascinating and gripping work, clearly set in the great outdoors (echoes of Copland) and showing remarkable clarity of textures as well as an a ability to create and sustain tension over some twenty-five minutes. Both conductor and players immediately created the right atmosphere and the appearance of the sounds of horse harnesses was unforgettable. That was something a bit different but what followed was even more so. Anna Meredith’s HandsFree is one of a number of commissions for the Cultural Olympiad and, as the name suggests, it dispenses with traditional musical instruments in favour of body percussion, singing and beatboxing. The 165-strong orchestra is split into six sections who perform separately, interactively and finally together. Meredith showed enormous skill and invention in devising a variety of sounds and rhythms and the players’ memory and musicianship, not to mention their absolute commitment to the work and obvious enthusiasm for it, resulted in a thrilling performance. Only a rather special work could follow the first half and the choice of Messaien’s Turangalila Symphony was a particularly happy one. This extravagant paean to love, with its celebrated part for the ondes martenot and well played by Cynthia Millar, is just the work to give young, gifted, enthusiastic musicians the chance to soar – and they did.. The strong opening chords had a biting edge and the ecstatic intervals glowed with fervour but there was also a profound spiritual atmosphere in the more contemplative passages with some notable wind playing. Joanna MacGregor, absolutely on the music’s wavelength, played the difficult piano part with astonishing accuracy and aplomb.
Nick Breckenfield for Classical Source
On paper this looked to be one of the oddest Proms this season – how could you follow Turangalîla with anything? But Anna Meredith’s HandsFree (with NYO movement-tutor David Ogle) – a PRS New Music 20×12 commission for the Cultural Olympiad – couldn’t come anywhere but at the end of a concert. It’s like a wind-down exercise. With the NYO (a mere 165 members!) standing, forming six groups, and performing their various hand- and body-claps in swaying, wave-like symmetry, the visual pattern was striking. No instruments are used except what the body provides – hands, legs, torso, voices. The first half is just for clapping and the second introduces long, sung chords and a rather swishing form of beat-boxing. There’re no score and no conductor, though subtle tempo changes are occasionally indicated from the podium by a member of the orchestra. I wasn’t sure I wanted anything after Turangalîla, but was quickly won round, not only by the novelty of the piece but also the extraordinary unanimity of the performance. In fact, the concert would have been satisfying enough with just Nico Muhly’s impressive new work Gait, and Turangalîla, but to balance HandsFree we had another ‘occasional’ work – Edgard Varèse’s Tuning Up. This was never fully realised by the composer (after a request from film-maker Boris Morros to compose something for Carnegie Hall, which included cameos from Fritz Reiner, Leopold Stokowski, Bruno Walter, Gregor Piatigorsky and Jascha Heifetz), but was fashioned from two different sketches, which start in the same way, by Chou Wen-chung for Riccardo Chailly’s complete Varèse recording project fifteen years ago. This too needs no named conductor (at least not at first). The NYO’s leader, Roberto Ruisi, stood up and indicated for the oboe to sound an A, before stealing the limelight with a virtuoso flourish. What followed was five minutes of witty pandemonium, with internecine squabbles within sections (the leader of the double basses remonstrating with a colleague after the latter’s mobile phone went off; the flutes ganging up on their principal) as well as snatches of Wagner and Beethoven and a siren sounding from within the Hall, before Vasily Petrenko made his way through the throng to restore some semblance of order. As for the main meat, this was the third time that the NYO has brought Turangalîla to the Proms (under Mark Elder in 1986 and Sir Andrew Davis in 2001, both with Cynthia Millar). The class of 2012 can hold its head up high with this multifaceted performance that encompassed all that Messiaen meant by the collective word Turangalîla. Perhaps rather measured in the fastest passages, where needed the performance was suitably languorous, especially in the slow, central heart of the work, ‘The Garden of the Sleep of Love’. Petrenko is an admirably clear conductor, the many abrupt changes of tempo taken seamlessly. Joanna MacGregor effortlessly took the piano part and Cynthia Millar’s ondes Martenot did not overbalancing the textures. More modest in length (a few seconds under 23 minutes) Nico Muhly’s Gait is a winner. It must be like Christmas when you’re commissioned for such a large orchestra – including seven flutes and clarinets, five oboes and bassoons, and four harps. The latter were immediately in the spotlight, setting up a repeating five-bar quaver pattern, to which other instrumental groups gradually add their own ‘gait’. Cast in a continuous span, the faster outer sections enclose a slow, dreamy central panel with trombone then flute, oboe and trumpet solos gently resting on a shimmering accompaniment, Muhly dictating a blueprint but allowing players to ignore the conductor (“skip notes, add rests, ignore other players” is one instruction in the score), with the massed percussionists with woodblocks gently intoning a clip-clopping rhythm as if at some distance (the dream was of horses that became reality). The fast final section (marked ‘Precise’) has some wonderful effects – the buzzing bassoon and double bassoon stuttering for example – building up to a John Adams-esque climax (Harmonielehre era, perhaps), ending in a welter of sound that is suddenly cut off. Hugely impressive both as a piece and as a performance, it looks as if the NYO has got itself another party piece.
Neil Fisher in The Times
If you listened to the National Youth Orchestra’s Prom on the radio you might have wondered why these talented teenagers spent the last ten minutes hissing, slapping and clapping. Watch the concert on BBC Four on August 23 and see what really happened: the players ditching their instruments for Anna Meredith’s HandsFree, dancing, swaying and stamping — incredibly disciplined and gloriously riotous at the same time.
Ted Thornhill in Huffington Post
The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain is formed from an exceptionally gifted group of musicians – but last night at the BBC Proms, they showed that they even have the wow factor when they’re not playing their instruments. A packed Royal Albert Hall had enjoyed music by Messiaen, Nico Muhly and Varese – but it was the last piece that some would consider the highlight. Written by young composer Anna Meredith and choreographed by David Ogle, it’s called HandsFree and is best described as a beat-boxing, percussive dance, with the players putting down their instruments and using their hands and voices to breath-taking effect. They clapped, stamped, sung and used their bodies as drums with incredible dexterity and precision. Huffington Post UK was lucky enough to witness the performance, which when seen from afar is quite astonishing. Bravo, boys and girls!
Arthur Keegan-Bole for Bachtrack
Messiaen’s Turangalîla-symphonie is massive. It’s also a masterwork. To start with, the percussion section must be singled out – they showed surprising confidence playing a part littered with potential booby traps. The strings summoned a much tighter sound than earlier, articulation precise and timing impeccable, all held under the crisp and articulate conducting of Vasily Petrenko The sixth movement is one of the loveliest things I’ve heard in a very long time, with its langourous tunes over muted, lilting accompaniment and ethereal gestures from woodwind and percussion
Ivan Hewett in the Telegraph
The weekend’s youth Proms came as thick and fast as British golds at the Olympics. The one concert I was able to see, from the National Youth Orchestra, was the joyous, massively exuberant event this orchestra specialises in. The opening set the tone; it was a fantasy by Edgar Varése teased out of the single note A (thus the title, Tuning Up), which involved shouts of “sit down!” to the brass from conductor Vasily Petrenko. It reminded us that this fierce prophet of modern music had a sense of humour, and was just the right length. [In the second half came] Turangalîla, Olivier Messiaen’s 10-movement hymn to mystical and erotic love. The hugely augmented brass and wind section played with great finesse as well as power, but even so pianist Joanna MacGregor and the player of the otherworldly electronic ondes martenot Cynthia Millar were often overwhelmed. In the “Garden of the Sleep of Love” movement the balance problems faded away, and we could savour the playing from the soloists, matched in delicacy by the orchestra. As an encore, we had Anna Meredith’s brand new Handsfree. Here the players put down their instruments to make pulsed patterns of sound by beating various parts of their anatomies; hands, chests, knees. It was perfectly paced, with an amusing fake ending, followed by a real ending that made everyone cheer.