National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, Daniel, Barbican Hall

Posted on January 7th, 2012

You’d expect the teenagers of the National Youth Orchestra to have some good moves but the opening and closing items of their winter concert took us all the way to the club floor and back again. I’m not sure that Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Hammered Out has a whole lot to do with “70s jazz funk”, as the composer insists, but it famously plunders the hook of Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” and doesn’t so much shake as wield its booty like a deadly weapon. It’s a brute of an opener for 165 feisty youngsters to do business with and they whacked out its streety vamping with a whole lot more grungy intent than the BBC Symphony did at its shaky Prom premiere in 2010. There’d be more dance moves later.

But from Turnage’s mid-life crisis to Elgar’s fond farewell and a reunion of sorts for cellist Natalie Clein and the orchestra with which she won the BBC Young Musician of the Year in 1994. Hearing her play it now with the benefit of hindsight and maturity one might mourn just a little a certain loss of innocence in the finished result. Even the great Jacqueline du Pré was chastised from some quarters for simply loving the piece too much and there was certainly a sense in Clein’s performance here that some passages and many individual phrases might have been stronger for a less subjective caress.

The opening movement in particular was so expansive and so expressive as to suggest that the slow movement had arrived prematurely. It left Clein with nowhere to go emotionally and it left the piece feeling top-heavy. Still she fleet-footed it back to the future in the scherzo and once passed the Falstaffian swagger in the finale her beautifully shaded epilogue achieved a lingering lightness on the string. Suddenly it felt personal.

The second half of the concert delivered in spades. Getting this juggernaut of a band around Walton’s First Symphony can be no mean feet but Paul Daniel pulled it off, harnessing all that brass power (three monster bass tubas) towards ever more seismic climaxes and reveling in the diabolical tattoos of a terrific timpanist in the scherzo. How strangely exotic the flute-led slow movement sounded after that.

You don’t usually dare follow Walton 1 but not every Handsfree set is attached to a mobile phone and, with instruments dispensed with, Anna Meredith’s wicked closer had the NYO players clapping, slapping, beat-boxing their way to the Cultural Olympiad.

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