Large concert halls do orchestral music no justice at all, so it was an inspired decision of the National Youth Orchestra to present their January programme to London audiences at the Camden Roundhouse. Visually the setup is stunning; the audience in the round with the orchestra surrounded by a circular colonnade of iron pillars. The conical roof is not ideal – much of the sound is lost in the rafters – but this is compensated by the proximity.
Having attracted an audience that sold out the Albert Hall at last year’s Proms, it was no surprise that this smaller venue was also filled to capacity. And the confidence of a virtually audience has encouraged adventurous programming, with the first half consisting of Bow-Wave, a new work by Peter Wiegold, followed by Berio’s Sinfonia. The two works formed a satisfying contrast, with the unselfconscious musical theatricality of Wiegold’s work a refreshing aural appetiser for the more culturally sophisticated language of Berio’s masterpiece.
Bow-Wave was performed by the NYO players (under the composer’s baton) entirely from memory. This considerable feat allowed the composer to integrate some actions, Mexican waves passing along the row of horns, spinning cellos and an epilogue in which the entire ensemble faces the back of the stage. Occasional and light hearted, but carried off with panache.
Sinfonia continues to stand the test of time, as was amply demonstrated by this engaged reading from an ensemble whose oldest members were born over twenty years after its premiere. Its central message, that art and music must redefine their roles within the cultural saturation of modern society, was apt for the Camden setting. The work opens with vocal soloists (London Voices) chattering in an array of European languages, which was immediately reminiscent of the short walk up Camden High Street from the tube to the venue. Postmodernism in music often implies (and requires from performers) a familiarity bordering on indifference to the standard repertoire that appears in quotes and references. But Berio’s approach is less jaded, and the orchestra’s enthusiastic interjections of snippets from Mahler, Debussy and Ravel in the third movement were as convincing as any on record. However, this meant that the vocal soloists had a harder time being heard; even with amplification they were often swamped, and much of the crucial text was lost.
The second half was given over to Strauss’ Alpensymphonie, for which the NYO swelled to its fullest size, with some 160 players occupying every corner of the vast stage. Such a large ensemble leads to inevitable ensemble issues, even with players of this calibre. Semyon Bychkov addressed the problem with an emphatic reading of the work, strict, often brisk tempi and emphasised details that may otherwise have been swallowed up in the sound. Strauss’ climaxes - the summit and later the storm - benefited from the large orchestra without the quieter passages suffering unduly.
Of all the fine qualities the young players of the NYO displayed, the most remarkable was stamina. The long programme concluded with ten minutes or so of quiet but intensely concentrated music in the sunset, close and night movements of the symphony. The performance here was immaculate, the piano woodwinds finely balanced, the trombone chorales precisely co-ordinated. The highlight of the evening and an example that many of their professional counterparts would struggle to match.