There was so much packaging surrounding Wednesday’s Summer Prom Spectacular from the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain that we almost lost sight of the main meat.
But what marvellous content that was, Messiaen’s Turangalila-Symphonie, a vast paean to love and life, dancing among the stars, and obviously an ideal vehicle for these 160-odd awesomely talented youngsters.
This ten-movement kaleidoscope puts huge demands of concentration and stamina as well as technique upon the players, and these musicians rose to the challenge magnificently under the irresistible personality of conductor Vasily Petrenko’s direction. Stentorian brass, sensuous woodwind, strings both sumptuous and flickering, percussion clicking, shimmering, affirmative, all worked triumphantly in the cause of this amazing, life-enhancingly erotic piece (will someone please unearth a recording of its 1948 premiere under Leonard Bernstein?).
The two ever-present soloists, Joanna MacGregor’s pianism florid and discreet by turns, Cynthia Millar bringing a lifetime of experience in this piece with the gallimaufry of kit which makes up the Star Trek-sounding Ondes Martenot, knew how to balance their contributions to the work of the orchestra, and acknowledged their young colleagues genuinely at the end.
What followed was bewildering. Suddenly the players launched into a happy-clappy warm-down complete with right-on chants. I looked for ex-Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, but he wasn’t there. Instead it turns out that this was Anna Meredith’s HandsFree, inadequately announced in the printed programme (which also told us virtually nothing about the Messiaen), and apparently Olympiad-connected.
And preceding the Messiaen was the world premiere of a BBC commission, Gait by Nico Muhly. Pacey (if clumsily structured), with blocks of sound presaging the masterpiece to follow and with equal demands upon concentration with these minimalist repetitions, the piece drew from its composer a programme-note which yet again convinces me that Private Eye could run a complete Pseuds’ Corner feature based on contemporary music.
But before that we began with huge delight, Varese’s cinematically-inspired Tuning Up, a surreal exploration of an orchestra pre-concert (complete with onstage gossipings and offstage waves to families and lovers in the audience), and a wonderful piece of fun – all confidently marshalled by the NYO’s new concertmaster, Birmingham’s own 16-year-old Roberto Ruisi.