It was an evening of firsts at the Royal Albert on Sunday night. It marked the Proms début of the recently formed National Youth Orchestra of the United States Of America, the first appearance of conductor Valery Gergiev at this year’s event and also opened with the European premiere of Magiya by American composer Sean Shepherd.
Dressed in red jeans, black blazers and white trainers the orchestra made a striking impact from the start with their performance of Shepherd’s piece Magiya. Beforehand, the composer spoke of how it was inspired by other Russian overtures, and the confident playing of the NYOUSA ensured it was successfully translated in the hall. Over the ten minutes focus was repeatedly deflected around the different sections of the orchestra, with brass and percussion in particular contributing to its incisive, spiky, dynamic nature.
Somewhat unexpectedly, Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major seemed to initially struggle to fully establish itself in comparison to the punchiness of the opening piece. However, Joshua Bell’s intricate, emotionally-wrought playing and the orchestra’s imparting of the lavish, flourishing melody of the first movement soon helped the piece power through to recover. There may have been the occasional moment where the brass and strings seemed strangely disconnected from each other but overall the NYOUSA preserved the balance of melancholy and liberation inherent in the concerto well. They returned to play a graceful Mélodie from Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir d’un lieu cher before the interval.
Recent years have seen the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain dazzle audiences in the UK with their performances of seminal twentieth century orchestral barnstormers, and tonight it was the turn of their American counterparts to show they are equally capable on this front. Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 in E minor may not be as defining a symphony as his 5th or 7th but the NYOUSA confirmed it to be an epic piece full of turbulent drama.
The slow, portentous strings of the first movement gave way to the penetrating orchestral peaks that largely define the symphony. At times it’s as if the different parts of the orchestra are competing for supremacy whilst still remaining powerfully united, and the musical variety compressed into twenty minutes almost marked it out as a symphony within a movement.
They also conveyed the contrasts inherent within the symphony well, most notably seen in the single note near-silence at end of first movement before the sharp blast of unrepentant energy of the second. The early enveloping waltz of the third movement saw order restored before being shattered once more by further orchestral eruptions. The victorious finale of the fourth movement may usually be assigned to that of the human spirit over oppression but tonight it feels just as appropriate to award it to the NYOUSA, such is the force of their playing. By the time they had completed an exuberant romp through a medley of Gershwin’s Porgy And Bess there was little doubt of the lasting impression they have made on this year’s Proms.
Further information on BBC Proms concerts can be found at bbc.co.uk/proms.