The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain might not quite have the glamour of the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, but their appearance at this year’s Proms certainly packed out the Royal Albert Hall and resulted in one of the most enjoyable concert I’ve ever attended.
First up was Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, the latest instalment in the cycle of the composer’s works for piano and orchestra being performed by Stephen Hough. Although Hough’s performance wasn’t without a few fluffed notes, his was a richly expressive interpretation and he assailed the work’s more demanding passages with dazzling technique. Under their new Principal Conductor, Vasily Petrenko, the NYO provided a sterling accompaniment, an initial sense of caution quickly displaced by a mixture of poetic delicacy and Slavic passion. The second movement was memorable for the excellence of the solo playing, notably the deeply moving oboe of Melanie Rothman, and the finale barrelled along with tremendous vigour and energy.
Hough responded to the audience’s enthusiastic reception with an encore, a self-penned arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s song None But the Lonely Heart.
With an additional complement of players on the stage, Petrenko and the NYO then delivered an amazingly assured and absolutely stunning of Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra. With every department of the orchestra on top form, the power, mystery and dynamism of Lutoslawski’s 1950s score was brought to life with an unsurpassed imagination and intensity, concluding in a blaze of energy that brought a roar of approval from the audience.
Could the Lutoslawski be topped? Well, thanks to Respighi’s Feste romane, it was. The four movement work (surprisingly receiving its first performance at the Proms) depicts festivals at different times in Rome’s history. It’s a superb showcase for an orchestra, particularly the final movement, La Befana (Ephiphany), with its riot of percussion instruments, brass fanfares and heart warming Italianate melody. Delivered with a precision and élan that would make a professional orchestra proud, it was a sensational close to an excellent night for Petrenko and the NYO.