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Prom 29 : Spitting Tacks

August 6, 2007

161 musicians squeezed on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in a gruelling concert demanding both technical expertise and vast amounts of stamina. The fact that these musicians were between the ages of 13 and 19 years old made the concert one guaranteed to provoke a mixture of emotions. I started off with admiration. This (possibly because I need another hefty bout of therapy) quickly led to jealousy-fuelled irritation.

This was the sixtieth appearance at the Proms for the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain in as many years. Musicians gather every school holiday for an intensive series of rehearsals. Highly disciplined and, no doubt, equally driven, these musicians have won their place in the the country’s finest youth orchestra by a series of auditions. The result of a heady concoction of raw talent, years of practise and a devotion to the instrument of their choice.

Any concert featuring the National Youth Orchestra demands the audience listens in a different way from all the other Prom concerts we’re indulged with. Don’t judge them like a professional orchestra, I kept telling myself, they’re not a professional band. You must be more forgiving because they’re teenagers.

It was a difficult gig to listen to because they played like a professional band.

The orchestra opened with Aaron Jay Kernis’ New Era Dance, a work as fun to play as it was to listen to. Short, brash and in your face, Kernis’ five minute exploration opened the concert making all sorts of demands on the players. This was a demanding start. Best not expend all your energy early on.

I glossed over the piano concerto by Prokofiev sandwiched in the middle of the concert. It wasn’t that I wasn’t interested, just that my attention was focussed on the symphony at the end. It was the symphony which would put NYO’s stamina to the test.

There were personal reasons for me paying closer attention to the symphony. It was seventeen years ago that I first went to the Proms, queuing one long, hot, sunny afternoon to hear my then girlfriend play in the NYO.

It was an incredible experience even going along. I knew someone who was so incredibly talented that she occupied a place in the violin section. I recalled the excitement she felt in the run up to every series of rehearsals and the constant reminiscing she did when she returned. I felt entranced by it all and ever so slightly alienated by it. Yet at the same time I knew she was incredibly talented. And it was her involvement in the NYO which prompted me to go to the Royal Albert Hall for the first time ever.

The performance of Shostakovich’s Lenningrad Symphony was, then, totally amazing. At seventeen years old, standing in a space I had hitherto only seen on television, hearing the symphony was bound to be a moving experience. By the end of the work the symphony ends at a staggering 75 minutes. That’s a hell of a lot of time to concentrate for any musician, professional or otherwise. For teenagers to do it and do it so incredibly well is awe-inspiring.

Anyone who knows Shostakovich’s music will flash a knowing grin at you when you mention the Lenningrad. An inexorable march defines the first movement, it’s rhythm introduced by a sole snare drum player who plays the same rhythmic pattern over and over again. To write about the sequence does the moment no justice whatsoever. Just listen to it and take a moment to consider how many times over you’ve heard that same rhythmic phrase. It is relentless and pervasive and utterly, utterly vital the snare drum player gets it right every single time.

Now think of an accomplished snare drum player executing that key role over a 161-strong orchestra. Then think of him as a teenager. Nothing is off limits as far as the National Youth Orchestra is concerned.

To pick out individuals from the NYO’s impressive performance is to deny the talent which abounds the band as a whole. Still, it’s worth pointing out the obvious talent of the principal clarinettist whose mature tone made me wriggle with jealousy. Why couldn’t I muster that kind of quality when I was at University?

If there are any criticisms to level at their performance it’s that the overall ensemble did feel a little unsettled but this is more than likely a symptom of the herculian efforts involved in keep such a large scale group “on track” during such a demanding concert.

There is one indisputable fact which emerges from the NYO’s appearance however. Take it from me that for many of those players in the orchestra their appearance last night will be the first of many they will make in a variety of different orchestras. For them, last night was the beginning of their careers. Those who don’t end up as professional musicians you can be rest assured that they will be the people who are so talented at other things now that they’re afforded the opportunity to choose which career they’d like to follow.

It’s not without good reason I was spitting tacks last night.

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