Out of the shadows
Carol Main, director of the National Association of Youth Orchestras, admits that there is something slightly eccentric about launching the 21st Festival of British Youth Orchestras in Glasgow when all eyes are on Edinburgh. Compared to the full house for last year's opening concert in Edinburgh, Monday's concert by the National Youth Orchestra of Wales attracted only a motley crowd to Glasgow's cavernous City Hall, but the concert at least reminded us that for the past 13 years the festival has run concurrently in both cities.
During August, Glasgow may be in Edinburgh's shadow, but for this youth festival it has just as many musicians and concerts as its eastern counterpart.
The National Youth Orchestra of Wales is an enormous band and it filled the stage of the City Hall. There were four harps looming over the violin and viola sections, and armies of woodwind, brass and percussion made a colossal din, accentuated by the hall's crisp acoustics. The orchestra was forceful and resolute. Mind you, it was a noisy and boisterous programme with few opportunities for graceful solos or delicate contrapuntal weaving.
The Sorcerer's Apprentice, by Paul Dukas, is a whirlwind account of magical mismanagement which was well served by a bright and rhythmic performance.
It was followed by the third performance of Golygfeydd o Gymru (Scenes from Wales), specially commissioned from the Welsh composer Karl Jenkins by the National Eisteddfod of Wales. Jenkins worked in film and advertising before coming to a worldwide audience with his Ademius project, which combines classical music with ethnic vocals and percussion. Something of this background is evident in this portrayal of Welsh life in nine scenes. The five longer ones form the backbone of the work, each separated by a short, fast, interlude, almost like commercial breaks.
The opening tango, intended to portray someone dreaming of the Welsh colony in Patagonia, was a brilliant pastiche of the sort oflight orchestra sound one might have expected in a Fifties ballroom. After a brisk a cappella song, the Melody of the Hills suggested Mahler or Tchaikovsky in melancholic mood, with little sobbing catches in the tune. A fast clapping interlude was followed by a cort ge and hymn intended to represent a mass funeral after a mining disaster. Here the heavy tread of the percussion was thunderous and unrelenting, and the entire orchestra sang an emotive hymn. As with many of the movements, the overall impression was of music superlatively written for effect, rather than meaning.
There was more new music after the interval: a performance of Holst's The Planets suite had Pluto by Colin Matthews tacked on to the end. This was first performed by the Halle Orchestra this year and its inclusion suggests that it is being widely taken up as a valid extension of Holst's original, written before the outer planet was discovered in 1930. Matthews picks up the fading glimmer of Neptune and suggests an even more remote, fast moving planet with skirmishing strings and tootings from the brass section. A couple of explosive outbursts pay homage to earlier material from Mars and Mercury before Pluto, like Neptune, fades into silence.
The orchestra was still playing hard, though with a few more mistakes, but it does the players credit that they were prepared to give a long concert with the most challenging piece at the end.
The festival continues in Glasgow and Edinburgh until September 3. Concerts to watch out for include the Renfrewshire Schools Percussion Ensemble with "Don't Wait Up for Me", a new "teenage anthem" by Tommy Fowler, the Lothian Schools Orchestra with Lyell Cresswell's Ixion, commissioned by the National Association of Youth Orchestras in 1989, and a new concerto for double bass, written by the popular Glasgow composer Eddie McGuire for Alice Durant and the Glasgow Schools Symphony Orchestra. Also, Murray McLachlan will perform the first piano concerto by Erik Chisholm, a pupil of Donald Francis Tovey at Edinburgh University in the early 20th century.