Festival Theatre, Edinburgh,January 5
Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow,January 6
The National Youth Orchestra of Scotland celebrates its 20th anniversary next year, and continues to set high standards at the advanced end of the youth music spectrum. At a time when the broad provision of musical tuition is under serious threat, NYOS is a powerful symbol of what can be achieved.
It had to grapple with the same acoustic oddities as its senior counterpart inside the Edinburgh Festival Theatre's so-called "acoustic shell", but tackled a demanding programme with relish and considerable accomplishment.
A firm guiding hand on the podium is essential on these occasions, and the orchestra received that from the hugely experienced Scottish conductor, James Loughran, who coaxed fine performances from his temporary charges.
NYOS casts a wide net in recruiting, from Tain and Bridge of Don in the north to Newton Stewart in the south (not to mention players whose origins lay in Hungary and Austria). Unlike a professional orchestra, they do not have the benefit of playing together regularly, and if that was occasionally evident in the ensemble work, for the most part they achieved a remarkably well-blended orchestral sound.
They opened with a recent work by the Danish composer Poul Ruders, Concerto in Pieces, which draws on both Purcell and Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. Their intonation and articulation was not flawless, but they demonstrated that they were not only technically adept, butable to meet considerable challenges in both interpretation and expression.
The soloists featured, on alto sax, tuba, harp and muted trumpet, all handled their moment in the figurative spotlight with confidence.
The orchestra moved on to more familiar territory in Beethoven's mighty Piano Concerto No 5 "Emperor", in which they were joined by that distinguished Beethovenian, John Lill. Again, the music did not quite achieve the full flow, but Loughran drew rich, expressive playing and elegantly shaped phrasing from them. That was especially apparent in the sustained momentum of the majestic first movement, where the required nobility was captured. The professional approach was not confined to the platform either, since the programme notes for the concerto were written in informed - and informative - fashion by two pupils from Douglas Academy, East Dunbartonshire, Kirsten Mills (Secondary 6) and Louise McMonagle (S3).
The second half of the concert was devoted to another challenging work, Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, in the orchestration made by Ravel in 1923. The confident opening trumpet solo heralded a strong, assured and highly concentrated performance to round out another highly impressive concert.