National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, Barbican, London – review

Young people should play young music: such was the view posited in the programme notes for Sunday’s Barbican concert. And, certainly, the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain has a strong track record in championing new works. In this concert, however, the players’ passion and vitality were more effectively showcased, not in the new commission that opened the evening, but in repertoire that could hardly be described as young: Mahler’s Symphony No 5.

This had less to do with the players themselves, than with the material entrusted to them in the first half by the British composer Larry Goves. The Rules impresses more on paper than in execution. It seeks to explore and challenge the conventions of orchestral music-making by setting up patterns, then breaking them. Goves describes it as an attempt to update Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, and the work’s structural complexities were exhaustively detailed in the programme.

But for all that, it lacks an overarching sense of development, and the emotional scope to pin down our interest. What we hear instead is an eerie soundscape, enlivened by an occasional outburst, along with a sprinkling of seductive sonorities. Paul Daniel’s enormous orchestra slammed into the piece like a tank, even if the effort did not always seem to yield much reward.

The second half, however, was worth waiting for. Mahler’s Symphony No 5 brought out the very best that the NYO has to offer: precision, adrenaline-fuelled drive, and, most intoxicating of all, an unrestrained joy in the act of making music. Daniels had to work hard to master and shape that enthusiasm, particularly during one hairy moment when his baton flew from his hand. But he managed to sculpt a performance of great elasticity and flamboyance, peppered with superb solos from the horn, trumpet and upper wind sections.

Occasionally, as in the Scherzo, a sense of refinement was sacrificed for momentum. And the Adagietto was less sure-footed than the rest of the piece: a slightly timid attempt at heart-on-sleeve intimacy. But the lasting impression, as the finale accelerated towards its goal, was of a group of musicians doing what this orchestra is famous for doing so well: discovering the classical canon and loving it to pieces.

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