Two double bassists exchanged a grin as they landed a hefty pedal note at the bottom of a massive chord. One string principal nodded good luck to another ahead of an exposed solo. A clarinettist smiled appreciatively, listening to a passage played by others. These aren’t things you spot in most orchestral performances – but the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain isn’t most orchestras, and such unguarded delight in music-making is frequently visible among its members.
In this concert, it was the second half where this magic crackled. Conducted by Alexandre Bloch, Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra – a rambling symphonic dissertation on Nietzsche or the famous bit from 2001: A Space Odyssey, depending on your proclivities – was served supersized with doubled woodwind and brass and 11 double basses. But it’s not just about the thorax-shaking climaxes, much as the orchestra relished them. There were also the piece’s glimpses of chamber music, finely played by the string principals; fiercely virtuosic passages despatched with panache – and bucketloads of post-Wagnerian schmaltz, all exactly as luxuriant as it should be.
The rest of the concert was an odd beast. It was introduced by orchestra members who enthused about music’s power to change “young people’s lives” and the fact that “creativity is a key skill”. They’re right, of course – but I wonder who wrote these policy-wonk-ish scripts and who they were aimed at. Surely not the less fortunate peers the musicians talked about wanting to engage in classical music and who were offered free tickets to the concert.
Some of this polished stiffness was audible. Anna Clyne’s 2016 ballet score Rift was impressively slick but not the urgent, heartfelt playing I associate with NYOGB, while the Blue Danube waltz was a strangely anodyne encore for an orchestra that usually programmes so boldly. And there were moments in Britten’s Four Sea Interludes when start-of-concert nerviness came to the fore. But if its dawn opening lacked the gossamer fragility that makes it so evocative, sunrise has rarely sounded this elemental, powered by two tubas, two contrabassoons and eight trombones. The closing storm, too, was full of visceral thrills – sickening trombone lurches, nightmarish timpani blows, brutally snatched woodwind – where these musicians’ tremendous communicative talents overwhelmed all else.