Sunday, 5 August 2018

Destination Russia: The National Children's Orchestra - Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

Rather incredible that this organisation celebrates its 40th anniversary, and I am only just learning about it!

Children between the ages of 7 and 14 are eligible to become a part of this company, and there are different orchestras for different age groups. Although their head offices are in deepest darkest Somerset, the organisation is a registered charity and aims to be fully inclusive with representing talented musicians from all over the British Isles. As well as regular workshops, residential courses, seminars and of course tuition, members of the NCO have the chance each year to perform in at least one public concert at a professional concert venue in the UK. The children gain invaluable training, experience and confidence-building, that goes without saying, but what also needs to be said is the standard these youngsters reach. At the end of the opening piece this evening my companion turned to me and said, "this lot would put many an adult orchestra to shame", and I could only agree!

This evening's orchestra was the 'Main Orchestra', which I believe is made up of 13 and 14 year-olds who have had already some experience with the NCO. For some on the platform this evening, this would undoubtedly have been their final NCO concert. However it was a far from maudlin event; with an appreciative and cheering audience, and a delightful programme of Russian masterpieces.

However, before the main concert started, for the first time ever, the NCO decided to give a short and more intimate chamber concert in the foyer. Smaller groups of musicians from the orchestra gathered and performed a piece each. A lovely idea, and was excellently received. With a little more organisation and a mic for the announcements it would have been perfect. However, as it was, we were treated to Telemann's concerto for 3 oboes, using only one oboe (and 8 violins / violas!); Piazzolla's 'Oblivion', a modern and gentle danza criolla; an arrangement of the ever popular pop song 'Hallelujah' for 5 cellos; an 8-piece jazz band playing 'When The Saints Go Marching In', and an improvised double-bill of 'Happy' an 'Sad' which together were the both sides of the coin and their improvisation was based on two photographs of the recent World Cup football match in Russia. Thus showing the youngsters' versatility and musicianship with pieces unconnected to the evening concert.

This evening's conductor was Jonathan Bloxham, a hugely animated and passionate conductor who knew absolutely how to bring the best out of each section. He has obviously worked with this age group for many years as he seemed to implicitly understand everything, even anticipating it, and bringing the orchestra to a full, complete and unified sound.

 The bright and energetic Festive Overture by Shostakovich opened the programme this evening, and it was an extravagant and flourishing start. This was followed by something of a curiosity; three movements from Tchaikovsky's ballet The Nutcracker arranged for symphonic brass by Timothy Jackson. The three harpists in the orchestra were worked hard during these pieces, and it was truly wonderful to hear these instruments played so well; one of the instruments in a full orchestra which is rarely heard or appreciated as it tends to either blend in or be drowned out by other sections. They even had the melody for the Sugar Plum Fairy!

The next piece was a much more substantial work, and was the bleakest and most difficult of the programme. Prokofiev's 2nd Violin Concerto. All his life, Prokofiev struggled with composing music which he liked and enjoyed; the ironic and the jocular which appears in his works for Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes (Firebird, Rite Of Spring) along with his more popular music such as his 1st symphony 'In the Classical style';against music which he felt a mature and serious composer ought to write. The second violin concerto falls into this second category, and was written at a time of personal turmoil in his life as he was preparing to leave Paris and return to The Soviet Union (as it then was). It's brooding. melancholic, dissonant and non-conformist. He interpolates Russian folk melody with twisted irony and the result is a dreary piece of music, and certainly not one of his better and more likeable works - but hey, that's just my opinion!

The violin solo this evening was played by New Zealander Benjamin Baker, who played on an original 1709 Tononi instrument! Played with passion and skill, with the orchestra easily keeping pace with his mastery. The lovely gentle and lyrical opening to the second movement is what makes this piece bearable for me, and that was played beautifully and so all was well with the world!

Just before the interval, Baker added a small encore which was another Prokofiev piece. This time arranged by N.C. Owen and again the three harpists were accompanying Baker in 'Music For Children'. A short, sweet and melodic piece which was Prokofiev in his jocular mode. Delightful.

After the interval and we reassembled to hear the featured piece of the concert, Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony. A work of considerable beauty, as indeed the majority of Tchaikovsky's music is. Clearly wearing his Romanticism on his sleeve, and including Russian folk melodies and patriotic rhythms a-plenty, you could almost feel the audience readying for applause as the opening fanfare theme returns at the end of the work to bring the whole to a fortissimo and bravura conclusion.

The standing ovation said it all!! Molti bravissimi tutti! And so, with the beautiful Pas De Deux, again by Tchaikovsky, as our encore, I can only say that I was bowled over completely by the togetherness, proficiency, and quality that this 118-piece orchestra of 13 and 14 year old students produced. Utterly magical!

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 4/8/18

1 comment:

  1. I also meant to say that I really thought the colour (uniform) of the orchestra worked excellently. Long floor-length pillar-box red skirts for the girls and red ties for the boys against white shirts. Distinctive and classy.