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CBSO Youth Orchestra Academy

Established in the early 18th Century, the annual Three Choirs Festival alternatives between the cathedral cities of Hereford, Gloucester and, this year’s hosts, Worcester. Steve Beauchampe catches a performance by the CBSO’s up n’ coming youngsters.

Opening the final day of the 2008 event, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Youth Orchestra Academy performed a late morning concert in Worcester’s imposing Cathedral.

The Academy, an off-shoot of the CBSO Youth Orchestra, comes together for nine days each August and features around 50 players, selected from auditions to the main orchestra.

It offers these talented players opportunities to extend their skills into areas such as conducting, or solo performance, and in the week leading up to today’s concert (repeated the following evening at Birmingham Town Hall) the group had experienced what for many will have been their first ever recording session, during which they sight-read the Overture to Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

Under the baton of the CBSO’s Assistant Conductor, Michael Seal, the orchestra begin with Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten. Opening to the thrice-repeated clang of a bell, the piece soon develops an introspective air, its repeated phrasing awash with strings.

The work requires restrained, measured bowmanship, until its more chaotic end, though the energy conserved here will be needed later in the programme.

Ligeti’s folk-tinged Concert Romãnesc follows, performed in four movements, it’s a good test of the orchestra’s adaptability. After a relatively unremarkable opening movement, the piece develops a distinct gypsy feel, with a vibrant solo from Orchestra co-leader and First Violin, Amy Littlewood.

The 3rd Movement features an off-stage horn, courtesy of Hyeon Park and, despite a moment of hesitation between conductor and soloist, affords us a chance to observe Seal’s relaxed, unobtrusive conducting style, an approach he maintains even during the finale, when the tempo increases several notches, the piece concluding with a thunderclap drum, which reverberates around the 1,000 year old venue.

Collaborations with soloists are a key aspect of the work of the CBSO YO and its Academy offshoot, with the band joined today by Mexican guitarist Morgan Szymanski for Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez.

The 2nd Movement is a perennial favourite, as at home in the jazz or film music repertoire as in the classical idiom, but the 3rd Movement is a lesser known gem, which, despite limited rehearsal time, orchestra and soloist work together with control and understanding.

The entire second half of today’s concert is devoted to a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A major, Opus 92. A true test of any orchestra is how well it interprets Beethoven, the most heavyweight and serious of all classical composers. The 7th starts with a single, emphatic chord played by the whole ensemble, like a High Court Judge calling for ‘Silence’.

And we’re in motion; the Academy requiring its deepest, richest voice, Seal his most expansive and expressive modus operandi, to tackle the complexities of the piece.

By the beginning of the 2nd Movement, the pace is clearly defined, the young players requiring dexterity to interpret the work, from the ominous opening stanza, through the more lavish, beautiful passages that follow.

The 3rd Movement (perhaps best known as the theme music to the BBC’s Showjumping coverage) stretches the entire orchestra, not least the strings. It’s a real workout, with Seal also straining every sinew to maintain control of a band being tested to the limit… they couldn’t cram in another note if they wanted to! Just as frantic and formidable, the 4th Movement is equally rigorous and demanding, both on the orchestra and the audience.

As the climax approaches, the players, physically and mentally shattered by almost forty minutes of supreme effort, still have the piece’s repeated crescendos to face. Then it’s over, like a four course meal at a five-star restaurant, and there’s just the applause and ovations to enjoy…and the prospect of doing it all again the following day.

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