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Get Out More...............................Music Review

CBSO YOUTH ORCHESTRA (Symphony Hall, Sunday)



These are exciting times for the CBSO under the baton of new conductor Andris Nelsons. Steve Beauchampe checks out their bumfluff brigade.

Around half way through his first season as Music Director and there’s a definite buzz about Andris Nelsons’ impact on Birmingham’s premier classical ensemble; the audience loves him, the critics love him, the players love him.

Tonight it’s the turn of the orchestra’s youth team to make their debut with Nelsons, in the first of the CBSO YO’s brace of 2009 outings. Following last autumn’s acclaimed interpretation of Mahler’s epic Seventh Symphony (under the baton of Dutch conductor Jac van Steen, tonight’s programme features three pieces, all written or orchestrated by French composer Maurice Ravel.

First up is Suite No. 2 from Ravel’s ballet Daphnis et Chloé. It’s the final scene; she’s been kidnapped by pirates, he’s fainted (!) but now she’s back (rescued by a God no less) and seemingly in rude health. Morning has broken, the sun has got his hat on, Nelsons has got his jacket off and there’s work to be done.

Tender rippling flutes get things underway, but it’s a complex piece which gives the full orchestra a rigorous work out. Strings set the overall tone and shape (though mostly playing divided), but the details are in the woodwind and brass. Free-flowing and graceful, but with frequent tempo changes, it’s a demanding piece to oversee and contain, especially in the final passage, when the celebrations for Chloé’s return are in full swing and Nelsons needs eyes and hands everywhere.

Scored for a choir, the absence of one on this occasion allows the CBSO YO’s wind players in particular a welcome platform, which they readily take.

Another Ravel composition, Shéhérazade (Three poems by Tristan Klingsor for voice and orchestra: Asie; La Flûte Enchantée and L’indifférent) follows. It’s a Youth Orchestra tradition to feature a soloist and tonight its mezzo-soprano Christine Rice. The music being generally quiet and unassuming (the percussion section doesn’t feature at all), though at times imbued with Ravel’s trademark oriental flourishes, the musicians are essentially Rice’s accompaniment as she provides French language interpretations of each poem. Whilst not the most vital part of the evening, it’s still a good discipline for the players to work within, though one hopes that Christine Rice Is only joshing when she sings that:

I would like to see the assassins smiling
As the executioner who cuts the neck of an innocent
WIth his great curved Oriental sabre

So to the night’s main course - Modest Mussorsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (orchestrated by Ravel), the composer’s sonic homage to his friend, the painter and architect Victor Hartmann. The work comprises fifteen sections (though Promenade - signifying Mussorsky’s journey through the exhibition - is offered in four variations), most representing paintings displayed at the Hartmann memorial exhibition staged by the St. Petersburg Architect’s Association in 1874.

From the unforgettable and much-loved opening bars of Promenade we know this is going to be something special. Over the next thirty minutes Nelsons pulls and stretches the orchestra every which way as scenes and moods shift, tempo changes come relentlessly, with each player called upon to demonstrate their understanding of this multi-faceted and challenging work and thence to stamp their own interpretation on it.

Our gallery tour is rapid and eventful; there’s light and vibrancy, but there’s darkness and foreboding too. Gnomus sounds menacing, Nelsons thrashing around the podium calling his forces into battle; a languid Promenade examines the subtlety of the orchestra’s horns and flutes, before returning post-Il Vecchio Castello peppered with beautiful string inflections.

In less experienced hands the music’s literal interpretations of the images might touch on corny, but the combination of composer, conductor and players avoids that in favour of a believable aural description of the paintings.

Thus in Tuileries we envision children quarrelling, in Bydlo an ox-driven wagon rumbles past in a scene straight out of classic Russian literature and fussy, scampering new born chicks populate Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells (the ballet which inspired Hartmann’s illustration features children dressed in giant eggshells).

Two Polish Jews - one rich, the other poor counterbalances Jamie Phillips’s outstanding muted trumpet passage with stentorian string sections; Limoges, the Market (Great News) requires fast, bustling musicianship, which the CBSO YO carries off splendidly; After Catacombae, Con Mortuis in lingua mortua take us down darker, more eerie roads, again matched by the players, Nelsons now switching the baton from right hand to left and back again, his free hand, his eyes, his mouth as important as his baton. During The Hut on Hen’s Legs, based an old Russian legend, he’s almost off the podium commanding the trumpets and horns which define this passage.

Finally we arrive at The Great Gate of Kiev,the monumental climax to Modest Mussorsky’s work. Spiritually, it’s a sister piece to the final Movement of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and there’s nothing remotely modest about it. Though the gate depicted in Hartmann’s sketch was never built, its imagined grandeur is matched by the splendour of the composer’s epic musical architecture and for the CBSO YO, after almost thirty minutes of intense interpretation, it’s perhaps the adrenalin rush generated as the finishing line comes into view which drives them on. Promenade is briefly recalled and then augmented as bells ring, cymbals crash, everyone giving one final, joyous hurrah, Nelsons all but punching the air in triumph.

The four minute ovation which followed was completely deserved.



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