Arts: Who says the young aren't Romantic?

Classical: NATIONAL YOUTH ORCHESTRA/TORTELIER SYMPHONY HALL, BIRMINGHAM
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The Independent Culture
WHAT HAVE Jonathan Coffey, Naomi Hazlett, Jonathan Deakin, Kate Andrews, Ben Morrow, Kate Milne and Heidi Sutcliffe in common?

Well, precision, intelligence, talent, commitment for a start. For these are all members of the magnificent National Youth Orchestra, star turn of last year's Proms, which has just got 1999 off to a bumper start with concerts in Symphony Hall, Birmingham and Manchester's Bridgewater Hall, where they played last night.

This was a programme that might have warmed the cockles of Sir Simon Rattle, himself a percussive former member of the orchestra: Wagner's "Prelude" and "Liebestod" from Tristan Debussy's La Mer, Strauss's "Death and Transfiguration", and (with close repeated to rapturous waves of applause you could feel heaving, Wembley-like, round Symphony Hall), Ravel's "La Valse" - the apotheosis of not just the Viennese Waltz, but of almost everything.

So much impresses about this 150-strong mass of fledgling virtuosi - some of whom may well, in time, form the core of our principal orchestras. First, as conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier pointed out, these gifted youngsters have a mere nine days to amass a programme, making phenomenal demands on musical precision. The thoroughness of their preparation, and their practical and instinctive grasp of giant-scale late Romantic scores (they take Mahler in their stride), is breathtaking.

Furthermore, they reveal a dynamic grasp not just of microscopic finer detail but in a macrocosm too, mastering massive structures that could, otherwise handled, be diminished to thin rhetoric.

Lovingly nursed by Tortelier, these cheerful prodigies encompass Wagner's taxing, long flowing epic lines like fully-fledged professionals; likewise in the Debussy, with its endless surge and ebb and flow highlighting individual sections - trumpets (marvellously lucid), full brass chorus (top-notch), the gorgeously intoned, soaring solo violin of leader Jonathan Coffey or the seabird cavorting above the foam of flute, piccolo, clarinet - there was much that shone. The opening bars, with their whisper of four beautifully focused harpists, the initial leaf-like rustle of strings, and the first hint of trumpets, was as magical as the finale was deafening; while from the exquisite opening of the Strauss on second violin and violas - a vast harmonised sea of strings heaving dead together (the later scudding fast passages in first and second violins were equally finely co-ordinated) - you might think we had a budding LSO on our hands.

Just here and there inexperience showed - a slight languidity in the full wind chorus, some string over-relentlessness prior to the bewitching close of the Strauss. But any temptation in rehearsal to rush the "La Valse" was triumphantly resisted in performance. From a dense score sprung a wealth of instrumental clarity (low-rocking bassoons, horns, bass clarinet, trumpets 1+2, eight-strong varied percussion) and a joyous nonchalance. Nobody fluffed. And no-one was late at the dance's dazzling demise.

Roderic Dunnett

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