CLASSICAL MUSIC

National Youth Orchestra / Tortelier Barbican, London

There can be few more heartening, if bizarre, sights than 150 children standing to attention in serried ranks across the concert stage of the Barbican. But this is the National Youth Orchestra, now celebrating 50 years of activity, the nation's musical hope. As my Polish companion remarked, just make the ties a little redder and you might be in the presence of a former Soviet Union Pioneers' orchestra. Perhaps. But could the standard of playing of the young British musicians be bettered?

By a happy coincidence, not only is the orchestra 50 this year but so too is the conductor of Friday night's concert, Yan Pascal Tortelier. By all accounts, his first experience with the orchestra has been a completely exhilarating one: indeed, love at first sight. Young lungs and young fingers benefit in volume from numbers and, of course, the National Youth Orchestra will want to include as many of the nation's astonishingly talented as possible, but it is an awesome sight to see 20 first, 20 second violins, seven oboes, seven bassoons, 10 horns, 12 double-basses, four harps... With these numbers - in all 155 - the job of control alone would be an enormous challenge. But the greater challenge must be the encouragement of these players, the responsibility of making the event one they will not forget, creating fun for children as young as 13.

Tortelier seems to have been an inspired choice. Not only is he tall enough to see everyone on stage (so making them feel important) but his manner suggests real affinity with his young charges in a programme of seriously challenging music. Szymanowski's Concert Overture, a schizophrenic work that veers between the worlds of Richards Strauss and Wagner, was an original opener and, true, the orchestra seemed a touch buttoned up.

In Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Tortelier ran into the occasional moment of dodgy ensemble but this is a fearsomely tricky work, certainly not helped by huge numbers, albeit a marvellous showpiece for the different departments. The transition from variation 17 to the Hollywood tear-jerker variation 18 was superbly arrived at, with solo pianist Howard Shelley alternating exquisite dreaminess and electric virtuosity.

And to end the concert? Appropriately enough, children playing music about children in Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, from which nine movements were extracted. The 10 horns made much of their allotted pain while the intonation from scores of fiddles in Prokofiev's perilously high and exposed notes was breathtakingly true. And as for the speed (and accuracy) of the scampering strings in "The Death of Tybalt", not even the Vienna Philharmonic run faster.

The following day, Tortelier inaugurated the Royal Philharmonic Society's new venture of an annual lecture, amiably rambling round his world of music with all the wit, charm and eccentricity once associated with his father. I wonder when the Royal Society of Arts last heard a pack of wolves in full cry? Clearly, a conductor passionate about wolves must be a perfect match for the NYO.

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