Classical review: Prom 13, Bell, National Youth Orchestra of the USA, Valery Gergiev, Royal Albert Hall, London


One of the things the Proms can do is showcase youth orchestras, and Prom 13 was given over to the newly-formed National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America, all aged between 16 and 19. 

With Valery Gergiev at the helm they launched into a new work written for them by the young American composer Sean Shepherd. “Magiya” was apparently intended to convey a Russian sense of magic, and, though it didn’t do that, it did allow the young players – all got up like bandsmen in black jackets and scarlet trousers – to show their breezy attack and command of texture. And it woke the place up.

Then on came Joshua Bell to play Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major, 46-going-on-16 and looking like their big brother. These days he’s quite the elder statesman with his conducting and his music directorship of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, but when he sent his opening phrase out into the ether it was clear he’d lost none of his fabulous sound. With the orchestra sensitively shadowing him, he delivered all the first movement’s big moments – including the double-stopped glissandi and the dog-whistle pianissimi of the cadenza – with easy aplomb; his muted account of the Canzonetta made it sound like the perfumed love-letter it originally was (from the composer to an adored young male violinist). And Bell’s encore was a nice touch: not the usual piece of solo Bach, but more Tchaikovsky in which the kids could shine as well as him.

Thus far we had needed to make no allowances for the youth and inexperience of the orchestra, but the final work, Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony, would be a real test as it is for seasoned orchestras. It’s not just a matter of playing the notes: written under extreme stress, it’s one of this composer’s most allusive and inward works, and its premiere was surrounded with a furious debate about its meaning in which Shostakovich himself took part. Was it optimistic or pessimistic? Was the second movement a sardonic portrait of Stalin? There was certainly no doubt about the import of the musical anagrams which pervade its third movement, because there the composer was baring both his soul and the identity of his (temporary) beloved. Daunting?

Not for this lot. No praise too high for the flute and horn soloists, or for the percussion and massed strings: a completely professional performance. Does this say something about music education in America?