National Youth Orchestra / Järvi, Barbican Hall, London
Madam Butterfly, King's Head Theatre, London

The country's rising orchestral players and their nimble conductor dance with death – and relish

The National Youth Orchestra may be nearing pensionable age, but its members will have a long wait.

From Belfast, Oswestry and Tring they come, from Swansea, Oldham and Edinburgh: 170 teenagers in search of what 16-year-old double-bassist Hettie Burns calls "a home where our inner geek can thrive". On paper, that home is a residential course of intensive rehearsals and a whirlwind concert tour of Liverpool, London and Leeds. In performance, it was the plains of Ancient Caucasia, the charnel houses of Romantic fantasy, the bustling streets of Brno and the Vienna sick-room of young Manon Gropius, to whose memory Alban Berg dedicated his Violin Concerto.

This was a programme for NYO's emos and metalheads: a largely death-fixated marathon of music sweet, sour and savage, slickly conducted by the snake-hipped Kristjan Järvi, who rarely allowed space for the sound to clear but demonstrated some fierce dance moves. Commissioned then rejected by Diaghilev, the Scythian Suite is Prokofiev's "Me too!" to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring: a scratching, sulphurous exercise in brute-force orchestration made yet more terrifying by the squalling mass of bloodthirsty brass and the opiate of night-veiled strings. It's loud. It's flashy. It's fun, especially if you're under 20. But it needs more oxygen than Järvi cared to provide.

With the orchestra reduced in size, bassoon, oboe, flute and double-bass solos curling through the voile textures, and a sepia-tinted Bach chorale of woodwind as consolation, American violinist Tai Murray traced Berg's ebbing narrative of delirium and resignation with candour and tenderness. Her tone was clear and unforced, the abstracted arpeggios heartbreaking in their naivety, each pizzicato note an unfulfilled hope. This was playing that told a story. Not so Liszt's Totentanz, a blood-on-the-keyboard mini-concerto of skittering skeletons and baleful plainsong, more redolent of a diabolical Looney Tunes cartoon than Holbein's woodcuts. Canadian pianist Stewart Goodyear delivered the goods with ferocious clarity, his own inner-geek proudly on show.

Sinfonietta, Janacek's great statement of national pride, closed the programme – the brass bright and proud, the woodwind busy and dizzy with sunlight and commerce, the strings a glorious sigh of romantic yearning.

In rep at the King's Head since mid-December, Madam Butterfly (or Bangkok Butterfly) was unveiled to the press only last week. Wise decision. Relocated to contemporary Thailand by director Adam Spreadbury-Maher, Puccini's heroine has undergone surgical gender-reassignment. The effect on Butterfly's character is minimal (soprano Margaret Cooper was conveyed fragility in hooker heels and hotpants as well as she might have done in an antique kimono), but the effect on everyone else is profound. American Airlines pilot Pinkerton (Mario Sofroniou) and his colleagues are sex-tourists, trading boozy tales of "Delicate statures, womanly features/Firm like a boy in all the right places". Not a scintilla of love remains, though Kate Pinkerton (Rebecca Cooper) uncomplainingly adopts the Aids-orphaned nephew (not son, for obvious reasons) of her husband's lady-boy. The singing is raw, the music direction (Elspeth Wilkes) thoughtful and confident, albeit squandered on a daft concept. Had Puccini wanted to write an opera about a lady-boy, I bet he would have written a great one. Sadly, this isn't it.

'Madam Butterfly' (08444 771 000) to 23 Jan

Next Week:

Anna Picard takes her castanets to Leeds for Opera North's new Carmen

Classical Choice

Never one to sit on its laurels, London Sinfonietta premieres Words by young composer Naomi Pinnock, pictured, with Beat Furrer's Xenos, Presto and Nuun at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, this Tuesday. Kirill Karabits conducts the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Sunwook Kim in Chopin, Brahms and Dvorák at the Lighthouse in Poole (Wed).

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders