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).

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