Volcanic eruptions have not been confined to Iceland. The South Bank’s Varese weekend came a full “360 degrees” to its explosive climax with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain going cosmic with the composer’s two orchestral blockbusters.
But tuning this gargantuan beast of an orchestra was not the usual well-drilled formality we’ve come to expect. Who could have foreseen the anarchy that would ensue once the principal oboe had sounded his obligatory “A”?
An explanation? Well, this concert began as theatrically as Varese always meant to go on with an audacious parody entitled Tuning Up. And of all the composers that influenced the Frenchman on his emigration to the New World none was more soundly acknowledged here than the great Charles Ives. His raucous collages were joyously celebrated in five minutes of abject disharmony where players leapt to their feet in a bid to make their presence felt (a trumpet blast of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” at one point), parts were brandished, face-offs provoked, and a game of musical chairs almost, but didn’t quite, materialise. If you looked carefully you might have spotted the conductor, Paul Daniel, crouched in the midst of this chaos. The score in his hand betrayed the impression of civil disobedience - the cream of our musical youth had not yet gone off the rails.
The second eruption was accompanied by a flooding of red light and some cursory video. Arcana is a kind of galactic “Rite of Spring” where the cosmos marches to a very different tune. It’s like we’re inside a universe-changing event where intense heat is generated by scything strings and fearless (well, they were here) high-stopped trumpets. Daniel and his young players made something quite spectacular of the big sunburst moment just before the close: a huge harmonic aurora formed and then evaporated before we had a chance to savour it.
But if you thought Arcana was overkill nothing – not even the bizarrely sepulchral Nocturnal - was going to prepare you for the rarely heard original version of Varese’s amazing Ameriques. The sheer “height” of this score (intensified here by the original offstage brass writing) is almost literally skyscraping, its gaudy processional eventually peaking on the notion that in the city that never sleeps none shall ever sleep again. But at its heart (and inexplicably excised in the revision we normally hear) is a fragrant homeland homage to the piece that first inspired Varese to compose – Debussy’s L’Apres midi d’un faune. Daniel and the NYO played it as an encore with a thoroughly grown-up sensuosity.