The rehearsals in Nottingham are over, and for a taste of orchestral life the young musicians of the National Youth Orchestra are hitting the road from Gateshead to London. In celebration of its 60th birthday, the NYO commissioned a work from one of its alumni to open the spring programme. Threads for Orchestra is by Mark Simpson, who played principal clarinet and, remarkably, won both the BBC Young Musician of the Year and the Guardian/BBC Proms Young Composers award. After a strident brass fanfare, Simpson weaves a melody in the violins through the blank canvas of the orchestra. Chinese opera gongs and steel drums give it a weird colouring, as strands of the melody are pulled between sections in a kind of furious cross-stitching that gathers momentum towards a sudden, squealing stop. Just as Simpson, at 19, can "feel something emerging" so could the audience for, despite the piece being a fraction long, it is impressively well-structured.
The conductor Vasily Petrenko, looking scarcely older than the teenage musicians in front of him, showed complete empathy with both the players and the programme. He drew out the subtle dynamic and rhythmic contrasts of Ravel's Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, balancing the refinement and revelation of the dances. Wonderfully liquid woodwind and precisely articulated strings were a hallmark also of Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs. Here, a reduced band provided a diaphanous backdrop to the glowing tone of Austrian soprano Gabriele Fontana. Approaching the songs more as intimate confessions, her unfettered tone made them sound far easier than they are.
Much the same could be said for the orchestra's reading of The Rite of Spring. Despite the vast numbers on stage, Petrenko's authoritative touch ensured that none of the detail was lost. Under the fingers of the players of the NYO the articulation tingled almost visibly, their perceptive musicianship suggesting a "hands-on" relationship with every twist and turn of this still surprising score. The result was an electrifying performance fit to be compared with that of any professional orchestra.