It was a nice touch to pair works by Britten and Prokofiev for this concert's first half. These are the composers whose A Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra and Peter and the Wolf have introduced so many young people to the orchestra's workings. The Four Sea Interludes (from Peter Grimes) and the Romeo and Juliet Suite, the works performed this evening, have served as ideal vehicles for the musicians of the NYO to explore this subject at a more advanced level, as the guest conductor, James MacMillan, noted in his introduction.
But it is MacMillan's own Vigil Symphony that opens up the possibilities of this orchestra. The work, the second part of the concert, achieves an overwhelming contrapuntal intensity through the separation of strings and brass, achieved partly by the placing of various brass instrumentalists at different points around the auditorium.
The Vigil Symphony can claim a personal link with Britten and Prokofiev, as MacMillan reminded us by dedicating this performance to the late Mstislav Rostropovich, who conducted its premiere in 1997. Rostropovich had requested that MacMillan write something for him and thus invited him to join the ranks of Berio and Shostakovich as well as Britten and Prokofiev.
This was canny programming for other reasons. It mixed the unfamiliar (necessary if a concert of this kind, one that mixes youth and art music, is to fulfil its proselytising potential) with the familiar (necessary if the audience's goodwill is not to be lost). Additionally, the two familiar works, the Britten and the Prokofiev, offered the advantage of a familiarity gained not in the concert hall but as music from opera and ballet works, ensuring a degree of freshness.
As for the unfamiliar work, the Vigil Symphony, for all its power, still asks a fair amount of its audience. Musical conservative MacMillan may be, but you'd need a good grasp of contemporary musical polemic to work this out. It is, at times, atonal and cacophonous, though perhaps these are no longer the bêtes noires that they were.
Of course, this was a more diverse audience than usual, and many of its members – friends and family of the performers – will have been kept in their seats by loyalty. But my two young daughters, bound by no such considerations, did not find the piece difficult to endure. On this evidence, one wonders why classical music has spent so much time debating how to avoid becoming a museum piece when the answer is so simple: programme more contemporary works.
Stephen Smithson, freelance translator, Leeds