MUSIC / A stuff that will endure: Stephen Johnson on the Australian Youth Orchestra at the Proms

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Nobody should be too surprised when a youth orchestra manages to sound as polished as a good adult band. Youth concerts have been a regular element in Proms seasons for some years now, and in some of them the technical level has been awe-inspiring - remember the National Youth Orchestra's Gurrelieder?

It's when it comes to expression or character that young orchestras sometimes under-achieve - that too has been true of the NYO in more recent years. The Australian Youth Orchestra, however, managed to sound both polished and full of character in last Saturday's Promenade Concert. Typically for a big modern youth orchestra, they steered clear of the classic and early romantic eras - the earliest piece in the programme was Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio Espagnol (1887). Was this a reflection of AYO policy in general? It would be a shame if it were: young orchestras can learn a lot from doing Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, and many concert-goers would be grateful for the rejuvenating touch they can bring to overplayed repertoire (not that Haydn's symphonies are exactly overplayed).

Still, the AYO did manage to include something relatively new. The Australian composer Brenton Broadstock's award-winning Festive Overture (1981) opened the evening, and it turned out to be a scintillating showcase for the young AYO players, with testing unaccompanied solos for horn and tuba - cruel, so early in a concert, though the players rose to the challenge. The Festive Overture has all the elements of a really popular concert piece, bar one: the style is brilliant, rhythmically lively and harmonically colourful - all it lacks is a good tune.

After this came an early 20th- century work that overflows with the kind of tunes that etch themselves in the memory: Sibelius's Violin Concerto. It was glorious to hear this dangerously popular piece played by an orchestra for whom its passionate rhetoric and moody lyricism are less familiar. The soloist, Cho-Liang Lin, must have played the Concerto dozens of times, but he's one of those rare soloists who seems incapable of sounding stale. Under Lin's agile fingers the cadenzas often sounded deceptively easy, but the sense of this work as a voyage of discovery, as atmospheric and emotionally charged as some of the symphonies, was conveyed powerfully by both soloist and orchestra.

The most daring choice of the evening was Bartok's ballet suite The Miraculous Mandarin: technically challenging, uncompromisingly adult in its subject-matter (prostitution, lust, mutilation and murder) and, despite its age (the Mandarin will soon be 80 years old), the most 'modern', least 'accessible' piece in the programme. It was here that one became aware of what a firm and inspiring conductor Yakov Kreizberg was. With youth orchestras, the quality of the conducting really does tell, and Kreizburg coaxed some wonderfully sly, sinuous, eerily atmospheric playing from AYO players with the final 'pursuit' section making an electrifying culmination. The cool pathos of Ravel's Pavane pour une infante defunte was quite a change after this, but again there was some fine solo playing - horn and oboe particularly shining this time - and warm, rich string tone. As a finale, Rimsky- Korsakov's Capriccio Espagnol was pure fireworks - though on this occasion not one of them was dud.