MUSIC / Young and old alike: Meredith Oakes reviews the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland at the Proms

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The Independent Culture
THERE WERE some kilts on Saturday, and a certain Hebridean wholesomeness about the audience. The National Youth Orchestra of Scotland is no stranger to the Proms but still it felt like a festive novelty: proud parents with cameras strobe-lit the hall with their flash bulbs as we waited for the concert to start.

It really is a youth orchestra. The playing is so technically secure that you forget all about the age range - 12 to 21 - as you listen. At the same time, there isn't the confidence and panache of some of the more elderly youth orchestras that regularly storm the world. The question of whether these very young people could really play a piece as if they owned it remained unasked.

From that point of view it would have been interesting to hear them in pieces that were more emotionally risky and fresh, less a matter of surefire adult pizzazz. Shostakovich's Festival Overture is hectic, vulgar circus music, an all-purpose occasional piece for parties, not believed in. Holst's The Planets, the rapturously received final piece, needed more light and shade, more calculated sensuousness, to sell its lively but earthbound compositional ideas in their own terms.

The most heartfelt thing on the programme was Thomas Wilson's Violin Concerto, a NYO of Scotland commission written last year and receiving its first London performance. Predominantly it is a slow lament, responding to the death of Bryden Thomson who first suggested both the piece and the soloist (Ernst Kovacic). Linear, gliding and texturally transparent, it browsed over harmonic-minor pastures that are as old as the history of vocal improvisation: but it was thoughtful and fastidious, not glib, and it was played with sensitive attention to its lingering, attractive cadences. Christopher Seaman conducted, replacing the indisposed James Loughran.

Friday night was Scottish as well, with Mendelssohn's Fingal's Cave and Peter Maxwell Davies' Orkney-inspired Second Symphony. Between these, Barry Douglas played Beethoven: the Piano Concerto No 4, with its reflective solo opening and its brief, melting transitional slow movement - a work where Douglas's sweet, drifting chord chains, shimmering runs and well-sprung passagework showed to advantage. But the BBC Philharmonic's playing was squidgy, too light; the rhythms never got going, energetic springing phrases fell away from their targets. When an orchestra takes Peter Maxwell Davies to be its composer-conductor, it gets his personal readings of the classics.

But it also gets his compositions. The Symphony No 2, full of engrossing invention over its considerable length, was fierily conducted. The continuity of the playing was masterly as the melodic threads, situated within surrounding bright, clear, prancing textures, passed from hand to hand. Sibelian timpani and nudging, darting brass punctuated the offbeat symmetries of the slowly unfolding, accelerating lines. A Friday night audience, quite a few shocked by what they had let themselves in for, trooped out between movements while Max waited. But most stayed, and I've rarely overheard so many enthusiastic post- concert conversations.