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Prokofiev, Arutunian and Janáček: Philip Cobb (trumpet), National Youth Wind Orchestra of Great Britain, Peter Bassano (conductor) St John’s Smith Square London 6.4.2008 (CR)

The National Youth Wind Orchestra of Great Britain is formed of some 60 young musicians from around the country, with ages ranging from 13 to 21. The orchestra meets for two residential courses a year, covering a range of works from arrangements of well-known pieces to contemporary repertoire.

It was clear from the outset that these young performers had been well trained by conductor Peter Bassano on this Easter’s course. The players presented themselves with professionalism and disciplined concentration. Of this evening’s performers, 39 of them were new members at the beginning of the course, and that they should be able to create a concert of this standard in just ten days is remarkable.

The concert began with two works by Prokofiev, Spartakiade from Opus 69 and four movements from the Romeo and Juliet Ballet Suite. Spartakiade provided an excellent overture, demonstrating the orchestra’s warm sound and youthful character. The lower brass was a particular strength, with its wonderful rich tone providing a solid foundation for the ensemble as a whole. The woodwinds added a bright shimmer to the upper range of the sound, with some lovely piccolo playing contributing extra sparkle.  The playing was rhythmic with a driving sense of pulse, and very well controlled.  The movements from Romeo and Juliet, heard in an arrangement by Johan De Meij, showed the varying aspects of an ensemble such as this, from highly effective loud dissonant chords to chamber-music like individual lines. There were some well-performed solos by trumpet player Jason Evans and second flute Clare Hutton, and some excellent brass playing throughout.

This was followed by David Bedford’s Sun Paints Rainbows. This is a minimalist-influenced work, reminiscent, in its use of percussion, of Steve Reich. Individual notes patterns from different instruments come together to create phrases, which build in intensity throughout each section. The percussion writing adds an array of colour to the sound, with frequent use of marimbas, xylophones, glockenspiels and glass bottles, played with precision and evenness by NYWO’s very able percussion section. The instrumental sounds are used antiphonally, creating a rich tapestry of sound across the ensemble as a whole.  There were some particularly well played moments by the tuba and saxophone sections. Later moments of the piece reminded me a little of Khachaturian, somewhat fittingly for this otherwise Russian-themed first half.

For me, the most impressive performance of the evening was young soloist Philip Cobb’s rendition of the Arutunian Trumpet Concerto. Cobb’s sound is beautiful, enhanced with subtle use of tone colours and an instinctive sense of musicianship. This was a breathtaking performance, full of youthful energy and a driving commitment to the music. Technically perfect and polished, one would be forgiven for imagining that a seasoned international soloist was performing. The muted slow movement was atmospheric and wonderfully phrased, showing that Cobb has a dazzling career ahead of him. The orchestra accompanied with sensitivity and a good understanding of the style. With young performers such as this (Cobb is still a student at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama), the future of classical music is in safe hands.

In the second half, we were treated to an engaging performance of Janàček’s Sinfonietta, in the arrangement for wind orchestra by Michael Round.  This was a powerful rendition, once again displaying the strength of the brass section, with prominent moments for the very young-looking trombone and tuba sections. A bank of trumpets stood at the back of the orchestra, making a wonderful sound in the fanfare moments. This is an exciting work, and NYWO was more than capable of achieving the dynamic range it requires. Their playing was highly convincing throughout, and it was easy to forget when hearing them play that they are ‘just’ a youth orchestra.

The performers, managers and staff of NYWO deserve to be rightfully proud of their work over the last few days to produce playing of this quality. Wind Orchestra music in this country is alive and well, and what better an ambassador than young players with this level of dedication and commitment? Don’t miss the orchestra’s 40th Anniversary concert on 10th August this year at St John’s Smith Square, conducted by James Gourlay.

Carla Rees

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