A blog on gigs, music, art and London.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

National Youth Orchestra, Varèse 360 (3), Ether Festival, Royal Festival Hall, 18/04/10

After leaving the QEH I quickly headed over to the RFH to see the National Youth Orchestra play the final concert of the Varèse concert. Apparently it was the NYO’s largest ever orchestra – 170 members on stage, including 19 percussionists. It took them almost 10 minutes to all get on stage. The concert featured Varese’s two large scale orchestral pieces ‘Arcana’ and ‘Amériques ’.

They began with ‘Tuning Up’ a piece based on the usual sound of an orchestra tuning up, only magnified and embellished and recast as a mass of orchestral sound. They played without a conductor and during changed seats, exchanged instruments and swapped scores. I guess it was their attempt at imposing their youthful high spirits on the concert. Very much Varèse packed into five minutes.

‘Arcana’ is one of my favourite Varèse pieces and sounded charcateristically turbulent tonight. James Murphy in the programme notes made some excellent comments on the piece’s cinematic qualities. Performed under glowing red lights it sounded fiery and incendiary. In the pre-concert talk Malcolm MacDonald referred to how Varèse talked about his music being like “beams of sound”, an apt description for this piece.

‘Nocturnal’ opened the second half and sounded like something out of a grainy, black and white horror movie. A choir growls about “belonging to the night” and “shadows of death” whilst a soprano shrieks about crucifixion. Quite noir-ish and very different to his other pieces.

The original, unedited version of ‘Amériques’ followed. I had seen the LSO perform a slightly different version at the Barbican in 2008. Inspired by Varèse’s relocation to New York at the start of the twentieth century, it can almost be seen as a vast, sonic portrait of the city, with all the associated minutiae. An urban feel permeates the piece, with skyscraping orchestral moments and neon-lit, raucous harmonies rising to prominence throughout. More brilliant playing from the NYO.

The NYO came back on stage to play ‘Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune’ by Debussy, a piece that inspired Varèse to become a composer.

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