NYOS / Hasan

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

The area of music making likely to have suffered most over these past two years of Covid-enforced hibernation has surely been the communal opportunities lost to youngsters in the formative years of their musical development. To see the National Youth Orchestras of Scotland spring back to life last week, in particular the public concerts presented in Edinburgh and Glasgow by the organisation’s flagship Symphony Orchestra, was a heartening sign that the seeds of recovery are beginning to shoot.

An intrepid NYOS fielded a mighty contingent for its substantial and demanding programme of Respighi, John Harle and Shostakovich. Key to inspiring and galvanising it were two intriguing personalities, still young, but established in their fields of enterprise: British-born conductor Kerem Hasan, a 30-year-old alumnus of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, now chief conductor of the Tiroler Symphonieorchester of Innsbruck; and the virtuoso saxophonist Jess Gillam as soloist in a work specially written three years ago for her by Harle.

Gillam was not only the star turn, but an irrepressible force of nature whose electrifying presence, let alone her exuberant blue and yellow sartorial creation, demanded nothing less in return from the orchestra. Harle’s music – the suite Briggflatts, based on the autobiographical poem by the British modernist Basil Bunting – played its own part as a vital stimulant, driven much by an infectious motorised minimalism, restless rhythmic unpredictability, rich jazz-infused melodies and a high-voltage Rant that converts its base material, Cumbrian folk music, into a delirious foot-stamping finale.

But all eyes were on Gillam, whose visible egging-on was the motivating linchpin, encouraging Hasan and the orchestra to take risks they may not otherwise have considered. If such encounters with danger took the performance to the very brink, it inspired nothing less than an explosive triumph.

To some extent Respighi’s ruminative symphonic poem, Fountains of Rome, which opened the programme, could have done with some of that same alertness, not in the brash sense, but in stencilling out its scented, filigree colours. There were magical moments, from poignant solo contributions to deliciously atmospheric nuancing by the upper strings. Hasan shaped the performance with meaningful organic flow and perceptive delicacy. At times, though, it just seemed to lose its immediacy and luminescence.

Shostakovich’s Symphony No 10 offered a very different challenge, technically daunting and driven emotionally by the composer’s feverish thoughts at the time of writing,1953, just after Stalin’s death. Again, Hasan captured the broad picture magnificently, from the tortuous granite-like intensity of the opening movement, through the abrupt second movement scherzo and personalised nocturnal reflection of the third, to the ultimate raging force of the finale. 

There was no escaping the eager responsiveness of the young players, even when the briskness of the scherzo sent the upper strings into a near-calamitous flurry. It was ultimately an overall success, but symbolic too, perhaps, of what the pandemic has done to young people. They desperately need regular opportunities again to express themselves with full confidence and in tandem with each other. Good to see them back on track.

Ken Walton