NYOS / Larsen-Maguire

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall.

It’s heartening to think, with all the disruption to musical education and performance that happened during and beyond Covid, that our National Youth Orchestra can tackle one of classical music’s most mountainous challenges. The proof was tangible last weekend, with performances in Edinburgh and the newly-refurbished Glasgow Royal Concert Hall by the NYOS Symphony Orchestra of Mahler’s magnificent Symphony No 7.

Under the English-born conductor, Catherine Larsen-Maguire, there were so many moments when you could have sworn the massed musicians on stage were hard-worn professionals. For this is a symphony that demands every facet of seasoned musicianship: unbending stamina, steely conviction, technical virtuosity and, most of all, an assertive understanding of Mahler’s wild emotional thoughts.

For the most part, that’s what this Glasgow audience witnessed. Larsen-Maguire, a conductor used to working with such prodigious youth, struck an inspiring balance between strict disciplining of her forces and allowing enough latitude in solo or small ensemble passages that call for more intuitive self-expression. 

Key among the latter were the soaring violin solos of leader Chun-Yi Gang, the punchy dynamism of the orchestra’s timpanist, a trumpet section that scaled dizzy heights, and horn playing that was gloriously ripe and radiant. As for the fullness of the entire ensemble, Larsen-Maguire extracted an ever-changing array of colour, from the symphony’s sombre opening mood, through the nocturnal rumination of the two Nachtmusik movements and wilder demonic Scherzo, to the resplendent awakening of the Finale.

There was very little in this performance that did not project with emotive self-belief and impressive resilience, except perhaps the final movement, where concentration dipped but reasserted itself for a biting finish.

Exciting challenges also presented themselves, though of a different nature, in Lotta Wennäkoski’s guitar concerto Susurrus, which preceded the Mahler and featured the pre-eminent guitarist Sean Shibe. It’s a work that challenges the norm in both guitar and orchestral techniques. A clue lies in the title, which means rustling or rasping, resulting in a sound world packed with exotic colourings, ethereal effects and very little in the way of a tune.

As such, it is beguiling, Shibe at one point even extracting an eeriness from his instrument with a plastic ruler and the orchestra responding with abstract like-mindedness. That said, Wennäkoski adds fire to her music in the form of motorised rhythms, glistening textures and a surprisingly curt ending that nips a late emergence of extrovert showmanship in the bud. These NYOS players took to its alluring unorthodoxy like fish to water.

Ken Walton

(Picture: Ryan Buchanan)