Nicola Benedetti / NYO, BBC Proms, reviewer: Grit, funk … and kazoos
The audacity of it. Taking the UK’s most terribly talented and serious young musicians and sending them to the biggest stage of their lives armed, not bassoons, oboes and horns, but kazoos – the flatulent punchline of the instrumental world – takes some nerve.
It also takes a typically British humor, a desire to combine excellence and wink, a playful shrug that says a lot about the spirit of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain (NYO).
There may have been an element of gimmick in Mercury Prize nominee Laura Jurd’s specially commissioned opening, CHANT, going from a primitive call and response (kazoos front and center) to sophisticated, multi-layered funk and finally abstraction, but it was a striking and irreverent way of bragging about the return of the NYO.
Under the direction of Proms first conductor Jonathon Heyward, it was a much smaller-than-usual group that filled a socially distant Royal Albert Hall stage. After canceling the concert scheduled for 2020, Covid continues to deprive so many young artists of opportunities.
But the lucky few (fifty of them) gave it their all, and the thinner group gave us the opportunity to hear beyond the plush, to move behind the mass effect to something elegant and adaptable.
While the two contemporary pieces – Banner, inspired by Jurd’s anthem and American songwriter Jessie Montgomery – gave us luster and rhythmic groove, two NYO signatures, the rest of the program added something new.
At Prokofiev Violin Concerto No.2 it was the timbre, the way the musicians listened to the squeaky tone of soloist Nicola Benedetti’s tone in her opening solo and matched it, seeking unexpected astringency and finding it, first turning it into a ghostly ballad. in slow motion and finally in a malicious dance in the finale. We know NYOGB can make passion, but that cool frenzy was something else.
And then Beethoven Eroic, shaped by Heyward so that it was both surprisingly classical but also fiercely revolutionary, the repeated chords clapping in the fist in the first movement a direct ancestor of Stravinsky Rite of Spring. Suddenly we were far from where we started, and not a kazoo in sight.