Monday, February 20, 2006

CBSO Youth Orchestra

Last evening we enjoyed a rare experience, one which has me up and awake at 5 a.m. wanting to pen this before a busy day erases some of the details. Two years ago the Midland Youth Orchestra merged into the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra organization and became the CBSO Youth Orchestra. The MYO had a 50 year history of successes but the new concept, to be a part of a major world class cultural organization, has been proved to be a very good move for all concerned.

This is how it works. Young people aged 14-21 are invited to apply to join the orchestra. Twice a year they come together from all over the region and spend a week in concentrated rehearsals and workshops. Members of the senior orchestra work with the young players while they benefit from the organization that the CBSO offers. But the key, surely, must be the involvement of the music director, Sakari Oramo, and his colleagues who wave the baton and make the music happen. Then there is Symphony Hall, considered to be one of the finest concert venues in the World. Last night, for the first time, the CBSO Youth Orchestra put on a full program in Symphony Hall with the second half under Oramo's sensitive yet firm baton.

We went to the concert for two reasons. The first, to support the concept. The second, to hear Elgar's "Enigma" Variations. We are glad we did. At the end of the concert we could not move from our seats - a truly exceptional experience.

The program began with Britten's Young Persons Guide to the Orchestra. This piece is a technical showpiece and was played under the baton of CBSO assistant conductor Michael Seal. It worked well to introduce us to some fine playing but it did lack that little something extra. The rapport between conductor and players could be seen to be excellent, however, and it became apparent that the players were very attentive to the baton (more so than their seasoned mentors from the senior orchestra, perhaps?)

Next up, also under Michael Seal, the orchestra was joined by young trumpeter Alison Balsom for Arutianian's Trumpet Concerto. This piece, which was new to us, gave the orchestra the opportunity to demonstrate that it can support a soloist and provide the necessary "backing" without trying to steal the show. Again, the technical excellence was there for all to hear and the orchestra was warmly appreciated by both conductor and soloist before the first half of the concert ended.

After the break we settled in to listen and see what Sakari Oramo would bring out of this technically very competent ensemble. We were not disappointed. The combination of great playing, superb conducting and the Hall's acoustics gave us a performance of a lifetime. Elgar's music is high on our personal list and his music is also a CBSO tradition (the composer conducted the orchestra's first concert in 1920). In fact, it would be hard to imagine Oramo being hired if he was not a fan of the great English composer. But I digress.

Oramo brought passion and emotion to the concert (something he does frequently!) and as we were on one side in the fifth row of the front stalls it was possible to witness his involvement as well as hear the results. He was totally at one with the orchestra, coaxing here, controlling there, giving gentle encouragements and showing appreciation. Between the contrasting variations he allowed the orchestra time to compose itself; at other times he moved on quickly from one character to the next. It all seemed so "right"!

The week of workshops, practice and rehearsal all came together under the roof of Symphony Hall. This is no ordinary auditorium for it not only provides superlative sound but the visual experience is special too. So when you recognize all the hard work that went into the concert and you see the calm expressions on the faces of the young players, it might be hard to believe they weren't excited. But we bet they were!

As "Enigma" came to an end the audience erupted into a sustained ovation and it became clear that Oramo was very, very pleased indeed.

He introduced an encore, an Overture by John Foulds, that was brilliant. The encore helped us to come back to Earth after the Elgar but even then we did not rush to leave. Remaining seated while others moved out, we simply marveled at having been present for such a special evening.

And one final comment - the tickets cost all of £7 each. Amazing value considering the level of achievement. Congratulations to all involved, not the least the young players.