Festival Music

National Youth Orchestra of Scotland/BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra Usher Hall Keith Bruce

three stars

THERE was a highly successful Festival day to be made of Thursday’s back-to-back concerts by Scotland’s National Youth Orchestra and its infinitely flexible broadcasting one, but sadly this wasn’t it.

Presumably to suit the schedule of patron the Earl of Wessex, the concert by the young musicians was prefaced by the presentation of the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s medal to composer Thea Musgrave, whose wonderful suite Turbulent Landscapes was played by the SSO three hours later.

That was the Festival’s celebratory event of the Edinburgh composer’s 90th birthday, and putting it in a concert with the Sea Symphony of Vaughan Williams which teamed the orchestra with the Festival Chorus was good programming. So too, but quite separately, was the selection of works played by NYOS, marking the centenaries of the deaths of Claude Debussy, Lili Boulanger and Scot Cecil Coles.

The timing of the acknowledgement of the little-known Coles, a day after the marking of the last great battle of the First World War at Amiens, was particularly apt, even if his tuneful two- movement Behind the Lines, in part orchestrated by the conductor of the SSO concert, Martyn Brabbins, was the slightest work in the programme. The young players were at their most impressive on the Boulanger and with Debussy’s Iberia, which I had been looking forward to hearing since reading a new biography of the composer that chronicled its vexed gestation. There were some terrific soloists across the orchestra, but the horn section were the heroes for me in that work. The NYOS concert should have come to a climax with Debussy’s La Mer, but although it had fine details and dynamics, it lacked structure and power, a deficiency for which conductor Paul Daniel must take responsibility. Brabbins, by contrast, was in complete control for both the Musgrave and the Sea Symphony, in which soloists Elizabeth Watts and Christopher Maltman were superb and the chorus produced the sort of performance that the opening concert-usurping National Youth Choir had challenged them to. Had the same conductor steered the whole day, it might have cohered into the highlight of this year’s EIF concert programme.