Tuesday, September 14, 2010


In 1947 Ruth Railton founded the National Youth Orchestra. Many years later the Continent cottoned on to the idea. First, the European Youth Symphony Orchestra, whose first concert was conducted by Claudio Abbado. Later still Abbado founded the Mahler Jugendorchester and it was that band that played at the Prom on September 1. The European youth orchestras have advanced the age from adolescents to young players in their twenties. At the Prom there were something like 135 players, two-thirds (and nearly all the strings) were girls, bare-armed in black dresses. There were only four Brits playing, one of them the leader; there were over twenty from France, ditto Spain, the rest in single figures from just about every European country except Luxembourg.

Hearing them and seeing them was an experience to savour, cherish and marvel at. The standard of playing was phenominally high, no weakness anywhere. This of course was due to what a good trainer and conductor can do with a carefully picked and rehearsed body of instrumentalists. That conductor was the American born, Swedish, Herbert Blomstedt, known here more for his recordings than his personal appearances. He is no flailing showman but a craftsman of the old school.

The result was absolutely superb performances of Hindemith's masterpiece, the symphony culled from his opera Mathis der Maler, the opera that got the composer (and Furtwangler) into hot water with the Nazis; after Mahler's Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a lovelorn Kraut was the racist translation of a neighbour in the stalls) tenderly sung by the honey-voiced baritone Christian Gerhaher, delicately played by a reduced orchestra (only four of the full pack of a dozen double-basses).

The audience in the Royal Albert Hall (where once upon a time Anton Bruckner had given an organ recital) listened in rapt silence to the Austrian composer's final, unfinished symphony. The work is a monument of nobility, strength, spirituality, originality and beauty that can also be called sublime (mind you, some call it a garrulous, start-and-stop bore). It was a privilege to experience, to hear, and see those young women string players all bowing identically 'for the greater glory of God' perhaps, and certainly for the musical satisfaction and elevation of several thousand listeners.

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