Opening Concert - National Youth String Orchestra of Scotland

Edinburgh Festival review
Rating (out of 5)
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Nadine Livingstone (soprano); National Youth String Orchestra of Scotland (NYSOS), Gareth John (Conductor)

It was heartening to see the opening concert of the 2007 Festival of British Youth Orchestras so well attended. It was just a pity that the performance did not quite match the occasion. This 42-strong string orchestra, made up of secondary school children from all over Scotland (and even one from Shropshire) struggled at times with a very varied and demanding programme. This evening the orchestra had its good moments and its bad moments, but the overall effect was one of disappointment. I am sure that the players, their teachers and their coaches will feel a sense of not having quite achieved what they had hoped for.

Undoubtedly the players worked hard and were given every encouragement, but any group of players who live so far apart and therefore cannot meet together too often, will have difficulty in achieving a satisfactory ensemble sound. Only playing together can do that. This is especially true in a string orchestra when the intonation is so dependent on each individual actively listening to the other players and adjusting their intonation accordingly. No matter how well each individual learns his or her part, it is the ensemble playing that produces the final result. That was what was disappointing tonight.

However, it was not all doom and gloom. Gareth John, who has led the NYSOS for some five years now, gave good leads to the orchestras and his interpretations were sensitive and expressive. The orchestra was very good at following the conductor's requirements and overall its dynamics were excellent. The pieces for orchestra alone were the most disappointing, the main problem being one of intonation.

In the first part of the programme, there was really nothing else in the Rawsthorne or the Elgar which one could pick out. Alasdair Spratt, the young composer of the Gift wrapped piece, is finishing a Ph.D. in composition at the RSAMD in Glasgow, and I suspect that he produced this piece as a 50th birthday present to the Scottish Amateur Music Association (SAMA). It was a very interesting piece, with its use of rising and falling 5-note sequences. It produced some fascinating harmonic sonorities and textures.

The bright spot of the first half was Nadine Livingston. This 22-year-old soprano has an excellent voice, which she showed off with great effect in the two very different operatic arias that closed the first half of the programme. Earlier she had sung the Rachmaninov Vocalise with great effect and expression and was accompanied very sensitively by the orchestra. This is effectively a "song without words" which can be difficult to sustain, but she did an excellent job; it was in the arias, though, that she showed the full range of her voice. Nadine is going to sing Susanna in Mozart's Marriage of Figaro with Royal Northern College of Music later this year, and I think that it will be a performance well worth hearing.. She is still young but the strength of her voice is considerable. If there is a weakness in it, it is in the lower notes. They could do with a little more power.

The second half started with the Grieg Lyric Piece, "Secret". This featured the harp, played by Thea Graham. There was a sensitivity about her playing which made it just a wee bit different and memorable. The concert finished with Tchaikovsky's well known "Serenade for Strings". However, I felt that the middle "Waltz" movement could have benefited from being taken at a slightly faster "one-beat-in-the-bar" speed instead of a bit too stodgy "three-in-a-bar"; this might have prevented that rather disastrous moment in the middle of the movement when things were falling apart and the conductor had to stop the orchestra and restart it.

The encore certainly cheered me up. An arrangement of Henry Mancini's Pink Panther Theme was the best thing the orchestra played all evening. It is just disappointing that they didn't play like that the rest of the time.

© Charlie Napier 11 August 2007. First published on

Run The 28th Festival of British Youth Orchestras runs from 11 August to 1 September 2007
Complete programme: Online from NAYO

Music Rawsthorne: Light music for strings; Rachmaninov: Vocalise; Elgar: Sospiri; Alasdair Spratt: Gift wrapped; Puccini: La Boheme-Donde Lieta; Mozart: Cosi fan tutti-Come scoglio); Grieg: Lyric Pieces Op.57, No.4-Secret; Tchaikovsky: Serenade for strings