Charismatic showstopper John Wilson, famed for his work with the John Wilson Orchestra, joined forces with the world’s greatest orchestra of teenagers to put their distinctive youthful stamp on the first great British symphony.
Grand in scope and luscious in texture, Elgar’s Symphony No.1 set out to transport the listener ‘beyond a wide experience of human life with a great charity (love) and a massive hope in the future’. The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain brought its infectious energy and passionate creativity to this work, hailed by contemporaries as ‘the greatest symphony of modern times’, making it as fresh
and powerful today as it was when it was first performed in 1908.
Accompanying this symphonic masterpiece, we journeyed through Elgar’s arrangement of Bach’s richly imaginative Fantasia and Fugue in C minor, and savoured the colourful sights and sounds of The Eternal City in Respighi’s Pines of Rome. With his growing international renown for performances of British music, John Wilson came together with 163 of the UK’s brightest teenage musicians for this Winter concert that was an explosive mixture of heritage, insight and raw musical passion.
Bach/Elgar Fantasia & Fugue in C minor
Respighi Pines of Rome
Elgar Symphony No.1
Leeds Town HallBox Office 0113 224 3801
Barbican, LondonBox Office 020 7638 8891
★ ★ ★ ★
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A charismatic figure on the concert stage, John Wilson is known for the vivid nature of his interpretations and the intensely colourful sound that he draws from orchestras. He has a particular affinity with British music, with a flair for interpreting music by Vaughan Williams and Elgar, among many others.
Born in Gateshead, England, John studied composition and conducting at the Royal College of Music and he now guest conducts major orchestras across the globe. He is Principal Conductor of the Royal Northern Sinfonia and Principal Conductor of the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, Dublin, and enjoys close relationships with many of the UK’s orchestras, in particular the BBC Philharmonic, BBC Scottish Symphony orchestras and the Philharmonia Orchestra, with whom he is currently conducting a cycle of Vaughan Williams symphonies.
Here John shares his thoughts on the programme and his personal musical journey:
Why did you choose this music for NYO to play?
NYO haven’t played Elgar’s First Symphony for a number of years and I think (hope!) the players will relish the technical and musical challenges of this magnificent work. Much of the Symphony was composed in Italy which is one of the reasons we chose Respighi’s Pine’s of Rome - a great NYO piece - for the first half.
Why will NYO musicians have a great time in your rehearsals?
Because I’ll work them so hard they won’t have a chance to get bored…
What were you like as a teenage musician?
Completely self-taught, ill-disciplined and unruly. I didn’t really get my act together until I started at the Royal College of Music...
What was your most inspiring musical experience as a teenager?
Conducting my first musical show aged sixteen. I was utterly clueless and it must have been miserable for the poor players but hearing the orchestra play all of the arrangements I had written was an experience I can never forget.
What was your most exciting audience experience of your teenage years?
Going to the City Hall in Newcastle to hear the visiting orchestras. I can’t single out any particular concert, they were all thrilling.
When did you know you wanted to be a musician for life?
I have never known a time when I wasn’t going to be a musician.
What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done as a musician?
My first concerts conducting professional orchestras. Simply terrifying. I’ve had lots of tough technical assignments - transcribing inaudible movie soundtracks and learning complex modern music - but getting right to the heart of pieces I’ve done for years is the biggest challenge of all. Knowing that a piece will always be greater than any performance you can give of it keeps complacency at bay
What characterised your musical journey?
I got by on whatever bits of natural talent I had for years until my conducting teacher, Neil Thomson, showed me how much more I could achieve with focused study. And once I started playing and conducting professionally, I learned so much from my colleagues, particularly the violinist Andrew Haveron whose playing inspired me so much that I formed my own orchestra with him as leader. And what drove me was obsessive musical curiosity.
What is your number one tip for orchestral playing?
Never take your eyes off the beat!
Any more words of wisdom for teenage musicians?
Practice loads and go to as many concerts as you can. By the time you start college you ought to know the standard repertoire inside out.
If the British and Italianate sensibilities of Winter's two main composers seem poles apart, this opener is the missing link. While, in different ways, they simultaneously aspired to advance a new symphonic voice for their respective nations, it’s fascinating to discover that both Elgar and Respighi also took time to glance backwards, orchestrating short organ works by Johann Sebastian Bach. They both claimed to do this with some degree of authenticity – Elgar said ‘I wanted to show how gorgeous, great and brilliant Bach would have made himself sound if he had the means’ – but who are we kidding? Even if he’d lived another 200 years, it’s hard to imagine one of Bach’s poise ever festooning his fugues with the tinsel-like harp, glockenspiel and tambourine that Elgar lavishes here, nor the nose-diving cascades redolent of the bulldog portrayed in the Enigma Variations. (Almost needless to say, Respighi’s transcriptions are even glitzier.)
While Elgar’s indulgence forfeits some of the steely rigor of an organ cleanly striding through the Fugue, it unlocks greater sentiment in the Fantasia. On the organ this unfolds soberly, almost starkly, but recast on a plaintive oboe, it is instantly more yearning. Assigned to strings, the drooping step-like gestures become unmistakably more lachrymose.
One cannot divide the sorrowful mood from the knowledge that it was the first piece Elgar took on after the death of his dear wife, Alice. Bereft of his muse, it’s no wonder he found himself reaching back into the past. Not that it was intended as an elegy: originally, it was a friendly pact with Richard Strauss – after the divisive blow of World War One – that they would join forces and each orchestrate half. But when Elgar finished the Fugue and Strauss’ Fantasia wasn’t forthcoming, he set about completing the task himself for the 1922 Three Choirs Festival.
1. The Pines of the Villa Borghese
2. The Pines near a Catacomb
3. The Pines of the Janiculum
4. The Pines of the Appian Way
Unleashing even more orchestral glitter than Elgar’s Fugue, Respighi catapults us from wintry January blues to radiant Italian vistas. If you’ve been to Rome, you’ll know the signature umbrella pines that populate the city: lush green canopies atop bare sculpted trunks.
This was in fact a sequel of sorts, after Respighi’s 1916 tone poem representing the city’s fountains. Sequel seems an appropriate word as both works have the grand sweep and immediacy of film music. But while each movement ostensibly conjures a different location, Respighi meant for this to be more than a set of picture postcards. He regarded the evergreen pines as a constant around which so much chaos, colour and change has surged. He remarked that ‘the centuries-old trees which so characteristically dominate the Roman landscape become witnesses to the principal events in Roman life.’
Programme notes for this piece often tend to read like guidebooks, drawing your ear to a succession of instrumental gestures that supposedly reflect specific natural or architectural elements of the city. But something more beguiling binds the four scenes: in each, Respighi takes time to evoke the music of Rome in its varied styles and voices.
In the first scene, we hear children’s songs, specifically the Italian version of Ring a Ring o’ Roses, a timeless refrain doubtless chanted by children charging among the trees from one century to the next. Sparkling with the incessant peal of bells, celeste, piano, harp and triangle, this is a pure dose of the ebullience of youth, and signature material for the new recruits of NYO.
In the second scene, Respighi intones a hymn-like plainchant, reflecting the city’s deep historical piety, that in its calm constancy continues to endure despite all the razzle-dazzle activity around it.
There are unlikely echoes of that most pastoral composer Vaughan Williams as the third scene opens and a clarinet ebbs wistfully across a sleepy haze of strings. This sets the scene for another enduring kind of music – the song of nature – which Respighi depicts by deploying a genuine recording of a nightingale. For all his mastery of orchestral colour, not even Respighi felt he could aptly mimic the bird’s song through instruments, so lets it speak for itself.
To conclude, Respighi reaches right back to the Roman Empire with martial music gradually escalating, as if a vast army is processing home triumphantly along the first great road erected into the capital city. The unstoppable force with which the strings surge alongside heraldic brass, drums and cymbals, seems a musical vindication of Rome’s nickname, the Eternal City: the message that Respighi takes pains to convey throughout the piece is that music, in many guises, is central to the city’s enduring power.
1. Andante. Nobilmente e semplice – Allegro
2. Allegro molto
4. Lento – Allegro
Written 107 years ago by a man who was already 50, this was described in various quarters as ‘England’s first great symphony’, but what is its strength today? Can music of this vintage still mean much to young hearts and minds?
For some time, Elgar toyed with making it a heroic tribute – akin to Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony – to General Gordon, the military hero who lost his life defending the city of Khartoum in 1885. But does this cast its relevance even further into the past? In the end, the symphony has no such allusions yet many of its commentators declare it a work about opposing forces, a battle of ideas.
It opens with a gentle processional motto, set to return throughout. It is one of those essential Elgarian themes that, regardless of intention, evokes the last days of the British Empire, resilient with a stiff upper lip. Still, maybe we do Elgar a disservice to think of so much of his music in this way. After all, it hardly has the chest-beating valour of his earlier Pomp & Circumstance. Perhaps the stewardship of tonight’s young musicians – who may still be playing this piece another 60 years from now – should spur us to let go of such historic associations. Forget any notion that it’s about Great Britain. Instead, let’s just say it’s the start of a journey, embarking at a modest step; nobly optimistic but pacing itself for challenges ahead. Entirely self-contained, it could almost be a mantra uttered before great exertion begins.
Then the action really starts. Everything changes: we lunge from A-flat major to the remote key of D minor, the melody is suddenly rhapsodic and chromatic, counter-melodies abound in hot pursuit, and flashes of percussion accentuate the drama. One moment we are marching headlong, the next we find ourselves in a glade of fluttering flutes and swooning violins. For young minds, the symphony might be a quest, in which a violent ambush of brass can be seen off by calling back the motto theme: a reassuring reminder of the positive thoughts we felt leaving home at the start.
If symphonies can occasionally feel like the epic journeys undertaken in movies, it’s not least because film composers often evoke them in their scores: the second movement’s urgent march theme, beginning with three repeated notes, is potently echoed by John Williams in his signature tune for Darth Vader. Around this, the urgency is escalated by a scarpering violin motif, darting in all directions like wildfire. But once again, Elgar shifts gear and midway presents a lilting interlude gilded with flutes and harps that he described as ‘something you hear down by the river’. The orchestral terrain we are invited to traverse is as full of contrast and surprise as Tolkien’s Middle Earth.
The ensuing third movement may feel worlds away again, but in fact it’s not. The expansive violin melody is actually the scarpering motif from earlier but drawn out in the most exquisite slow-motion. While the likes of Parry and Stanford had made fair stabs at the form before him, this is why Elgar’s endeavour often gets called ‘England’s first great symphony’: it isn’t four separate movements glued together but an interwoven tapestry, in which familiar themes and textures resurface, sometimes making their presence felt, other times creeping by, covertly unnoticed. It also strives for new levels of emotional intensity: halfway through the Adagio, the violins soar so high they seemingly become unmoored from the rest of the orchestra, the rest of the symphony even. For a moment we hover like hawks. The cathartic feeling that comes from this release is as powerful in its own way as when we hear the original motto theme again and it acts like a compass, drawing us back home.
As the fourth movement eerily stirs, with tremolo strings and an ominous new theme clambering to its feet on the bassoons, we feel a long way from home. Elusive, wispy fragments of the motto only serve to confirm this. The bassoon theme evolves into a propulsive march, at turns exuberant and volatile, each instrumental family piling on new material almost to outshine or outrun each other. For a moment the commotion abates, and we hear the slow, wistful motto again: it’s like taking a break from the hare to check on the tortoise’s progress. But its touch is chastening: the relentless march is briefly transformed, assigned to lush legato strings within a radiant halo of harps.
Nonetheless, the pulse starts racing again, and an almost volcanic climax ensues, with violins and woodwind cascading at lightning speed around declamatory brass. Then the motto enters one last time, triumphantly sung by trumpet and oboe as the fiery violins rocket back to earth around it. If it wasn’t clear at the start of the symphony what we were marching for, it is now. The whole orchestra takes up the tune and its former modesty is replaced with tremendous pride. This is not pride in England. This is pride in having reached this summit together: a blazing reminder of the team spirit and unity that orchestras represent. What better music for the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain as it brings together new talents from across the country for the start of a new year…?
Programme notes by James Murphy