Tchaikovsky Hamlet, Fantasy-Overture
Korngold Violin Concerto
Prokofiev Symphony No. 5
Nicholas Collon, conductor
Tai Murray, violin
The world’s greatest orchestra of teenagers comes together under the dynamic leadership of conductor Nicholas Collon for a rousing programme of orchestral works by Tchaikovsky, Korngold and Prokofiev.
The concert opens with Tchaikovsky’s Hamlet fantasy overture, his remarkable take on the great Shakespearean tragedy. This is a masterwork from Tchaikovsky’s mature years and he uses it as an opportunity not to re-tell the story but rather to respond passionately to the elements of the play that inspired him.
We’re then transported to the sounds of the golden age of Hollywood for Korngold’s Violin Concerto with the ‘superb’ (The New York Times) Tai Murray as guest violin soloist. The rich, romantic grandeur of his Violin Concerto, filled with gorgeous melodies and nods to his earlier film scores, is perfectly suited to the energised playing that has come to be synonymous with the modern, dynamic sound of NYO.
Mankind’s spirit and endeavour…
The concert’s epic finale comes in the form of Prokofiev’s popular Symphony No. 5, his moving wartime tribute to the ‘grandeur of the human spirit.’ So popular was the work after its American premiere in November 1945, Time Magazine hailed that “it is yesterday, it is today, it is tomorrow.’
The music is compelling, dramatic, powerful, and in the hands of 163 of the UK's brightest teenagers, totally uplifting.
Leeds Town HallBox Office 0113 224 3801
£12.50 - £33.50 / £5 under 26s
Barbican, LondonBox Office 020 7638 8891
£10 - £29 / £5 under 25s
Sat 2 Jan 2-5pm - Leeds Town Hall
Sun 3 Jan 3-5pm - Barbican, London
Catch us behind-the-scenes when we rehearse before our concerts. See how we work with our conductor and what goes on to make a brilliant performance.
In Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet says to his friend Guildenstern, ‘You would play upon me… you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass. And there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ, yet cannot you make it speak?’ Guildenstern may not have had the means, but Tchaikovsky did. He was an avid theatregoer and, back in his day, Shakespeare was all the rage; Hamlet especially, after the actor Pavel Mochalov gave a revelatory rendition in Moscow in 1837. Shakespeare’s brooding, sensitive outsider had much in common with the protagonists of 19th century Russian literature by Tolstoy, Pushkin and Turgenev. In such anti-heroes, many Russians saw something of themselves, a step out of time with the state. In a renowned essay of 1860, Turgenev even championed Hamlet for his doubts, asserting that awareness of his weaknesses gave him real power. Tchaikovsky was famously reticent himself. It’s no wonder then that, after his brother initially proposed a musical portrait of Hamlet, it took so long to commit to paper: maybe it felt a touch too much like looking in the mirror.
Though one of his lesser-performed works today, Hamlet is signature Tchaikovsky with its forthright surges and insistent melodies. The composer regarded it more a character study than narrative account of the play. After the solemn opening evokes the gloom of Elsinore, the strings lunge skyward, this way and that, like Hamlet’s thoughts lurching towards one morbid conclusion after another.
As the woodwind rush the opposite direction, one thinks of the impossible, overlapping staircases of M.C. Escher. Tchaikovsky cranks up the tension by repeating motifs chromatically higher and higher. Those who know the play will find it hard to resist assigning other facets of the story to what they hear: the doleful oboe is surely Ophelia; the rising brass and side-drum arguably the arrival of Fortinbras; the reverberant tam-tam ushering in the Ghost.
Four hundred years since Shakespeare’s death, experts still dispute how old Hamlet was: some say thirty, but an increasing number cast him in his late teens, the same age as many of the players in NYO. What then might they unearth in this portrait that elder counterparts may not?
Did you know?
I. Moderato nobile
II. Romance: Andante
III. Finale: Allegro assai vivace
You may not know Korngold’s name, but you know his sound. Of the many émigrés who fled Europe to write music in Hollywood, his impact has arguably been the greatest: even today, scores like John Williams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens owe everything to Erich. (If in any doubt, have a quick listen to his music for Kings Row on YouTube: you’ll be amazed at the similarity.) But before he made it big in the movies, Korngold was a prodigy of a kind to rival Mozart and Mendelssohn. His teenage pieces kept pace with the harmonic complexity of Alban Berg and Richard Strauss; he had two operas and several large-scale symphonic works under his belt before he was any older than NYO. To Los Angeles, he took his talent for opulent orchestration picked up from Strauss; in turn, at the end of his life when he returned to the concert hall, he brought with him some of his best tunes from the movies. The Violin Concerto is full of upcycled themes from pictures such as Another Dawn, Juarez, Anthony Adverse and The Prince and the Pauper – none of which you’ve likely seen. This matters not, as here they take on a fresh persona.
If a war were happening elsewhere in the world in 1944, you wouldn’t know it from this sumptuous confection. As in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto which shares a similar sunny disposition, the soloist enters at the very outset of the piece. Immediately the violin is airborne, carousing and cartwheeling like a kite above the orchestra. For all its questing and yearning, it never roams too far from a wholesome tonal centre – even the flashy cadenza when it comes is quietly anchored by a few orchestral chords. Any A-Level music student will know that 19th century Romanticism died out in favour of 20th century Modernism – but maybe it didn’t die after all; it just ran off to California to live out its days in the sun.
The second movement opens with a sonic heat-haze of tremulous strings and celesta – this is trademark Korngold, redolent again of the most indulgent, calorific moments of Strauss. The violin still languishes, bringing to mind Greta Garbo or Hedy Lamarr poolside at the end of a lazy day. Forward thrust and melodic development seem not to bother Korngold here: he is more set on achieving a musical equivalent to Technicolor, employing – like Cecil B. DeMille – massive resource to do so.
It is almost the opposite of Berg’s Violin Concerto written the decade prior (and performed by Tai Murray with NYO in 2011): all its shadows are here ironed out, this being as much a study in light as that was a study in dark.
At last, in the finale’s theme and variations, Errol Flynn arrives. Has a violin ever so literally swashbuckled, the bow carving the air like a rapier, the pizzicato fingers scampering across the strings like a pirate up the rigging? The orchestra swaggers through several variations like a bunch of lumbering seamen – as if they weren’t quite ready for this frenzy of semiquavers after two movements of mostly minims. The violin is unmistakably the captain of the ship running rings around them. Finally they unite, the horns blasting the main theme, glockenspiel and bells adding glitter – flourishes you still hear in the soundtracks to countless modern films. It makes you think: perhaps before cinema, concertos were the original action thrillers, their soloists the heroes whose adventures ultimately lead to a happy ending.
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II. Allegro marcato
IV. Allegro giocoso
Written just a year after the Korngold, you might think – going by Prokofiev’s account of his fifth symphony – that you’re in for something similar: ‘I conceived of it as glorifying the grandeur of the human spirit… praising the free and happy man – his strength, his generosity, his purity of soul.’
Your ears may tell you something different.
Things begin sweetly enough, with flutes and bassoons singing a gentle tune in octaves, but what is that uncertain undertow in the lower strings? And those little quavers of disquiet from the horns? One instrument after another bids to veer away into another key, only to find the opening melody there, cutting their path short; side drum and cymbals equally seem to marshal any attempt at diversion. Four minutes in, the violins make a breathless leap for freedom – a jaunty figure that the oboe hears and emulates. At first it fizzles out, then returns, only to be met with a firmer enunciation of the opening theme and more military licks of brass and drums.
History tends to think of Prokofiev being fairly submissive in the face of Stalin’s totalitarian regime, mostly serving up the kind of uptempo music that the state required. On the surface, the pomp and pageantry of this first movement appears to comply, but with hindsight it sounds like bombast.
In the second movement, the veneer quickly falls, the fleeting fugitive gasps heard earlier now run amok. Drawing unused material from Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet, it has that ballet’s same spirit of anarchy in the streets. The orchestration is a carnival of colour: surly clarinets, shrill trumpets, ghoulish stabs of piano and a giddy tambourine frolicking over restless turmoil in the violins. Midway, the commotion stops, and an eerie new figure starts to rise rhythmically from the brass. Strummed and plucked strings join in, like the component cogs of some lethal robot whirring to life in a laboratory. The pace quickens and the infernal machine goes on the rampage: cymbals crashing, violins wailing like sirens, and a triangle urgently ringing the alarm.
After such a nightmare, the third movement is like a dream. Softly shuddering strings establish an uneasy triple meter, over which the woodwind tease out a searching, keening melody. This is spun into an elegiac waltz by the violins, as if recalling majestic ballrooms long lost. As the dance gains confidence, out come the drums again: suddenly the triple meter sounds not like a respite but the regime relentlessly marching on. The brass roars, the flutes shriek: not a trace of the free and happy feelings Prokofiev promised. But then the fury vanishes, and the waltz sleepwalks to its close. What might all this signify?
The mirror that Prokofiev holds to Stalin’s Russia is so fractured that it’s hard to tell what is a dream and what is reality.
The fourth movement dawns with the same docile mood that opened the symphony. Then up pops a solo clarinet, seemingly cheerful at first but, as the violins assume his tune, they suddenly skitter earthward like a shower of electric sparks. Is the parade that follows the obedient populace embracing the day, or a march of ardent protesters, banging tambourines and drums? In two courtly and mannered woodwind interludes you might err toward the former, but then the inciting clarinet returns and an avalanche of fury erupts, the orchestra seemingly turning on itself, lobbing missiles from all sides. Prokofiev’s initial epigraph seems distant now, this sounding anything but human. But then, in the closing bars, he does something audacious. To account it here would be like spoiling the twist in a movie, but let’s just say in those final seconds, he reminds us that the tyranny and hysteria that can engulf a whole nation is usually engineered by just a few. Blink and you’ll miss it though, as the Soviet officials evidently did at its premiere. They stood and cheered, overlooking music’s power to say much more than sometimes meets the ears.
Did you know?