Review: National Youth Orchestra of the USA / Joyce di Donato⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Edinburgh International Festival

National Youth Orchestra of the USA / Joyce di Donato

Usher Hall

20:00 9 August only

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ (5 stars)

To be honest, I only chose this concert because I wanted to see the divine Joyce di Donato live, rather than on the Met opera relays, and hear her sing Berlioz’ Les Nuits d’Été, parts of which I have myself sung in the dim and distant past.

It was a delight to see the National Youth Orchestra of the USA resplendent in SCARLET trousers, black jackets, white shirts, black ties – and black sneakers: not exactly your traditional orchestral uniform, but one which lit up the stage of the Usher Hall. It was a very large orchestra – 120 musicians aged between 16 and 19, chosen each year by audition. After a two-week residency in New York, the orchestra gives a concert at Carnegie Hall before going on an international tour: what a fantastic experience for these very talented young players!

The opening piece was composed by eighteen-year-old Tyson J Davis, a native of North Carolina. His inspiration was Kandinsky’s painting Spannung [Delicate Tension] and, using this same title, Davis created a piece to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was indeed a piece of delicate tension: shimmering, shivering strings; mounting tensions released in explosions of sound; a delicate melody from the flute and a final low note from the harps resonating after all the other sounds had ceased. The composer wandered on stage to take his bow – I wonder when we will next hear his name?

And then Joyce came on in a glorious red frock with black and silver sparkly bits, clearly signifying she was a part of the orchestra which was now considerably reduced in size. Les Nuits d’Été is a setting of six poems from Théophile Gautier’s La Comédie de la Mort: they were not composed as a set or originally intended to be performed together, but are now frequently performed and recorded as a set, with Berlioz’ own orchestration rather than the original piano accompaniment.

I have to confess, Joyce could have sung the telephone directory and I would have been in ecstasies – but in this performance she surpassed even the excellence I was expecting of her. The first and last songs are joyful, the central four melancholy and even desolate, and every note and syllable was heartfelt and exquisitely phrased. At times her voice soared out over the orchestra, at times it was so soft as to be almost ethereal: and the orchestra, under maestro Antonio Pappano, was with her every inch of the way. At the end of the set, Joyce gave the members of the orchestra a radiant smile – clearly she saw herself as a partner in the music, not the superior star guest who would take all the credit for a performance which was greeted with a positive storm of applause.

After the interval we heard Prokovief’s fifth symphony which according to the programme notes is “inextricably bound up with the emotional life of a tortured society” [Russia in the Second World War]. Rather than make any attempt to do a musical crit of the piece, I will share my enjoyment of watching the orchestra both work very hard and enjoy what they were doing. There was a lot of very loud banging and crashing, some lyrical moments, a lot of bits that reminded me of the composer’s wonderful music for the ballet Romeo and Juliet, and a great deal for the five-strong percussion section to do – I spent much of the time watching them with fascination and admiration, while also enjoying maestro Pappano’s performance on the podium.

The audience obviously thought they did a great job, and once more gave them loud, prolonged applause – a thoroughly enjoyable evening all round.

Mary Woodward