Beethoven’s Egmont Overture is a challenging piece for any orchestra due to its position at the core of standard orchestral repertoire, let alone for a youth orchestra. So opening the National Youth Orchestra of Ireland’s New Years Gala in the National Concert Hall is a risky choice, but one that ultimately pays off. Conductor Gearóid Grant’s almost choral-style conducting has clearly been well-honed to suit the youth groups he is known for working with, his intentions made clear at every step and well executed by the orchestra. Woodwind entries are strong and hold their own against the impressive power of the strings. While trumpets are occasionally a little overly prominent for Beethoven, they made a great sound and, joined with the pounding timpani, bring the piece to a most impressive close.
Announcing a programme alteration in his most bombastic, irreverent manner, Grant (literally) leapt into the selection from the Bizet Carmen Suite No.1. Given the context of the piece it is most impressive that the brass manage more delicacy than in the Beethoven. Here there is a far better balance here between the sections of the ensemble, allowing the energy of the piece to thrive. Throughout this Suite the most memorable element by far are the solo voices—oboe, as in the Beethoven, excels, as does the sweet trumpet solo while the clarinet player’s dexterity is noteworthy.
Niall O’Sullivan joins the Orchestra on stage as the night’s trumpet soloist for Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto. Again well known enough as to present a challenge, tonight’s performance stands out thanks to O’Sullivan’s high energy playing style that guarantees to bring even the Haydn into the 21st Century. His new instrument serves him well, the pitching sitting just nicely while he fills the Hall with his bright tone and smooth flourishes. Although the orchestra’s articulation doesn’t always match up with the soloist’s, they perform the period music as perfect accompanists while O’Sullivan’s performance tells a story with every note.
From a well played rendition of Leroy Anderson’s Irish Suite, where the orchestra handled Grant’s rapid tempi with no sense of strain while maintaining excellent balance, we return to Bizet for music from his Carmen Suite No.2. O’Sullivan returns to cover the trumpet solo in the Chanson du Toreador with a panache massively contrasting with the earlier Haydn. Dynamics are the name of the game throughout this Suite and the orchestra surpasses expectation in its handling of these extremely difficult passages. Both here and in the encore the brass shine through, trombones finally being given a chance to show their skill, and the only thing amiss is that we can’t hear enough of them.
The afternoon concert is a resounding success, enjoyable for any audience whether coming for the programme, as a parent or NYOI supporter. The strings displayed a remarkable range and no section disappointed – unless you can count the fact that the French horns weren’t given any features throughout the programme. Leaving the Concert Hall, our only grievance is that Ireland lacks a national orchestra platform for those of the promising musicians that are turning 18 this year—a most regrettable fact given we are one of a very few European countries without a senior 18-26 youth orchestra. But for this year we are safe in the knowledge that we can see the NYOI again for their summer programme, and look forward to it.