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Review: Youth Orchestra reunion concert at Philharmonic Hall

Reunions can be tricky things. They often come arm in arm with huge expectations which, thanks to intervening time and tide, are sometimes hard to fulfil.

But this (to give it its full title) Merseyside Youth Orchestra and Liverpool Philharmonic Youth Orchestra Reunion Concert at the Phil proved a joyous and emotionally charged afternoon – and the culmination of what was evidently, looking from the outside in, a joyous and emotionally charged weekend.

On Friday lunchtime, Sandra Parr (the Phil’s artistic planning director who in a previous life was a member then administrator of the Merseyside Youth Orchestra) had told me with a smile that she was instigating a ‘no squealing in the corridor’ rule as former MYO members spotted old orchestra mates at rehearsals.

But if the bonhomie and reminiscing backstage was anywhere as warm and enthusiastic as that in the audience – made up of a high proportion of former members, family and friends as well as mere lovers of music – that must have been almost impossible to police.

The Merseyside Youth Orchestra was founded in February 1951 and this event had originally been due to celebrate its 70th birthday in 2021, until Covid intervened.

Yet there was no lack of interest, even three years on. Around 200 former MYO, and its successor the Liverpool Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, members answered a social media post which asked if anyone was interested in playing in a reunion concert.

It required a masterclass in organisation to make sure everyone got stage time, with a series of choreographed mass exits and entrances, covered by informative interludes by official presenter (and former MYO bassoonist) Stephen Mackay.

Above: Clark Rundell and the orchestra. Top: The Reunion Concert musicians and conductors. Photo courtesy of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic.

The shapeshifting series of scratch orchestras from different generations, who had only come together for the first time on Friday evening, delivered a remarkable performance for what was – Mackay explained – a cohort of mostly amateur musicians these days, particularly given the challenging programme that had been brought together.

There were some professionals among the ranks, including RLPO oboist Catrin Ruth Davies, along with Kerry Gordon-Smith (BBC National Orchestra of Wales) and David Nolan, former concert master for orchestras including the London Philharmonic and the Yumiuri Symphony in Tokyo and who had jetted in specially from Japan for the occasion, arriving on stage in rock star dark glasses.

Gordon-Smith and Nolan led the orchestra(s) in Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story and Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony respectively, while Andrew Winter (consultant dermatologist and lynchpin of Orchestra dell’Arte) took leading duties in Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture and Lana Jackson led her fellow current Liverpool Philharmonic Youth Orchestra members in the opening Overture from the Magic Flute.

Above: Conductors Sir Simon Rattle, Tim Reynish and Clark Rundell. Photo courtesy of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic.

Mozart and Shostakovich, bookending the concert, were both conducted by the youth orchestra’s most famous alumnus, Sir Simon Rattle.

Beaming practically from the moment he stepped off the plane from Berlin on Thursday, Rattle appeared keen to be involved in every aspect of the long afternoon.

He could have retreated to his dressing toom to watch the match build up to the Carabao Cup, in which his beloved Reds were taking on Chelsea in an unexpected schedule clash.

But the keen eyed will have spotted him materialising among the serried ranks of percussionists for the Elgar, and remaining on stage for Bernstein – where he delivered bells and whistles (literally) and a satisfying cymbal crash.

Ahead of that, he conducted the current youth orchestra in Mozart’s overture. Under Rattle’s encouraging baton, any nerves were quickly settled and the work blossomed with strings in excellent full voice and some impressive work from the woodwind.

Timothy Reynish, who led the orchestra from 1974-83, took the podium for the Elgar.

Now 86 and with a rather Vaughan Williams-like presence, Reynish still travels widely to conduct ensembles and if he’s no longer the speediest to the middle of the stage, picking his way carefully here through the violins, he’s certainly nimble on the podium, presiding over some lovely dynamic shifts and plenty of satisfying, burnished Elgarian pomp from the supersized symphonic outfit in front of him.

Above: Timothy Reynish with the orchestra.

He was followed by Clark Rundell, better known to more recent Phil audiences for his work with Ensemble 10:10, but in a previous incarnation youth orchestra principal conductor from 1995 to 2005, and here bringing a bit of his native America to Sunday afternoon at Hope Street.

The RLPO opened its current season last September with Bernstein’s West Side Story suite, and in all honesty it was every bit as finger clicking good in the hands of Rundell and these former youth orchestra players – sharp, swaggering, soft and sweet where required, and with enthusiastic audience participation in the shouted ‘mambo’.

After the interval, it was down to Rattle to finish the afternoon at the helm of the massed ranks again for Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony.

There was a visceral sense of raw power evident in the opening moderato, and crisp playing in the allegro which became a thrilling ride with Rattle at the front, (now white) trademark curls bobbing wildly.

The composer’s signature DSCH motif and his Elmira theme appeared in alternating fashion in the allegretto third movement, realised persuasively between lone horn and phalanx of brass, which also featured a sweet solo phrase from Nolan, while the finale proved a wholly satisfying end to a memorable afternoon.

Shostakovich’s mighty work has been described as ’48 minutes of tragedy, despair, terror and violence followed by two minutes of triumph’.

But in honesty, this was all triumph for the orchestra - and for the event itself, which has so far raised £30,000 to underpin the future of the youth orchestra as it heads towards its 75th anniversary.


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