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You are young and you want classical music

Last summer, it made Britten Youth String Orchestra his own Tour de France. The kick-off took place in Zwolle, where conductor Loes Visser founded the ensemble in 2007 to give young string players orchestral and stage experience. Interested players are tested on things like intonation, bowing technique and musicality during a rigorous audition and those admitted must rehearse every week and participate in all concerts. This certainly does not deter young people - year after year, more applicants apply than can be admitted.

Britten Youth String Orchestra rehearses at ArteZ Conservatory (source HetBritten.co.uk)
Britten Youth String Orchestra rehearses at ArteZ Conservatory (source HetBritten.co.uk)

As a bonus, a CD of the finest pieces is released each year and the latest disc contains a precipitation of 2015. As always, the cover is adorned with cheerful musicians dressed in red and black, who seem to be storming into the new year belligerently, their instruments at the ready. Pièce de résistance is the song cycle Les Illuminations which namesake Benjamin Britten composed in 1939 to poems by Arthur Rimbaud. He was in love with the tenor Peter Pears at the time and was no doubt attracted by the homoerotic overtones of the lyrics. He set the cycle for soprano and string orchestra, but it is also often sung by tenors.

The Britten Youth String Orchestra opts for the original line-up and collaborates with young soprano Bernadeta Astari, also the soloist during the tour of France. It shows guts and ambition to make this popular piece by Britten the main focus of a youth orchestra's tour and CD: the danger of unfavourable comparisons with professional ensembles lurks. Praise, then, for this courageous choice by Visser and her young musicians.

The conductor dist as an entry the widely loved Adagio for strings by American composer Samuel Barber. A smart choice, as this high-romantic work proves to be right up the young strings' alley. They capture the yearning, intensely melancholic atmosphere in the heart, with a subdued but rich and full string sound that gradually becomes more passionate, without ever becoming epathetic. Rarely did Barber sound so much like Mahler.

This is followed by the exuberant 'Fanfare' with which Britten opens his cycle. Here, the strings successfully imitate the sound of trumpets, which introduce the fortissimo exclamation 'J'ai la clef de cette parade sauvage'. Bernadeta Astari performs this cry flawlessly and shows herself to be a fearless soprano in the remaining nine movements as well, effortlessly evoking the highly variable emotions with her supple, colourful voice.

Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears (source oe1.orf.at)
Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears (source oe1.orf.at)

The orchestra accompanies meticulously, although rhythmic precision sometimes leaves something to be desired, for instance in more rousing songs like 'Royauté' and 'Marine'. The generally overtone-rich orchestral sound also sometimes loses some colour in fast passage work. This is compensated by the fire with which the young strings manage to capture the terrifying atmosphere in, for instance, 'Parade', in which Britten creates an image of the underworld. The cycle ends with the swaying 'Départ', in which the soprano's languorous part beautifully dies away in a low E-flat of celli and double basses.

The orchestra regains its saturated sound in the three remaining pieces. In the restrained Pavane by Arne Werkman, viola player Jeltje Quirijnen plays a beautiful solo, and cellist Jan Oppelaar shines in the renowned Kol nidrei by Bruch. The CD closes with the lacklustre but melodic and nicely stomping Palladio by Karl Jenkins, a real bouncer.

Once again, Visser and her musicians silence pessimists who believe classical music is dying out. 'You are young and you want classical music,' seems to be the adage of the Britten Youth String Orchestra.

Thea Derks

Thea Derks studied English and Musicology. In 1996, she completed her studies in musicology cum laude at the University of Amsterdam. She specialises in contemporary music and in 2014 published the critically acclaimed biography 'Reinbert de Leeuw: man or melody'. Four years on, she completed 'An ox on the roof: modern music in vogevlucht', aimed especially at the interested layperson. You buy it here: https://www.boekenbestellen.nl/boek/een-os-op-het-dak/9789012345675 In 2020, the 3rd edition of the Reinbertbio appeared,with 2 additional chapters describing the period 2014-2020. These also appeared separately as Final Chord.View Author posts

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