First published in the Guardian on 26 August, 2015
At the end of this concert, the players of the European Union Youth Orchestra turned to their stand partners and gave each other a hug. Every orchestra has its own routine — some shake hands, some bolt off stage the minute time is up — but these hugs seemed genuine. The performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony that had just hurtled to a blazing close had involved dizzying exertion from every person on stage. This was grippingly, exhilaratingly good orchestral playing, surging with energy, laser-sharp focus and collective daring. EUYO’s members are between 17-24; if they never let you forget the third word in their name, that’s because such wholehearted vitality and commitment is all-too rare in older ensembles.
It wasn’t just the energy. This year’s EUYO has a technical prowess that is downright terrifying. Any professional orchestra would envy that string sound: dark-hewn, supple, limpid up top, a rich purr in the bass. The brass are clear, bright and warm, the winds are assertive and characterful. Conductor Gianandrea Noseda marshalled all this for a Mahler 5 that was overwhelmingly life-affirming — if anything it was too consistently gorgeous, never revealing the bitter or ugly, never reaching the depths of despair because the irrepressible buoyancy meant Mahler’s tragic hero always bounced straight back onto his feet. Noseda’s reading of the Adagietto felt micromanaged with some bulgy, fussy phrasing. Mostly, the constant resurgence of hope in the face of adversity and neurosis was phenomenally uplifting.
The concert had got off to an underwhelming start, with bits and pieces of Verdi’s I masnadieri and Luisa Miller trotted out by husband-and-wife team Nicolas Testé and Diana Damrau. It wasn’t the best use of the orchestra and Testé’s stiffness hardly helped, but Damrau’s charisma and vocal control in “Venerabile, o padre” was a treat.