Review - Classical: National Youth Orchestra/En Shao
National Youth Orchestra of Ireland/En Shao at National Concert Hall, Dublin
Now in its 45th season, the National Youth Orchestra of Ireland keeps growing from strength to strength, with 2014 recognised perhaps as a 'vintage' year.
With more than 100 young musicians, including guests from Austria and Portugal, the orchestra fills the platform under Chinese conductor En Shao for a challenging mix of Rimsky-Korsakov, Walton and Rachmaninoff that would test even the most experienced players.
The centrepiece of the programme is William Walton's Viola Concerto – a work of serious intent that brings the extraordinarily talented German soloist Nils Mönkemeyer to NYOI for the first time.
Dating from 1929, Walton revised the concerto in 1960, lightening his orchestral textures and ensuring the delicacy of the viola's autumnal timbres are never obscured. Mönkemeyer's interpretation is lyrically thoughtful in pursuing the music's tranquil development. Not that the piece is consistently serene as it contains many passages of pulsating energy.
However, the opening Andante is moderately mournful – something that finds Mönkemeyer particularly sensitive.
Contrast comes with the fleeting rondo-like Scherzo that engages the soloist in continuously bouncing activity.
The bracing elements of the accompaniment shows something of Walton's earlier pictorial 'Portsmouth Point' Overture and pre-figures the exotic brilliance of the iridescent scoring in his oratorio 'Belshazzar's Feast'.
'Walton's Finale' is the concerto's longest movement, with Nils Mönkemeyer possibly at his most elegiac in pursuing the composer's eloquent discourses. His idyllic conclusion has a soul-searching quality, with En Shao ensuring NYOI is equally conscientious in its support.
Mönkemeyer offers a delightful encore through a solo Bach Gigue and, for it, dons a red NYOI 'off-duty' sweater in a spontaneous gesture of camaraderie with his younger companions.
There is warmth and depth in NYOI's string tone, while its brass has a very solid fundament with the horn section showing unfailingly burnished tone. Principal clarinettist Fionnuala MacMahon turns each of her significant solos into something exceptional and is nicely sustained by her woodwind siblings.
The expansive slow movement has Rachmaninoff at his most indulgently romantic and En Shao draws a richly emotional reaction from his ensemble. A rousing Finale here brings the Symphony to its dramatic close.
Maestro Shao builds its climaxes powerfully and NYOI's response to his masterly direction is no less compelling.