Photo credit: BBC/ Chris Christodoulou
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Prom 46: NYJO + soloist Benjamin Grosvenor & conductors Mark Armstrong and Guy Barker
(Royal Albert Hall. 16 August 2018. Review by Sebastian Maniura)
Celebrating Leonard Bernstein’s centenary the National Youth Jazz Orchestra returned to the proms after a six-year hiatus and, from the response of the nearly full house gathered at the late prom, they did not disappoint. Playing an ambitious programme that consisted of both old and new, the ensemble explored the diverse range of just what a big band can achieve. Whether accompanying pianist Benjamin Grosvenor on the original band version of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, premiering new music by rising star and NYJO alumnus Laura Jurd or navigating Johnny Richards’ devilishly hard arrangement of Stan Kenton’s West Side Story, the band proved it was well up to such a monumental task.
The UK premiere of Johnny Richard’s arrangement of Stan Kenton’s West Side Story was certainly a highlight of the evening. Kenton had never performed the complete suite live as it was too challenging, however it failed get the better of NYJO. From the opening of the Prologue it was clear that they were not pulling any punches, the full force of the line up really hitting home in the unison sections. Tonight and Maria showed off the band’s tonal range, with delicate piano introductions that countered the more rhythmically driven movements.
When the arrangement was originally recorded, the Kenton big band used a total of seven trumpets to tackle the demanding horn parts, the NYJO trumpet section never shied away from the challenge, playing six-strong they took them on with admirable gusto. The rhythm section, featuring added percussion, did an impressive job driving the band from one feel to the next, in movements such as Cool and Taunting Scene (The Rumble), often in quick succession. Mark Armstrong conducted with ardent vigour, making sure the band fully explored all the musical possibilities offered by the score. They took advantage of the arrangement’s free solo opportunities, passing them between the virtuosic talents within their ranks, drawing woops and cheers throughout the hall.
Rhapsody in Blue was a thrilling ride, Benjamin Grosvenor playfully pulling his solo sections around and then dashing into new themes with youthful zeal. The ease with which he held the audience in awe was quite something to witness. The band accompanied sensitively with the addition of a well led violin section, never overpowering Grosvenor, but opening up when the theme was passed to them.
Similar to the Michael Tilson Thomas 1976 recording, featuring George Gershwin’s piano roll from 1925, guest conductor Guy Barker took elements of the piece at breakneck speed, letting the band show their ability through the quick fire nature of the score. The original arrangement for the Paul Whiteman Band by Ferde Grofé was a joy to experience. Despite the piece being nearly 100 years old, it felt fresh and vibrant in the hands of such a high flying young band.
The evening kicked off under the baton of Mark Armstrong with the world premiere of Laura Jurd’s The Earth Keeps Spinning. It is quite a challenge for a relatively young composer to feature alongside musical titans such as Bernstein and Gershwin. However, Jurd’s music certainly stands up for itself. Beginning with smatterings of cymbals, the piece had a serenity that balanced the later, more spectacular elements of the programme. The minimalistic horn writing was laid atop smooth undulating grooves, mercurially shapeshifting between timbres. Jurd’s use of the ensemble was inspired, exploring sonorities and textures that are rarely heard in big band playing.
After such a challenging programme the evening was rounded off in a playful manner with St Louis Blues, in an arrangement by Mark Armstrong, as the encore. NYJO played far beyond their years, with such confidence, panache and professionalism, despite the inclusion of “youth” in their title. The musicians were committed to showing the audience all that a great big band can do.
Laura Jurd – The Earth Keeps Spinning
Conductor: Mark Armstrong
Rhapsody in Blue (original version with jazz band, arr. Grofé)
Conductor: Guy Barker
Soloist: Benjamin Grosvenor
Stan Kenton’s West Side Story
arr. Johnny Richards (UK Premiere)
Conductor: Mark Armstrong
Violins (in Gershwin):
Alice Apreda Howell
Prom 46 on BBC iPlayer
Categories: Live review
I don't know whether it's the done thing in jazz to say Thanks for a splendid review, but I hereby do so. Thank you on behalf of NYJO! Mark Armstrong and every band member were totally committed to delivering an outstanding professional performance on the night; they worked their socks off in rehearsal and it showed. Thanks for appreciating their hard work.
I agree – it was an outstanding concert, and will enhance NYJO's reputation for years to come.