Sunday, 11 August 2019

Review of National Children's Orchestra with Jess Gillam and Jonathan Bloxham, Bridgewater Hall

To tackle a programme including Mahler’s First Symphony after one week’s acquaintance together would be a tall order for any professional orchestra. That the National Children’s Orchestra under Jonathan Bloxham sounded so good doing it is little short of miraculous.

Of course they’re not to be compared with adult professionals, and don’t attain the near-professional standards of the National Youth Orchestra or conservatoire bodies. But if there’s one thing their concert at the Bridgewater Hall on Saturday showed it is that these youngsters can produce amazing sounds with orchestral instruments, both individually and together.

They began with Korngold’s Schauspiel Ouvertüre – itself written by a 14-year-old – in which the most immediate feature of their sound was the sweetness of the string playing and the blending of their brass. Mahler’s Symphony no. 1, when it came, tested every department of the orchestra but emerged as a real success, bringing their audience (favourably biased, admittedly, in many cases) to its feet in admiration. Jonathan Bloxham and his team of music staff had achieved something remarkable in their week’s course of training: the precision of much of the playing (from a very large body), the richness of tone in many areas, and the collective creation of great musical effects were thrilling.

Before that their star soloist, saxophonist, Last Night of the Proms darling, broadcaster, RNCM product and undoubtedly the most exciting thing to have come from Ulverston since Stan Laurel, Jess Gillam, made her own impact with a piece by John Williams called Escapades from Catch Me If You Can (a three-movement suite from Williams’ film score).

Characteristically, she made light of all its intricacies and sailed through its lively jazz-inflected text with an infectious sense of enjoyment. As long as the NCO keeps its emphasis on top-class music making being fun, it really can’t go wrong.

Jess Gillam c Kaupo Kikkas