An exciting morning Prom celebrating summer nights and an alpine excursion. Resplendent in its uniform – domino black jackets, crimson red pants and sneakers – the National Youth Orchestra of the USA showed itself to be of considerable talent, particularly in control of dynamics and texture in a difficult acoustic.
Kicking off the programme was nineteen-year old Benjamin Beckman’s four-minute Occidentalis, the title deriving from markings and annotations found on old European nautical maps to indicate the westward direction. With washes of brass sound, often placed over a pulsating body of restless string-writing punctuated with glittery percussion and woodwind flourishes, it seemed on this first hearing to owe some debts to Sibelius as well as some of the composers from the American minimalist stable, notably John Adams, although certainly there are some contrasts of originality. What was pleasing was its sense of confident ebullience, and Beckman seems like an orchestrator to watch!
Berlioz’s Les Nuits d’été was ravishingly sung by Joyce DiDonato, her lower registers sounding wonderfully ripe and secure and then the soaring higher climes with that charming unmistakeable fluttery yet silky sound delighting the ear. Antonio Pappano and the NYOUSA were the perfect cushion – revelling in the softest of pianissimos and the most translucent of detailing, allowing the singer free rein to imbue the text with colour and intensity, notably at the end of ‘Le spectre de la rose’. ‘Sur les lagunes’ was tinted with anguished melancholy and ‘Au cimetière’ was hauntingly understated. It was a pity about the mood-breaking clapping that broke the spells of the first five songs, and the final one found DiDonato becoming more extrovert as the orchestra became more luminous.
Finally up and down a mountain we went – in a fleet (forty-three-minute) and refreshingly direct reading by Pappano, just occasionally feeling a tad hurried and lacking is spaciousness – though the spatial effects (NYO brass up in the Gallery) were expertly handled. Memorable was the splendidly spontaneous oboe-playing atop the peak and the brilliance of the woodwinds when at the brook. The sudden storm-propelled descent was full of sonic thrills, and the conclusion a satisfyingly homely feel, supplemented by Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ as a noble encore.