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Reviews and Press

“The string section of this fine young team was, not surprisingly, in fine fettle throughout a programme that culminated in what was almost certainly the most compelling account of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No 4 yet heard from anybody in the hall - not excluding the various Russian and other European visitors and the CBSO.”

Coventry Evening Telegraph

Seen And Heard UK Concert Review


This was a well balanced programme, from the high drama of Weber’s Overture to the moodiness of Shostakovich’s great post Stalin symphony. Blair directed a well paced performance of the Der Freischütz Overture, with a finely poised slow introduction and an exciting allegro, with some thrilling horn playing. Saint-Saëns' Cello Concerto was bright and sparkling, just as it should be, with the most assured playing from Michael Petrov who displayed a confidence well beyond his years, and which was blessed with masses of passion. Blair gave a superb account of the accompaniment – this is a concerto which is most definitely a work for soloist with orchestra – with the most exquisite dance-like second section and a gorgeously lyrical slow section. The outer sections were full of bravura playing and were most colourful. Petrov and Blair worked well together to breathe real life into this old, but too often neglected, friend.

Blair’s view of Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony was dangerously nihilistic but his single–mindedness in interpretation proved to be a winning formula. The long first movement was full of foreboding and Blair judged the subtle gradations of tempo to perfection. He built the huge central climax brilliantly, the feel of stress and strain filling the edifice. The coda for two piccolos was a peaceful haven after all we had experienced, but it wasn’t comfortable. The scherzo was a short–sharp–shock which was devastating in its brutality. The third movement is usually a pastoral scene occasionally disturbed by strange visitors, but tonight there was definitely something nasty in the woodshed. The finale, despite some lightness of texture and ideas, carried the argument purposefully to the end.

The Young Musicians Symphony Orchestra played with assuredness, strength and a full understanding of the music, responding to every demand of their conductor, James Blair, with a delight in the act of making music. A marvelous and most satisfying show.

Bob Briggs

Seen And Heard UK Concert Review


I have a recording of a live performance of Prokofiev’s 2nd Piano Concerto given by the 21 year old Vladimir Ashkenazy. As you can imagine, the pianism is almost beyond comment; it’s alive and vital. Indeed, it could

almost be Horowitz! Poom Prommachart is only 20 years old, but his performance of the Prokofiev 2nd Concerto this evening was every bit as exciting and vital as the young Ashkenazy. This is no mere puff, for here is a pianist with an astonishing technique and the intelligence and insight to bring off a big work such as this. Prommachart has obviously thought long and hard about how to interpret this music, and it needs time for it is an odd concoction. Written before the experience of the Scythian Suite and the operas The Love for Three Oranges and The Fiery Angel, but revised just as he was starting work on his 2nd Symphony – a Symphony made of iron and steel, as the composer has it – this work has both youthful exuberance and aspects of the enfant terrible he became during his Parisian sojourn in the 1920s.

Prommachart threw himself into the work with a wild abandon and played the piece as if it were regular repertoire. He didn’t put a foot, or finger, wrong, and delivered a powerhouse of a performance. He was well partnered by Blair and his orchestra which, by turns, cajoled, annoyed, attacked and generally disturbed the soloist and gave a performance of almost symphonic weight. Here was a true partnership with all concerned working together towards the goal of a fine performance. Make no mistake, Prommachart is a major talent and he shouldn’t be missed.

Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances is a favourite piece of mine and tonight I was given as fine a performance of the work as it has been my privilege to hear. With Blair’s experience coupled to the youthful high spirits of his musicians, the work emerged less as a swansong, than as an affirmation of life, the youthful spirit allowing us to look death square in the face and telling him in no uncertain terms to sling his hook, and leave us, for we’re having none of it. The momentous event of the screaming of the Dies Irae towards the end was swiftly despatched, and although the composer’s own dark feelings were at the forefront of the interpretation I felt hope, for the first time in this piece.

Make no mistake, this was a great performance by any standards. Blair has an exceptional collection of young musicians under his charge and things can only get better – if, that is, you can improve on something so close to perfection in interpretation and execution.

I must mention one very important matter. St John’s has undergone a refurbishment and now has access for wheelchairs and the disabled, so this fine concert hall is now open to everyone, and I hope that we’ll see more houses as satisfyingly full as tonight.

Bob Briggs

Seen And Heard UK Concert Review


I wonder why Rossini bothered to write an opera to follow the William Tell Overture, for it is a perfect piece of musical tone painting, and it makes a satisfying tone poem in its own right. Tonight we were given a splendid performance which vividly brought to life the four moods evoked in the music. From the opening outdoor scene with five solo cellos, to the storm, which was magnificent in its fury – trombones as wild as one could wish them to be – and the subsequent ran des vaches, with some glorious cor anglais playing from Mary Noden, was beautiful in its simplicity. There’s little one can say about the final galop which was as exciting and brilliant as possible. This made a terrific starter.

The prize of the evening was, undoubtedly, what was probably the world première of Adrian Beecham’s Spanish Songs, in the orchestral version. Written for Victoria de los Angeles, she gave the first performance with Gerald Moore in the Festival Hall. The words may be Spanish but, generally, the music is English through and through, in the first three songs, with more overt Spanish inflections in the last three, and there were many subtle quirks of harmony and rhythm. Sadhbh Dennedy was a fine soloist – and a name new to me – with a rich tone and an admirable understanding of the use of vibrato. The scoring was so translucent that she could always be heard and James Blair ensured that the orchestra supplied a firm bed for the vocal line. Most impressive was the third song with its accompaniment for solo cello, bass drum, cymbals, antique cymbals and little else; this was an exquisite piece of tone painting. What makes me think that this was a premiere is the fact that on a few occasions there was a slight muddiness in the writing in the bass register, and I feel that had Beecham been able to hear the work he might have made a few slight changes. But this didn’t spoil the work in any way, and the problem was mere moments in passing. We weren’t given texts or translations – even the separate song titles went untranslated - or even the names of the poets set, so I have no idea how the music matched the words, but they were evocative pieces and their discovery is to our advantage.

Tchaikovsky’s last Symphony brought out the best in the orchestra. Blair directed a performance which managed to stay well away from sentiment and showed the Symphony as a bold, and indeed, forward thrusting, work which, whilst it may contain intimations of the composer's own immortality, is looking forwards, to a new world, not, I feel, the afterlife. There was plenty of power and weight in the long first movement, and the famous second subject never languished, as it so often does, but appeared as an obvious continuation of the musical discussion. Perhaps the lopsided waltz of the second movement didn’t quite come off, because of a lack of spring in the rhythm, but this was more than made up for by the scintillating march scherzo; plenty of fireworks here, and some very exciting brass playing. The finale again stayed away from sentiment and a feeling of “oh poor me…” but, with a free use of rubato, Blair brought out the pathos of the music and achieved a sense of contentment, not resignation, at the end. A most enjoyable performance.

Bob Briggs

Musical Opinion no. 1466


The value of the training supplied by the Young Musicians Symphony Orchestra in bridging the gap between the colleges and the profession was amply proved at the concert of 18 June 2008 in St John's Smith Square. The Tchaikowsky programme also confirmed their strength in the Romantic repertoire, grown from their association, since 1971, with James Blair, the YMSO's Artistic Director and Principal Conductor.

Their dramatic account of the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture conjured up Shakespearian imagery and poetry in the lush density of the string ensemble and the exuberance of the brass.

The soloist in the First Piano Concerto was 22-year-old Stefan Ciric, who confirmed the talent and musicianship revealed on his previousLondon appearance.

The flamboyance and youthful imperuosity with which he led the orchestra in the opening movement, rather rushing headlong into cadenza-like passages, contrasted with the clear definition of the solo piano line. In the slow movement he made much of the music's reflective lyricism and made light of its technical demands. The Allegro gave him a final opportunity to demonstrate his virtuosity before he and the orchestra brought the concerto to a swashbuckling climax.

The concert ended with the Manfred Symphony for which the YMSO had commissioned Andrew Brinsford to compose a new conclusion to replace the one Tchaikowsky himself seems to have thought inadequate. The players lavishly captured the gothic atmosphere of the four scenes depicting Manfred's wandering over the Alps, the somber portents of the first and last offset by the delicacy of the Scherzo and the pastoral motif of the third. The new ending evoked the pandemonium in the caves of the Arimanes where Manfred sought a meeting with Astarte, the infernal orgy expressed in music that rose to a thundering melodramatic climax involving the participation of the organ and a generous complement of percussion. It was ear splitting but rather fun!

Margaret Davies