By Richard Fairman

The average age of audiences at the BBC Proms has to be among the youngest for classical music in the world, and at the weekend the average age of the performers also came down with a bump. Here were two concerts that put youth first.

Since their unforgettable visit to the BBC Proms in 2007, Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela have been flag-bearers for what youth and music can achieve together. They have shown themselves to be masters of a variety of orchestral showpieces, but on Friday brought with them only a single, great work, Mahler’s Symphony No.2. This is a very different prospect and the initial omens were not good. The messy scramble among the lower strings that set the symphony on its way was a harbinger of poor ensemble in the wind and brass that lasted through the middle movements. It was only with the finale that everything suddenly came together and the Venezuelans raised the roof, as they had before, with their wholehearted playing.

Dudamel’s own part in the performance followed a similar trajectory. While he clearly feels the opening funeral march deeply, the music was pulled around to such extremes that it barely made any sense, and the Austrian folk dance of the second movement was sticky and slow, like wading through a vat of honey. He provided Anna Larsson, the mezzo soloist, with a heartfelt accompaniment in “Urlicht”. But it was in the finale that Dudamel’s all-or-nothing approach really came into its own and, bolstered by first-rate singing from the National Youth Choir of Great Britain, the symphony ended on an impressive high.

The next night it was the turn of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain with guest conductor Vladimir Jurowski, who drew some remarkable precision playing from his monster of an orchestra. The programme was imaginative: Gabriel Prokofiev’s Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra to set the toes tapping; 19-year-old pianist Benjamin Grosvenor scampering around the keyboard in Britten’s high-spirited Piano Concerto; and a generous selection of extracts from Sergey Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet, played at some hell-for-leather speeds. No disrespect to the Venezuelans, who have given us some stunning concerts in the past, but the Brits won this one hands down.

4 stars

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