City of Leeds Youth Orchestra, Leeds Town Hall

Sunday 15th March 2020

THE City of Leeds Youth Orchestra’s gripping performance of Shostakovich’s ‘Leningrad’ Symphony No 7, came as a timely reminder of the power of great music to bring people together at a time of national crisis.

CYLO’s inspirational conductor Dougie Scarfe, a former orchestral director at Opera North, gently informed a rapt audience that the symphony’s Leningrad premiere on 9th August 1942, was staged in defiance of a crushing blockade by Nazi forces. The performance was broadcast via loudspeakers to the German front line. Over one million citizens, a third of the population, perished in the 900 day-long Siege of Leningrad. Musicians were literally starving to death, many collapsed and three died during rehearsals.

A running time of around 75 minutes makes this Shostakovich’s longest symphony. Rehearsing the monumental work has clearly been a rewarding undertaking for the CLYO’s one hundred plus musicians of 12 to 19 year-olds. Scarfe adroitly captured the momentum of the half-hour-long first movement. The opening pages of the score were upbeat before settling down into an eerie sense of short lived well being. Woodwind and string passages were beautifully balanced against the menacing beat of a snare drum which steadily expands into a grotesque war march for the full orchestra. Astringent solo trumpet passages, expressions of desolation and loss evoked by bass clarinet and bassoon were skilfully etched. Scarfe’s mastery of the architecture translated into a performance that blended eloquence and grit with incredible precision.

The first part of the concert opened with a resonating performance of Edward Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture, an evocation of the bustle and pomp of Edwardian London. This was followed Lux Aeterna, a four- part choral arrangement of Nimrod from Elgar’s Enigma Variations. It was sung with feeling and accurate intonation by the CLYO Voices - that is to say the entire orchestra.

John Williams’s rousing Star Wars theme, played as an encore, ended what would sadly be the final Leeds concert before “Lockdown”.

Geoffrey Mogridge