A few minutes into the National Youth Orchestra's bravura end-of-year Summer Prom someone's mobile rang – a relatively rare event now most people have located the off button. All eyes swivelled to the stage, the source of the noise. "Hello Mum," muttered the principal double bass player into his phone, looking only mildly embarrassed. Mothers have a deadly sense of timing. Then someone rushed in late, a couple of players decided to swap places and the leader (Roberto Ruisi, aged 16) took to the podium, waving his bow in an attempt to establish order. At last a tall chap with spiky hair, looking no older than the teenagers around him, pushed Ruisi aside and roared at everyone to sit down. Were things about to get nasty?
This mock dictator was in fact the NYO's brilliant principal conductor (Vasily Petrenko, aged 36). The piece – you've guessed – was Varèse's Tuning Up (1947), a work of organised chaos which parodies the tuning process and is hideously difficult to bring off. These young musicians delivered it with humour and panache at the start of a programme of 20th- and 21st-century music, performed in Birmingham, Aldeburgh and, in emotional conclusion to their year together, at the BBC Proms in the Albert Hall last night.
Founded in 1948 by Ruth Railton, the NYO was a bold enterprise from its earliest days. A retired horn player (Dennis Scard, former general secretary of the Musicians' Union) told me how, as a member in the 1950s, the orchestra played in pre-wall Berlin, then little more than a heavily militarised bombsite. At the thrice-yearly courses, students slept on the floor in school classrooms, which Dame Ruth used to patrol in bedroom slippers – not a habit the current chief executive and artistic director, Sarah Alexander, nor the incoming chair, Liz Forgan, are likely to acquire.
If that mood of adventure became somewhat becalmed a couple of decades ago, in part because of lack of funding, as well as state music education collapsing with too few people championing its cause, the NYO has now reinvigorated itself. Each player costs £6,000 to support, via an ever precarious mix of fundraising, bursaries and fees. Every effort is made to recruit from the widest pool. Repertoire is more varied, with new commissions, improvisation, jazz and folk regular components. Last week the orchestra gave the premiere of Nico Muhly's Gait, a BBC commission revelling in perpetual motion and inspired by the rhythmic patterns of walking and running, whether in animals or mankind.
By splitting the players into what Muhly (b.1981) calls "homophonic ensembles" – groups of the same instruments so, say, all seven clarinets or all 10 horns – this dense piece proved an exuberant yet finely nuanced showcase for the outsized orchestra. Messiaen's almighty Turangalîla-Symphonie, the chief work in the programme, with Joanna MacGregor (piano) and Cynthia Millar (ondes martenot) as expert soloists, was noisy, wild and riotous in the best sense, though the acoustically generous Symphony Hall created some balance problems which the Albert Hall may, contrary to reputation, have eased.
This was a whirlwind performance, tubas, trombone and trumpets blasting out thrillingly, cymbals crashing with a celestial grandeur the composer would have loved. At the end, the swooning, elastic, electronic cries of the ondes martenot rode these torrents of sound like a storm-tossed Neptune surfing the waves. As an encore the NYO performed part of Anna Meredith's HandsFree, in which instruments are abandoned and the body – clapping, stomping, hissing, clicking – becomes music, ending with nearly 200 teenagers thrusting their arms in the air in perfect unison.
Chiming with the Olympics, this has been a youth-inspired week at the Proms, starting with the masterly National Youth Choir of Great Britain's in Beethoven's Ninth to a Wallace & Gromit Prom, perfectly compered by Aurora Orchestra conductor Nicholas Collon, the BBC Proms Youth Choir raising the roof in Tippett's A Child of Our Time and, this weekend and tomorrow, an array of children's and youth choirs and orchestras from Ulster, Scotland and Wales. Tangentially and, as it were, telescopically inverted, the BBC Philharmonic and their former chief conductor, Gianandrea Noseda, celebrated Oliver Knussen's 60th birthday with a tender, exemplary account – with soprano soloist Gillian Keith – of his second symphony, written when the composer was only 18.
A new arrival made an impact: just days after forming as an ensemble, the Aldeburgh World Orchestra, under the unflappable guidance of Mark Elder, ripped boldly through Stravinsky's Rite of Spring with excusable imperfections but much promise. They were at their best in the world premiere of Charlotte Bray's At the Speed of Stillness, in which sounds move so rapidly that they appear to be motionless.
Her starting point for this restless, pulsating work was Sizewell power station in Suffolk and a line from a poem by Dora Maar Picasso's tearful muse: "the hummingbird motionless as a star". All told this was a big week for Bray: her new mini opera, Making Arrangements, was premiered in Tete a Tete's new season. She and Anna Meredith, with Helen Grime, Emily Howard and Imogen Heap – all among this year's Proms composers and all born around 1980 – are at the forefront of their generation of British composers. We may, at last, be able to stop congratulating them for being women.
One more elliptical feature of the BBC Proms, especially under the current directorship of Roger Wright, is the cryptic connections between concerts which you only need spot if you have that (fill in the missing word) turn of mind. It would have taken me the marathon duration of Berlioz's The Trojans, wedged between Barenboim's Beethoven and Pierre Boulez-fest a fortnight ago, to work out the anagram "Berlioz puree", but fortunately the Proms director himself spelled it out for me, a little gleefully, one might say, in a gap between concerts. Go on, you can do it too.
There is a point in mentioning this. Wright is not trapped by schemes and themes. Bach's B minor Mass on Thursday was a one off. Connecting nothing with nothing, yet everything with everything, this sublime work stands alone, even in the composer's miraculous output. The Choir of the English Concert, the English Concert and soloists gave a performance of intensity and serenity, energetic yet beautifully controlled. If anyone in the further reaches of the hall felt the forces were too small for the space, listen again on iPlayer. The choral singing, especially, was superb. The Sanctus soared and surged in blazing optimism. Nothing, however, could match the pure, unaffected simplicity of countertenor Iestyn Davies in the Agnus Dei. It was as good as you are likely to hear, ever.
Burgess Powers creates web sites and applications like this one