Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra of Venezuela; Benjamin Grosvenor, LSO; Promised End; Radamisto | Classical review

Royal Festival Hall, St Luke's, Linbury Studio, Coliseum; all London

Dancing, hugging, weeping, stamping, whistle-blowing and, of course, wriggling into those trademark tricoloured jackets then tossing them aside with abandon, the Venezuelan Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra – named after a pioneering 19th-century composer-pianist who married enough musical husbands to form her own small chamber group – ended its European tour on a blazing and noisy high on Thursday in the second of two London concerts.

In age and expertise the orchestra is the younger sibling of the Simón Bolívars, who catapulted to fame with their conductor Gustavo Dudamel and put "Sistema", not to mention "mambo", into the language. All are alumni of Venezuela's El Sistema, which gives children from every background a chance to learn music and now has imitators worldwide. Some 150 14- to 20-year-olds squeezed on to the Festival Hall stage and played Bernstein's short, glittering overture to Candide as if it were the best piece of music ever written.

Competition for places is stiff and results impressive, but ordinary critical measures do not apply. There's nothing normal about playing Tchaikovsky's fifth symphony with an orchestra containing 13 double basses and 33 woodwind. This endeavour inspires for other reasons: the shared sense of discovery, community, kinship and above all the knowledge that each of these young players has tasted the power of music from the inside, at its most pure and joyful.

Watching a conductor (Christian Vásquez), straining ears, brain and fingers to play in the right place and in tune, requires total discipline. In that respect classical music is as all-consuming as sport, and these young Venezuelans have made it just as cool. "I feel like a rock star," observed a viola player from Caracas at the pre-concert talk. We cheered and applauded as if they were. One urgent message comes from this which every nation and government should heed: making music changes lives.

Earlier the same day another teenager, the pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, forced us to sit up in an all-Chopin lunchtime recital at LSO St Luke's. He first won attention – and gasps – as an 11-year-old finalist in BBC Young Musician 2004. Now 18, he still gives no hint of showbiz razzmatazz, saving any revelation of personality for the music: he walks on stage briskly, gives a sheepish grin, sits down and plunges in, in this case to the fiendishly complicated B minor scherzo, which opens straightforwardly with two big chords then collapses into a frenzy of black notes like flocking birds, each autonomous but finding cohesion. If Grosvenor had any nerves as a result of the live microphones – he is a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist – he kept them hidden, with only a few splashed notes and, always, a sharp, imaginative energy. How's it done? He practises eight hours a day, for a start. The Radio 3 broadcast is on 3 December.

When a composer takes a literary colossus and turns it into an opera, as Alexander Goehr has with Promised End, based on King Lear, there's no point complaining that it's not like the original. All that matters is does it add anything? After one encounter, I will put my head on the block and say I don't know. Goehr (b 1932), whose crafted works have never offered instant gratification and ask more of the listener, has travelled an unexpected route: Japanese Noh theatre techniques, a condensed 24-scene narrative using the original text, selected with help from the late Frank Kermode, and small, subtle chamber orchestra.

Its mode of communication, unlike Aribert Reimann's abrasive 1978 Lear, is strangely quiet. A huge influence on British music from his Manchester student days in the 1950s, to his stint as professor in Cambridge nurturing new composers, Goehr's special gift is to illuminate any score with exquisite colour. The music hints at a far-off Moravian wedding band, with klezmerish clarinets and tonalities Janácek, a few decades on, might have enjoyed. But too often the tendency for order and method winnows the action of grit and nastiness.

Post-interval, that tight harness was released with far more variation of dramatic tempo and much more sense of Goehr's intention. Gloucester's blinding, with its brief, broken waltz played in a strained, metallic whisper, had real pathos. English Touring Opera mounted a skilful, well-cast staging by James Conway, expertly played by the Aurora Orchestra under the baton of Ryan Wigglesworth and with Roderick Earle in the title role. No doubt contrary to the composer's wishes, I longed for surtitles, which would have relieved us of the struggle to identify these familiar words, restoring the music to the fore and engaging us more directly. Many perceived problems in the piece would recede. Will a generous donor provide this for the remainder of ETO's autumn tour?

There's no need to say much about English National Opera's first staging of Handel's Radamisto, transparently directed by David Alden, precisely designed by Gideon Davey and lit with skilful shadow-play by Rick Fisher. It's first rate. It looks delicious, with Persian-miniature style, jewelled satin and organza costumes set against abstract backdrops of raspberry-coloured damask and curving, speckled mirrors. Conducted by Laurence Cummings, the musicians showed virtuosity and vivacity both in the pit and on stage. Countertenor Lawrence Zazzo headed the fine cast, with Sophie Bevan, Christine Rice and Ailish Tynan, whose loveliness was cruelly hidden, somewhat unnecessarily and in the one false move, by a buffa fat-suit, goatee beard, specs and fez hat. ENO's Handel tradition continues, magnificently. The only pity was the number of empty seats. This is a stunner. Why not fill them?


Fiona Maddocks

The GuardianTramp

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