Music review: Prom 53 - Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester/Prom 59 - Hooray for Hollywood

Two of the Proms' annual fixtures set the Albert Hall alight.

Among the novelties of each Proms season - world premieres, new commissions, unusual concert programmes - are landmarks whose yearly return helps anchor the festival, allowing audiences to build an ongoing relationship with ensembles and artists. Two beloved fixtures of the annual calendar are the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester and the John Wilson Orchestra - groups whose repertoire, personnel and style couldn't be more different, yet who share that particular energy that can fill the Royal Albert Hall year after year.

Made up of Europe's finest young musicians (no player is over 26), the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester is a thoroughbred among youth orchestras. Directed by Claudio Abbado, the ensemble balances the mature skill of professionals with the urgency that comes only from young musicians. While the symphonic repertoire shows off their full force (a 40-strong violin section sets the pace), it is more unusually as accompanist that the scope of their musicianship becomes evident.

Following on from their exquisite work with Christian Gerhaher last year at the Proms, the orchestra were this year joined by mezzo Susan Graham for Ravel's Sheherazade. All spice-scented breezes and diaphanous draperies, Ravel's orchestral writing embraces the unashamed Orientalism of Tristan Klingsor's verse, handling its images with lingering care.

From the keening oboe opening we were transported, carried aloft by Graham's silken legato and the delicate surging of the strings. Here was an orchestra sensitive not only to tempo and volume, but mirroring Graham's tone itself, shrouding their sound and warming it to help swell hers. As an exercise in orchestral technique it was supreme, as a musical encounter it was better still.

Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements is a mercurial creature, affecting to the grand passions and gestures of Hollywood one minute before undercutting them with a cynical musical shrug the next. Sir Colin Davis, ever precise, kept his musicians poised, flirting with the kitsch melodiousness of the Andante, and the feral bassoon-led dance, but never allowing full surrender. This was reserved for Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4, whose big themes and bigger heart can too easily tip over into orchestral histrionics. Yet here the orchestra's emotional conviction invested all from the horn's chilling Fate theme to the little wind variations of the Scherzo with sincerity - a wide-eyed gaze into Tchaikovsky's fears and hopes.

Despite the showmanship and glossy trappings - the jazz hands, diamante sparkles and big-band swagger - sincerity was also the key to the John Wilson Orchestra's journey through the history of the Hollywood movie-musical. Their Hooray for Hollywood programme guided us from 1933's 42nd Street through to the 1960s and Hello, Dolly!, taking in the works of Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern and Bernstein.

The orchestral arrangements (painstakingly restored and transcribed by the conductor himself) sing with the joy of spectacle and entertainment, bright with muted trumpet squeals and husky saxophone come-hithers. So lively was the characterisation from Wilson's band (showcased in the nostalgic delights of the opening montage overture) that the addition of singers seemed almost unnecessary, but soon the anguish of Caroline O'Connor's "The Man that Got Away" and crooning elegance (perhaps at times a little too understated) of Matthew Ford had got the audience thoroughly in the mood, and hits from Mary Poppins, Guys and Dolls and a staggeringly good "Serenade" from Mario Lanza vehicle The Student Prince had the audience twitching and jiggling in their seats.

If Wilson has a flaw it is perhaps an undue preference for ballads (clearly at a rather low ebb during the 1950s) over the up-tempo jazz numbers, which marooned us briefly on an emotional sandbank mid-concert, but with the deliciously acid "Triplets" from The Band Wagon we were underway again, powering on to the requisite big finale.

With the Proms diversifying ever further, the question of what makes (or might make) a successful Proms artist must surely be under constant revision. As events from the Comedy Prom, World Routes and the Spaghetti Western Prom have proved there is an audience for the full spectrum of genres and performers, but whether the artists offer up show-tunes and big-bands or a symphonies and an 80-piece orchestra, the criteria is the same. Excellence, and a hall-filling love of what they do make both the John Wilson Orchestra and the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester consummate Proms artists, year after year.

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So much for "the table never lies" – data unravels football's biggest lie of all

London side Brentford FC are using data to rethink the usual football club model.

It’s a miserable day for practice, the rain spitting down on the manicured training pitches of Brentford Football Club. Inside a tiny office marked Director of Football, Rasmus Ankersen is waiting for his phone to ring. The winter transfer window closes in 11 hours and there are deals to finalise.

Ankersen, a 33-year-old Dane with a trim beard and hair pulled into a small ponytail, seems relaxed. Perhaps he knows that the £12m transfer of the striker Scott Hogan to Aston Villa is as good as done. Or maybe his comfort comes from Brentford’s performance this season. The small west London club sits safely in the top half of the second tier of English football – at least according to management’s own version of the league table, which is based on “deserved” rather than actual results. Officially, on 31 January, when we meet, the team is 15th of 24.

“There’s a concept in football that the table never lies,” says Ankersen, whose own playing career was ended by a knee injury in his teens. “Well, that’s the biggest lie in football. Your league position is not the best metric to evaluate success.”

Brentford are an outlier in English football. Since the professional gambler Matthew Benham bought a majority share in 2012, they have relied on the scientific application of statistics – the “moneyball” technique pioneered in baseball – when assessing performance.

The early results were positive. In 2014, Brentford were promoted from League One to the Championship and the next season finished fifth. That same year, Benham’s other team, FC Midtjylland, which is run on similar principles, won the Danish Superliga for the first time.

Yet in 2016 Brentford slipped to ninth. Despite the disappointing season so far, Ankersen insists the strategy is the right one for “a small club with a small budget”.

Underpinning Brentford’s approach is the understanding that luck often plays a big part in football. “It is a low-scoring sport, so random events can have a big impact,” Ankersen says. “The ball can take a deflection, the referee can make a mistake. The best team wins less often than in other sports.”

In a match, or even over a season, a team can score fewer or more than its performance merits. A famous example is Newcastle in 2012, says Ankersen, who besides his football job is an entrepreneur and author. In his recent book, Hunger in Paradise, he notes that after Newcastle finished fifth in the Premier League, their manager, Alan Pardew, was rewarded with an eight-year extension of his contract.

If the club’s owners had looked more closely at the data, they would have realised the team was not nearly as good as it seemed. Newcastle’s goal difference – goals scored minus goals conceded – was only +5, compared to +25 and +19 for the teams immediately above and below them. Statistically, a club with Newcastle’s goal difference should have earned ten points fewer than it did.

Moreover, its shot differential (how many shots on goal a team makes compared to its opponents) was negative and the sixth worst in the league. That its players converted such a high percentage of their shots into goals was remarkable – and unsustainable.

The next season, Newcastle finished 16th in the Premier League. The team was not worse: its performance had regressed to the mean. “Success can turn luck into genius,” Ankersen says. “You have to treat success with the same degree of scepticism as failure.”

Brentford’s key performance metric is “expected goals” for and against the team, based on the quality and quantity of chances created during a match. This may give a result that differs from the actual score, and is used to build the alternative league table that the management says is a more reliable predictor of results.

Besides data, Brentford are rethinking the usual football club model in other ways. Most league clubs run academies to identify local players aged nine to 16. But Ankersen says that this system favours the richer clubs, which can pick off the best players coached by smaller teams.

Last summer, Brentford shut their academy. Instead, they now operate a “B team” for players aged 17 to 20. They aim to recruit footballers “hungry for a second chance” after being rejected by other clubs, and EU players who see the Championship as a stepping stone to the Premier League.

It’s a fascinating experiment, and whether Brentford will achieve their goal of reaching the Premier League in the near future is uncertain. But on the day we met, Ankersen’s conviction that his team’s fortunes would turn was not misplaced. That evening, Brentford beat Aston Villa 3-0, and moved up to 13th place in the table. Closer to the mean.

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times