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Better than ever

Michael Burnett listens to the Schools Prom Wales, described by its presenter as 'a night to remember'.

A night to remember", was how presenter Robin Jones described it. And, indeed, this year's Schools Prom Wales did prove exceptional, for the quality of the performances by the 400 young musicians in St David's Hall, Cardiff, was better than ever. And the variety of musical experience on offer to the capacity audience was astounding.

The evening began, appropriately enough, with a well managed performance, by West Monmouth School Brass Band, of Men of Harlech, enterprisingly arranged by Gordon Langford. Owen Farr excelled in the tenor horn solo in Feelings, and the band's final piece, Born Free, was marked by some incisive dynamics. Effective dynamic control was also characteristic of the South Glamorgan Youth Wind Band's excellent performance, later in the programme, of Prelude for a Festival, by Graham Lloyd. Rhythms were tight, too, although phrasing was sometimes untidy in the more lyrical sections of the work.

One of the highlights of Prom Ysgolion Cymru was the performance of two movements from J S Bach's Brandenburg Concerto no 4 by the Gwent County Youth Soloists. Formed by director Keith Ellerington in 1992 to cater for the county's advanced instrumentalists, this small group of 15 to 21 year-olds played with confidence and stylistic authenticity. Indeed, soloists Bethan Morgan (violin), and Emma Cornick and Ruth Jeans (recorders), achieved standards of playing of which more experienced musicians would be proud.

Greenhill School is a comprehensive in Tenby, Pembrokeshire, and its orchestra contains pupils from across the entire 11 to 18 age range. As conductor Paul Rapi says, "We aim to give all of our pupils access to music". And the success of this strategy became obvious during the Prom when the orchestra performed William Matthias's Festival Overture with good intonation, dynamic awareness and a pleasing attention to detail.

The three original numbers played by the Groves High School Blues Band, Wrexham, were particularly well received by the audience. And rightly so, for the pieces were all interesting as compositions and they were convincingly performed. The changes of tempo in Caeth came over well and, despite a huccup near the end, the band achieved some good ensemble cohesion in Your Eyes. But it was in Woman Blues that lead guitarist and vocalist Matthew Nicholls came into his own, playing and singing with an unusual sense of genre awareness.

A second highlight of the evening was Ysgol Glanaethwy's presentation of excerpts from Erlid (Persecution), the winner in the Outstanding Performance category of the 1994 Barclays Music Theatre Awards. The musical takes as its theme attempts by the English to stamp out the use of Welsh in schools during and after the 19th century. And it provided some marvellous singing and dancing opportunities which were skilfully seized upon by the pupils of this Bangor based, Welsh medium, school of the performing arts.

Tasker Milward Girls' Choir, from Haverfordwest, opened their part of the programme with a composition for voices and strings by an A-level pupil at the school, James Jones. Home Thoughts from the Sea, with words by Robert Browning was characterised by its slow moving diatonic harmonies, and proved convincing in performance. The choir then went on to Danish composer Pekka Kostiainnen's Jaakobin Pojat. Here, their singing was excellent, and the work's dramatic glissandi and contrasting dynamics were projected with confidence and panache.

No stranger to St David's Hall, the South Glamorgan High Schools' Choir often matched Tasker Milward's high performance standards. However, their choice of music, "Sister Act" Medley, was disappointing in that, as an arrangement, it was poorly constructed. The result was that the work tended to inhibit, rather than enhance, the choir's obvious capabilities.

Robin Jones's "evening to remember" was brought to a triumphant conclusion by the West Glamorgan Youth Orchestra, winners of a Prince of Wales Silver Jubilee Award for Best Country Orchestra. They opened with "March to the Scaffold" from the Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz. Despite initial ensemble problems, there were some good dynamic contrasts here and the work elicited some crisply rhythmic playing. The orchestra then followed with Chabrier's Espa$a. The complex counter rhythms in this challenging work were tackled effectively by the orchestra, and the performance was marked by some well articulated string playing.

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