Bursting with enthusiasm

Michael Burnett finds some enterprising work at the Schools Prom Wales despite music services undergoing a shake-up

It's a really great atmosphere," says Louise Carpenter, an A-level student from Radyr Comprehensive, near Cardiff. "The audience is lively and that encourages you to give your best."

Louise has just been on stage at St David's Hall, Cardiff, singing in a medley of Michael Jackson hits performed by the Cardiff County and Vale of Glamorgan High Schools' Choir during this year's Schools Prom Wales. The capacity audience responded enthusiastically to a performance marked by precise ensemble control and good intonation.

Arranger John Wickett was unwise in attempting to string together so many different snippets of Jackson melodies, however. He posed some awkward continuity problems which the choir sometimes failed to overcome. No performance, however effective, could compensate for crudely managed key changes such as that between "Thriller" and "Billy Jean".

Audience response is always positive at Prom Ysgolion Cymru. But, this year, support for the performers was tinged with an air of expectancy, the result of the distribution, to each person, of a paper bag stamped, would you believe it, with the logo of one of the sponsors. It transpired that the bags were to be burst in lieu of the cannons during the playing of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture by the Cardiff County and Vale of Glamorgan Youth Orchestra. Bag rustling apart, this proved a well-shaped performance by an exceptional group of 14 to 21-year-olds.

However, during the Tchaikovsky, as well as in Walton's Orb and Sceptre, conductor Eric Phillips drove the music forward relentlessly, obscuring detail and failing to elicit the sophistication of phrasing and balance of which his players are capable.

The most creative contribution to the evening came from Groves High School Composition and Performance Group, Wrexham, whose GCSE composers and performers presented four works. Of these, Annabel Spalding's Short 'n' Swing featured some effective flute melody lines, set against a walking bass part. While Funkit, by Steffan Owens, was derived from two characteristic rock chord progressions. "I came up with the chords on the piano," says Steffan. "Then I used a sequencer to record a melody and the different parts for the instruments."

This is the first Schools Prom Wales since last year's local government reorganisation which resulted in music services throughout the country facing an uncertain future. So it was good to discover that the enterprising work of services in the former Gwent area continues.

"We're determined to support our music services despite the difficult circumstances," says Graham Bingham, director of education for Newport County Borough Council. As a result, the 400-strong Gwent Voices has been set up to cater for children drawn from schools across the area.

The choir gave its first performance, of movements from Lloyd Webber's Joseph, at the Prom, and achieved a promising standard. There was some lively singing from the younger children, and tone and intonation were good.

However, balance needed attention and, at times, phrasing was poorly managed. Participants, though, were delighted with their achievement. "I think we did really well," says Sarah Dixon from Gwent Tertiary College. "It certainly gave me an adrenaline rush."

The West Glamorgan Youth Brass Band is well established and its performance of Riverdance was effective. (It provided one of the few Celtic touches in the Prom, too.) There was some incisive percussion playing, although ensemble cohesion was not always spot on and melody lines were sometimes obscured by over-enthusiastic accompaniment playing.

Six hundred young musicians participated in this year's Prom. As Keith Ellerington, director of Gwent Voices, says: "The music services do what they can. But the event is really useful in providing a platform for our young people." And it was a tremendous success for the organisers, Music for Youth.

However, a Prom Ysgolion Cymru with no performers from vast swathes of the country and from which Welsh music is almost entirely absent is a contradiction in terms. Whether the lack of performers is a temporary result of the shake-up of music services remains to be seen. But the repertoire omission is unjustifiable. Why not some Grace Williams rather than William Walton next year? And, instead of arrangements of Michael Jackson, why not some songs by Wales's own award-winning Manic Street Preachers?

Music for Youth is sponsored by British Aerospace, Commercial Union, GlaxoWellcome, PJB Publications Ltd and WH Smith in association with The TES, and supported by the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, Department for Education and Employment, Music Industries Association, National Union of Teachers, Trinity College London and Department of Education for Northern Ireland.

Music for Youth: 0181 870 9624

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