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Jewel in crown of ruby anniversary

Edinburgh Youth Orchestra tonight will play a gala concert with two specially commissioned works before going on tour abroad, writes Kenny Mathieson

The Edinburgh Youth Orchestra is marking its 40th anniversary this year, with the centrepiece of its celebrations being a gala concert at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh tonight with special guest percussionist Evelyn Glennie, followed by a tour of the Baltic to Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Russia.

"We wanted to do something big for the 40th anniversary," says Marjory Dougal, the orchestra's administrator.

The Edinburgh concert will feature the two works the orchestra commissioned for its anniversary, saxophonist Tommy Smith's "Edinburgh" and Edward McGuire's "Prazdnik" ("celebration" in Russian), written for solo marimba and orchestra.

The latter has its premi re in Edinburgh and will also be performed in St Petersburg, with Ms Glennie as the soloist. Smith's composition, his first large-scale work for full orchestra and jazz trio, has already been played to acclaim in Glasgow and Edinburgh and will figure in all of the tour concerts, with Sibelius's Finlandia and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No 5.

The tour is an ambitious undertaking, involving visas for a party of 110, all the logistics of transporting so many people and their instruments, arranging accommodation and currency exchanges.

"Russia is still not an easy place to go to and it's been much more of a headache than any previous tour, but it'll be worth it," says Ms Dougal.

"We are really looking forward to having Tommy touring with us and meeting up with Evelyn in St Petersburg."

The whole orchestra, which recruits players in the 14-22 age range, was very impressed by Smith's new work, says Ms Dougal. "Both En Shao, the conductor for the concerts, and the players enjoyed it. They rose to the occasion for his piece. Jazz was new to most of them but they entered into the spirit of it really well."

Smith's composition leaves sections open for improvisation by both the jazz trio (himself on saxophone, Aidan O'Donnell on double bass and drummer John Blease) and the orchestra, and he found the young players were willing to make the necessary leap of faith.

"Marjory had said don't make it too hard, remember it's a youth orchestra," he says,"but I heard them play Holst's The Planets and I thought if they can play that score they can certainly play my piece.

"It was both challenging and exciting for all of us. I made it part of the deal that I was able to work in a workshop with each of the orchestral sections in turn and that was very productive.

"The main problem lies in the jazz element and specifically in working with the conductor. We start with an open section that can be any length, determined by what I do and the options that the conductor then chooses in terms of colours and effects, so he can improvise a bit as well.

"En Shao got very into it all and was also very accommodating in following the drummer in those sections. The whole point was to make it fun and challenging.

"The kids got into the jazz thing as well. They were able to hear that each time we played, it was a little different."

Mr Smith and Ms Glennie will also lead workshops on the Baltic tour, in Helsinki and St Petersburg respectively. The concerts schedule is hectic: Helsinki on July 10, Tallinn on July 12, Riga on July 14 and 16, Pskov on July 18 and St Petersburg on July 19.

The orchestra has travelled abroad on a number of occasions, including visits to Scandinavia, Germany, Italy, Central and Eastern Europe and California.

"Our philosophy is that these tours really help make the orchestra gel and feel part of one family," says Ms Dougal. "I think the players gain an enormous amount out of the experience on a personal level, as well as playing in all these wonderful concerts."

She adds: "We will have to be strict regarding behaviour in Russia, but we have never found that to be a problem. The players have a good time, that is all part of an orchestra going on tour; they work well and they play well. It is a matter of getting that balance.

"Everyone is looking forward to it and it should be a great experience."

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