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Maturity the keynote of young soloists;Arts in Scotland;Music

The National Children's Orchestra of Scotland is still very much in its infancy, but the concert which the children gave at the Queen's Hall in Edinburgh last week provided evidence of a surprising maturity.

The children's orchestra was formed last year as a development ground for the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland, and provided an opportunity for more than 100 young musicians to participate in this year's annual concert.

The children ranged in age from eight to 14, and came mainly from Edinburgh and Glasgow, but also from as far afield as Kirkwall, Morar, Aberdeen, Roy Bridge and Hawick.

The successful applicants from earlier auditions gathered at Merchiston Castle School in Edinburgh for four days of preparation prior to the concert. That seems hardly enough time to begin to mould such a youthful orchestra into an efficient performing unit, but that is what was achieved.

Advancement clearly arrives at an accelerated pace in this orchestra. Last year, nine-year-old Nicola Benedetti from West Kilbride, then a pupil of Wellington School in Ayr, became the first leader of the orchestra for its inaugural concert.

Now a six-month veteran of the Yehudi Menuhin School of Music in London, Nicola returned as the soloist in Vivaldi's "Spring" from The Four Seasons, which she played with remarkable confidence, even if her string colleagues struggled at times to keep up in the exposed setting.

Her role as leader was filled by Joseph Farmer, a pupil of Douglas Academy, who performed particularly well in his solo features in Edward McGuire's Scottish Dances. Its complex rhythms provided the sternest test of the orchestra's capabilities, and if they struggled at times to cope with its more demanding passages, they caught much of its spirit.

Their conductor, James Durrant, guided their efforts sensitively towards a disciplined and full-bodied sound in both Malcolm Arnold's Little Suite No 2 and Massenet's Le Cid ballet suite. What was most impressive was not so much the technical accomplishment of the players, some of whom have not yet even graduated to full-size instruments, as their willingness to try to express the character of the music, rather than simply doggedly playing the notes.

Such weaknesses as were evident in the playing were partly the result of a very challenging programme, and will be overcome by the routines of practice and the natural development of players at this age. The gender balance of the orchestra was fairly evenly spread, and it was encouraging to note that while the double bass sections of all our professional orchestras are almost exclusively male, five of the six bassists here were girls.

At a time when instrumental teaching in schools seems increasingly under threat, the efforts of these young musicians provided a persuasive demonstration of the value of such provision, and even if many of its members do not choose to move on to the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland, the experience will have left them with a range of musical and inter-personal skills, as well as a considerable sense of achievement.

James Durrant paid tribute from the podium to the efforts of the children and their tutors, as well as to the enlightened generosity of their sponsor, Hydro-Electric. The establishment of the children's orchestra completed a step-by-step development under the National Youth Orchestra banner, which permits a logical sequence through the youth orchestra to the pre-professional Camerata Scotland, as well as catering for the growing educational interest in jazz through the National Youth Jazz Orchestra of Scotland.

It would be ironic indeed if the hard work which has led to the establishment of this framework were to be undermined by the erosion of instrumental teaching in schools.

There will always be enough self-motivated and financially able young players to maintain the high standard required for the national youth orchestras, but their value will be lessened if they represent only an elite, and not the public face of a widespread provision of music education at every level of interest and attainment.

Kenny Mathieson

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