Music to make young hearts soar

The hundreds of musicians who take part in the Festival of British Youth Orchestras vary greatly in age and ability, yet consistently succeed in playing to a remarkably high standard. Whatever the problems facing local authorities and individual schools in music education, the festival is proof that they are still turning out impressive results.

The opening concert set the standard. The Edinburgh International Youth Orchestra (bolstered by a contingent of youngsters from Estonia) tackled a varied and demanding programme in highly accomplished fashion, including the contrasting challenges of Wagner, Berlioz, Dvorak and the Estonian composer Arvo Part.

That combination of imaginative repertoire and fine performances was repeated on many subsequent occasions. This year's visiting orchestra, the Leipzig Youth Symphony, disappointed only in that they did not include a substantial symphony in their programme, but chose instead to show off their richly sonorous strings, well-focused wind and brass, and pinpoint ensemble precision in a varied series of works.

Perth Youth Orchestra also took advantage of short works to allow two excellent soloists to parade their skills in excerpts from concertos. Bassoonist Tom Norris played Hummel and violinist Morag Young Tchaikovsky, and the full orchestra provided one of the festival highlights in a glowing account of Sibelius's Symphony No 2.

The Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra also played that demanding work impressively. However, the first half of their concert, which featured Pierre Jalbert's atmospheric and absorbing In Aeternam and Arutiunian's colourful and virtuoso Trumpet Concerto (with a fabulous soloist in 18-year-old Tom Ashby), was even more memorable.

Other symphonic highlights included the impressively vivid and well balanced Nottingham Youth Orchestra and a gloriously energised, expressive, rhythmically alert and risk-taking performance of Charles Ives's fiendishly challenging Symphony No 2 from the Cumbria Youth Orchestra.

Scottish orchestras were well-represented over the three weeks. The Perth Youth Orchestra was the best of the symphony orchestras I heard. The West of Scotland Schools Symphony Orchestra (formerly the Strathclyde SSO) has a strong track record and impressed again this year, as did the student-run Kelvin Ensemble from Glasgow University.

The education sector is by no means limited to symphony orchestras. The concert band, made up of large wind, brass and percussion sections, is a popular youth format and the festival had several very good ones on offer.

These included excellent performances from two groups representing Edinburgh Schools, a Concert Band and the more senior Wind Ensemble (essentially a similar configuration, but with smaller brass section), and a very good Concert Band from West of Scotland Schools.

Even where performance standards were in need of a little extra polishing, it was heartening to see so much activity and hard work. Fife deserved particular praise. It fielded a string of groups, including a concert band, a fiddle group, a string orchestra, and a percussion ensemble, as well as the Fife Youth Orchestra and long-running Fife Youth Jazz Orchestra.

Perth gave an interesting lunchtime performance as a prelude to the youth orchestra's concert, made up of four chamber ensembles drawn from the orchestra, including an excellent quartet of woodwind players and a string quartet.

Richard Michael composed a specially commissioned three-piece work, entitled The Meeting, for his Fife Youth Jazz Orchestra and a group of primary pupils from Cowdenbeath playing (and giving short solos) on xylophones.

The festival is run under the auspices of the National Association of Youth Orchestras and featured two conductors who were finalists in its conducting prize, Timothy Redmond (a winner in 1992) with the Cumbria Youth Orchestra, and Robert Dick (a finalist last year) with the Kelvin Ensemble. They underlined the importance of strong guidance from the podium at this level, whether that is achieved with a professional conductor such as William Conway with the West of Scotland SSO, or an educationist who can conduct to a professional standard, such as Alan Young with the Perth Youth Orchestra.

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