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National Festival of Music for Youth - July 2003

The ten thousand young musicians who will have performed at the South Bank Centre by the end of this week are the essence of the National Festival of Music for Youth.

But no one who goes to hear them, scurrying between the Royal Festival Hall, the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Purcell Room, can doubt the vital contribution of parents, friends and - still sometimes forgotten by pundits, though never by the participants - a vast army of cajoling, inspiring and life-transforming teachers.

All were in evidence on Tuesday 8 July, the day of choirs. It was a tonic to hear the Shakespeare Primary School from Fleetwood (pictured, right).

Backed from the stalls by a justifiably enthusiastic support team, they provided a set of songs notable for the variety of their stylistic range, the clarity of their diction and the confident purity of their harmonising.

The South African freedom song Siyahamba went happily with the perky optimism of Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive and with two glorious folk melodies - The Water Is Wide and Shenandoah - skilfully united within one number.

The Stockton Junior Voices also provided most impressive examples of change from item to item. They were backed by bopping cornets in The Flood , by a touching clarinet solo in Small Part of the World , and by a highly capable exponent of the drum-kit in Can You Hear the Sound of the Band?, in which they made full dramatic use of the stage.nbsp; The warm sense of communication between the children, their director Miriam Robson, and the gathering of Teesside families gently urging them on made this a truly happy and admirable ensemble.nbsp;

There was a characteristic NFMY moment during the Senior Choral event. The ten girls in Saddleworth School's Chamber Choir included Robert Johnson's version of Where the Bee Sucks in their fine set.

This compact and exquisite jewel - Shakespeare's words perfectly turned into music by someone who very probably knew him personally - was immediately followed by the Ackworth Youth Choir. Their highly talented director Anne Henshaw had composed three Shakespeare settings of her own especially for the Festival. Accompanied by delicate solo strings and flute, they were movingly and memorably sung.

This is an event at which - to quote T S Eliot - `an easy commerce of the old and the new' happens with graceful and gratifying frequency.

Meanwhile, out on the Ballroom Floor, Mike Brewer was conducting a series of choral masterclasses. Seemingly unwieldy masses of adults and youngsters were deftly transformed into four vocal sections and then put through an unrelenting but extraordinarily effective set of challenges.

Moving from warm-ups which any choir director would sensibly plagiarise, they rapidly learned parts and then how to overlap and harmonise them. They finished their hour by belting out a Nigerian high-life number with energy and aplomb, a truly practical way of showing that successful choirs are to do with enthusiasm and self-belief as much as with technique and accuracy.

Wednesday is for orchestras, traditional and world music and an astonishingly wide chamber repertoire. Hills Road Sixth Form College from Cambridge boldly tackled three classical master-works. Their Brandenburg No.1 was elegant and stylish, their Mozart Horn Concerto No.3 was articulate and debonair, and their Schubert 5 finale was eloquently dark in the right places.

Maelor School Strings from Wrexham were making their first visit to the Festival. It shouldn't be their last. Their accomplished versions of favourite items by Tchaikovsky, Handel and Delibes were carefully shaped to suit the orchestra's strengths, and it was delightful to hear them shift freely between playful, thoughtful and energetic sounds.

Jenny Lau from James Allen's Girls' School gave a fine account of the voluble moods of the allegro affetuoso from Schumann's Piano Concerto, and a short while later was cheerfully handling the persistent rhythmic vigour of the finale of Schubert's Trout Quintet . Megan Hughes of the Nicolau Infant Duo from Orpington, Kent. Photo: Andrea Taylor

Joel Beevers led the Egglescliffe School Orchestra from Cleveland to an Outstanding Performance Award before transferring to the Purcell Room, where his own composition, a fluent trio scherzo, was being performed. Happily, the young composer found time to drop his violin and capably meet the tricky piano problems he had set himself.

It was a happy seventeenth birthday for Alex Berry who led her friends in the Clarinet Ensemble from the Centre for Young Musicians in London. They ably negotiated the serio-comic labyrinths of Goddaer's Suite Cabriolesque before performing a splendid arrangement of Bizet's Trompette et Tambour . The piece may come from a suite called Jeux d'Enfants but the skills it requires are anything but childish. The ensemble, from contrabass up to soprano, shaped it into a stirring martial movement, played with great Gallic panache.

Another of the clarinettists, Tara Clifford, re-appeared on the stage a couple of hours later in another CYM ensemble, this time at the keyboard of the Steinway in Shostakovitch's Trio No. 2. The composer's elegiac use of string harmonics and his fierce uncompromising introspection were beautifully realised by all three players.

The Original Chamber Ensemble and the Original Quintet from Leigh-on-Sea showed the value of having a director who is also a skilled arranger. Gill Thorn had worked on pieces by composers as different as the Weber-like Danzi and the unique Britten - here in a Rossini-ish mood - to give her young players excellent chances to display their many virtues.

There was music out in the open air as well. Both North Tyneside Steel Band and the Kingsdale Drumming Ensemble entertained listeners in the Queen Elizabeth Hall and then enraptured far larger audiences on the sunlit terrace overlooking the river.

The Geordies had shown indoors that Handel's musical muscularity could be properly adapted to the sounds of the Caribbean. Now they gave a tremendous spontaneous set, with a Glenn Miller swing that delighted the crowd.

The South Londoners took us on a musical journey that followed the tracks of the African diaspora. Coaxing an infinite variety of timbres from their drums, full of infectious enthusiasm tempered with semiquaver-tight discipline, they brought Cuba and Brazil to the bank of the Thames. Their celebratory finale was loud, compelling and musically awesome.nbsp;

The programme is still rich with potentiality and probability. Before the weekend, there will be dozens of wonderful wind and brass bands, an entire evening of rock and pop groups including new compositions as well as classics and oldies, dozens of ensembles featuring everything from guitars and voices to saxophones and yangchins, another afternoon and evening devoted to jazz, and some of the best youth orchestras you could want to hear, playing a repertoire that stretches from Bach and Purcell via Elgar and Gershwin to - inevitably this year - the music for The Lord of the Rings.

The National Festival of Music for Youth is wisely about improvement as well as achievement. The adjudicators always offer positive practical criticism as well as praise. The event, however, is itself a form of acclaim; no one takes part who has not thoroughly deserved to.

This brief review has deliberately mentioned many players who did not gain an Outstanding Performance award or a Highly Commended certificate. What they all won - far more precious - was a place in the heart of their audience, an ineffaceable memory and an invisible but priceless investment in their own musical and personal future.

Tom Deveson

For more information Music for Youth events, see:


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