Night for fireworks

Philippa Davidson

Philippa Davidson hears the Schools Proms come to a rousing finale. For the enthusiasts who opted for the Royal Albert Hall rather than a bonfire on the fifth of November, the second night of the Schools Prom had plenty of musical fireworks.

The inclusion of more primary school groups this year was deliberate, explained Larry Westland, acknowledging music at key stages one and two as in need of particular support. Great Kingshill First School Choir showed that choral training begins from the moment children start school. This group was one of the few to receive an encore for their refreshing and well co-ordinated action song "Knicky Knacky Knocky Noo". Unaccompanied, the small voices scarcely filled the hall but this was a marvellous chance for those unfamiliar with infant school to hear the classroom in concert.

Slightly older instrumentalists from Charnock Primary School, Sheffield, provided further evidence of just how much effort goes into preparation for a Prom performance. In Time Piece, movement, instrumental interludes and songs such as "Rock around the Clock", "Summertime", "As Time Goes by" and "Grandfather's Clock" merged into a slick production which was a credit to the children and their teachers.

The programme also featured jazz ensembles, bands and older choirs. Berkshire Youth Choir made a superb sound with a presentation to match in three contrasting songs - "Francion", John Rutter's wistful "Riddle Song" and a modern spiritual called "Hold On". Another ensemble from this musically energetic county, the String Orchestra, chose the attractive Finale from the Little Suite by Nielson.

The Albert Hall is not the ideal venue for small jazz combos, but Exeter School's relaxed Saxophone Quartet managed to create the club atmosphere with the lively Brown and Blue, and an imaginative arrangement of Byrd's Pavane for the Earl of Salisbury. Kingswood Jazz play in a cool, modern style, with an appropriately slick presentation. De Ferrers High School Brass Band played safe with "Let's Face the Music" and the Farandole from L'Arlesienne. Derbyshire County Youth Wind Band opened proceedings with Philip Sparke's Music for a Festival while the hugely popular Aylesbury Music Centre Dance Band swung into the second half with some colourful arrangements.

The unusual combination of four violins could easily have been swamped by the more extrovert big band sound, but the four members of the Pennine Players more than held their own. The attractive Allegro moderato by Ignaz L'achner (1807-1895) is one of only a handful of pieces written for a quartet of violins. The evening ended with the Channel Islands Orchestra, only two years old, but already sounding impressive.

For me, the last night lacked some of the musical interest of the first two but compensated for a few ragged edges by an electric atmosphere and an even more exuberant audience than usual. It was also the first time that every seat in the house was filled. As on the previous two nights, it was rewarding to see the standards achieved by the under-sevens of Swansmere Percussion group, Surrey, whose three short pieces were directed by the pupils themselves.

Another young group, the Kirklees Junior Wind Orchestra, put many an older band to shame with sensitive, musical performances of simple repertoire. At the top end of the age range Bodmin Community Jazz Orchestra's Open Wide was a vibrant piece with interesting orchestration and lively Latin American rhythms. The last night wouldn't have been the last night without a steel band. Crown Hills Steel Band's "Bridge over Troubled Water" did not really work but "Calypso Carnival" was pure fun and perfect last night material.

Birmingham's Asian Music Ensemble played with dexterity and precision in the raga Ahir Bhairou. The effort that goes into a performance where every note has to be memorised is only too evident.

NKS Jazz are the fifth group from Norton Knatchbull School to appear at the Schools Prom. Traditional New Orleans jazz may sound like a romp but requires as much technical expertise as any other form of music.

Augmented Fifths from Huddersfield sing in close harmony and write their own music. Pacem seemed to owe something to Carmina Burana while "Dream Catching" was an original song in a contemporary idiom. The junior choir from Ysgol Gerdd Ceredigion sang mainly folk songs apart from an arrangement of "Do Ray Me" delivered with flair.

The huge forces of the Northamptonshire County Choir and Orchestra massed on stage for a grand finale. The traditional Zulu hymn "Jabula Jesu" contrasted with a moving version of "The Water of Tyne", though the choir's position at the back of the stage meant that some impact was lost. Unfortunately the pianissimo performance of "Danny Boy" by the male voices of the choir from the rostrum was barely audible.

The orchestra's contribution was only too brief, Kabelewsky's delightful Colas Breugnon, in spiky Russian style, was followed by the surprise inclusion of a "School Song" by Richard Stilgoe to mark the 125th anniversary of the National Union of Teachers (though the subtlety of the Stilgoe wit really needed a more intimate venue to be fully appreciated). Then came the second surprise. Beginning with the choir on stage, soon the whole audience was swaying to an Olympic-style Mexican Wave not once but many times. There could have been no warmer tribute to Larry Westland, who aims by the year 2000 to increase the number of young people performing in Music for Youth festivals and concerts from the current 50,000 to 80,000. On this showing, there seems every chance that this is one millennium dream that will be realised.

The Schools Proms are sponsored by British Aerospace, commercial Union, GlaxoWellcome and W h Smith in association with the TES and the DFEE

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