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In search of Satchmo

Philippa Davidson finds a gloriously eclectic mix of music to savour at this year's Schools Prom

Be prepared to be astonished and amazed," said Antony Hopkins at the start of the second night of the 1995 Schools Prom. And so we were, although the second night was, in comparison with the first, a rather low-key affair.

This almost certainly had to do with programming, just one of the challenges facing Schools Prom organisers every year. We lacked the colour of a steel band, or a foot stompin' jazz group in the first half. To compensate, however, there were several high quality bands, orchestras and smaller ensembles.

One of the best of these was the Ballard Preparatory School Handbell Group form Hampshire, whose control and muscianship were fully taxed in the Fanfare by Purcell and "If I were a rich man". After Purcell on handbells, Mozart on the marimba, as executed by the Berkshire Percussion and Marimba Ensemble under the expert direction of Andy Leask, was no surprise. Even played prestissimo every note of the "Rondo alla Turca" was audible from this energetic group who went on to demolish Latin American classic El Cumbanchero at breakneck speed.

The evening contained some excellent choral singing. The Cleveland Choir cannot be faulted technically although perhaps they could project more. I enjoyed the relaxed "Don't it make my brown eyes blue" and the exciting arrangement of a local song, "Byker Hill", with its unusual meters and syncopations. Ysgol Glanaethwy, best known for their music theatre, have no problem in communicating with non-Welsh-speaking audiences. Their singing of five contrasting Welsh folksongs and costumed presentation was, as always, polished and professional.

Smithills School Senior Brass Band owes its success to conductor Christopher Wormald who in four years has coached players to perform works as complex as Stravinsky's Firebird. Scissett Music Centre's presentation is all part of the act, while Slapstick Bass from Reading contributed cool jazz, Brubeck style.

Apart from the grand forces of the Oxfordshire Youth Orchestra who played out the evening with Malcolm Arnold's dramatic "Tam O' Shanter", there were two other orchestras. Dame Alice Owen School Orchestra makes an impressive sound for a young ensemble. Their contribution Arthur Bliss's music from the film Things to Come was imaginative though perhaps not the best choice for a Schools Prom. The Gampa String Ensemble (emanating from the Gloucester Academy of Music and Performing Arts) gave a thoughtful performance of the "Sentimental Sarabande" from Britten's Simple Symphony without a conductor.

Demonstrating that music belongs in the classroom, Abbotsmead Juniors from Barrow-in-Furness enacted "A Day in the Rainforest", beautifully costumed, and with some of the most sensitive percussion playing of the evening.

On Wednesday, the Guildhall Junior Brass Band swung into the last night with Copland's "Hoedown" from Rodeo and Irving Berlin's "Let's face the music" a splendid start to an evening that buzzed with life throughout. Music from Paitchyn Vannin (Isle of Man) followed. Like their Welsh counterparts on the previous night, this Manx group performs in costume traditional music, song and dance accompanied by folk instruments such as the whistle, mandolin, bodrhan and harp.

The Pantastics Steelband from Derby proved again the versatility of the steelpan, moving effortlessly from "Sabre Dance" to "Blue Moon" and "Manhattan Spiritual". There was an interesting choice of repertoire from two orchestras. Egglescliff School (Cleveland) played a suite by Kenneth Leighton, while Brighton Youth Orchestra's String Ensemble chose music with a political message Panufnik's Old Polish Suite written during the Stalinist regime.

After an absence of several years, music theatre has returned to the Albert Hall. Landau Forte Youth Theatre from Derby put across a strong message in Jimmy Squarefoot Disappears. This was refreshingly original material, simply but effectively staged using only boxes and a wheelchair for props, and with a strong musical line.

Only the best comes to the Schools Prom and this can mean that some younger performers are ruled out because of lack of experience. Stoke Brunswick Choir makes a beautiful sound for a choir whose youngest singers are only eight years old. "Nkosi Sikelel'i Afrika" and "Eriskay Love Lilt" were particularly moving. The Povey Trio (10-13) already play professional chamber music (the flamboyant "Navarra" by Sarasate) while Jazz Extra from Norfolk starred a 13-year-old Satchmo of incredible maturity.

Two stirring movements of Respighi's "Pines of Rome" from the Hertfordshire Youth Orchestra ended a last night to remember. The standard was certainly there, showing that in many parts of the country, authorities are finding their way around cutbacks. But where were the groups from the inner cities, in particular, London?

The Schools Prom is sponsored by British Aerospace, Commercial Union, Glaxo Wellcome, Thorn EMI and W H Smith, in association with The Times Educational Supplement

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