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Strength and sensitivity

With the courage of youth and wisdom of age, young players show skills of intelligent musicianship, writes James Allen

Any idea that the Festival of British Youth Orchestras is a poor cousin of the adult classical concerts at the Edinburgh International Festival should be dismissed.

This year's event, run by the National Association of Youth Orchestras, encompassed almost 60 concerts from about 30 groups over three weeks in Edinburgh and Glasgow and sampling it was an eye-opener.

It is not just today's young conductors who are taking hold of the big symphonies. Youth orchestras are increasingly ambitious too.

JeugdOrkest Nederland (Youth Orchestra of the Netherlands) opened this 24th festival in Edinburgh's recently refurbished Central Hall and every element of the guest orchestra's programme showed it off.

These players were not just capable of incredible virtuosity, they showed a deep understanding of the music, of how to blend and colour lines and make it live.

Shostakovich's Symphony No 5 had power but also intimacy and depth of feeling. The emotional breadth of the largo was staggering and the finale made the hairs on one's neck stand on end.

One expected no less after the opening performance of Tristan Keuris's "Arcade", a finely crafted piece turned into a fantastically coloured one by the players.

Increasingly the sign of a good orchestra seems to be how well they deal with the orchestral accompaniment in a concerto. In Schumann's Cello Concerto, this orchestra turned out well chiselled and immediate responses, which was not an easy task given cellist Pieter Wispelwey's rhapsodic account of the solo part.

To get this level of articulate and intelligent musicianship from any performer would be an achievement. To get it from 14- to 18-year-olds is astonishing.

The City of Sheffield Youth Orchestra took on Mahler's Symphony No 1 and made a strong and original imprint upon it. Rarely are the nature elements in a Mahler score so forcibly expressed by a youth orchestra. There were strong impressions of birdsong from piccolo and clarinets, high violin harmonics suggesting Alpine breezes and a hint of electrical storms in the playing from trombones.

It is often said that a good bass line drives music on and the strength of the Sheffield group is its cello department, whose rich, lyrical playing kept the momentum going through the work's waxing and waning tempos and wound up the tension in the finale.

The annual festival is not just about symphony orchestras. It encompasses wind bands, big bands, concert bands, jazz bands and string ensembles. That adds variety to what could otherwise be a heavy series of concerts.

In the Royal Museum of Scotland, the Leicestershire Arts Youth Wind Orchestra gave an informal afternoon concert that showed them to be players of poise and discretion. At times they suffered from the safety in numbers phenomenon whereby nervousness creeps into thinner textures, and the sound was muddied by the museum's acoustics, but I liked the jazzy chirruping in their performance of Bernstein's Overture to "Candide" and the sense of flight in Ron Goodwin's "633 Squadron".

Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of the performance was its balance.

When trumpets are pitted against flutes and tubas against piccolos in a band numbering almost 70 players, balance is not easy to achieve. They paid good attention to their conductor with the result that the sound was full and layered without being hefty.

String orchestras are easier to control in terms of texture, but giving them a distinctive voice is another matter. The programme of Edinburgh's St Mary's Music School String Ensemble was strikingly similar to those devised by the Scottish Ensemble, which is not surprising as the St Mary's group was formed six years ago after a Scottish Ensemble residency and the band models itself on the professional band.

In Elgar's and Dvorak's serenades for strings, the young players showed refinement and a sense of belonging to the music, giving it a lovely sweet tone with a soft, warm bass line.

In Mozart's Oboe Concerto, they were joined by the amiable and spirited oboist Fraser Kelman and his lively sense of musical line was picked up in an accompaniment that, though occasionally out of kilter, was bright and met the musical sentiments head on.

The allegro molto of Shostakovich's Chamber Symphony Opus 110a was a whirlwind of energy and the sinusoidal descent into nothingness was very well done.

The Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama Junior Academy Orchestra gave a delightful programme that included Schubert's Symphony No 8, Sibelius's "Finlandia" and Delius's "The Walk to the Paradise Garden". The orchestra shaped its phrases beautifully to fit each work's dramatic structure and the approach to lyricism was affecting, with lovely poetry in the wind playing.

It is right that youth orchestras put themselves to the test with contemporary music. Panufnik's Concertino for Timpani, Percussion and Strings puts string department cohesion under the microscope and the RSAMD players withstood the test. They conjured up the mysterious sonorities that Panufnik writes against the soloists, and Siona Watson and Ian Cape played the solo parts with a jovial touch.

It would be good to see more youth bands playing modern classical music and more composers writing for them, because the message from this festival is that young musicians are more than capable of rising to the challenge.

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