The Festival of British Youth Orchestras has grown remarkably into a major strand of the Scottish classical music scene and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Presided over by Carol Main, the director of the National Association of Youth Orchestras, the once-modest event which opens tomorrow now straddles Edinburgh and Glasgow and runs for three weeks.
Launched in Edinburgh in 1979, with the Glasgow programme introduced in 1987, its figures are impressive - this year, more than 2,000 young musicians, from primary school to music students, will take part in a total of 55 concerts in the two cities.
While the early festivals were built on symphony orchestras, the programme now extends to include chamber orchestras, string orchestras, wind bands, percussion ensembles, early music consorts, jazz orchestras, and even a trombone trio.
Up to three overseas orchestras usually take part, but this year only the Stockholm Youth Orchestra and an Italian contingent drafted into the Edinburgh International Youth Orchestra will be there, following the withdrawal of an orchestra from South Korea after the Asian economic crisis. The rest of the programme is made up of groups from Scotland, England and Wales, with Scottish ensembles predominant.
Carol Main feels that the balance has been tilted towards Scotland more by the current state of music education than simply geographical location. She points out that Scottish education authorities have been slightly better off in terms of funding for music provision, and new orchestras have emerged more quickly from re-alignments following local government reorganisation.
But it is the quality of programming and the standard of performances which are particularly heartening, and must be the envy of many a professional orchestra caught between the desire to present an innovative repertoire and the need to balance the books at the box office.
The youth orchestras offer a rainbow-hued riot of choice, matched by an awe-inspiring level of ambition. The inclusion of contemporary material in concert programmes has been boosted by the prestigious Boosey amp; Hawkes Youth Orchestra Award, presented for the most distinguished performance by an ensemble of a 20th century work from that publisher's catalogue. It was won last year by Lothian Schools Orchestra for its performance of Bartok's Hungarian Pictures, and the orchestra will compete again this year with Peter Maxwell Davies's Five Klee Pictures.
Concert programmes in which new or rare works rub shoulders with established classics are the norm in this festival. A glance through the programme reveals new compositions by unfamiliar names like Martin Westlake alongside Mozart and Haydn, or Morfydd Owen with Vivaldi and Elgar, or Kenneth Platts flanked by Mussorgsky and Bruch.
Performances of works by more established contemporary names include the Guitar Concerto by the eminent Glasgow-based composer Thomas Wilson, played by Philip Thorne with the Glasgow Schools String Orchestra, as well as works by Peter Maxwell Davies, James MacMillan, Robin Holloway, John Maxwell Geddes, and Alfred Schnittke, who died earlier this month.
There is no shortage, either, of demanding, large-scale works to test the mettle of the young musicians. The Edinburgh International Youth Orchestra,for example, takes on Mahler's Symphony No 1, Cambridgeshire County Youth Orchestra tackles Bruckner's Fourth Symphony, the East Dunbartonshi re Secondary Schools Orchestra faces up to Tchaikovsky's Fifth, the East Sussex Youth Orchestra plays Nielsen's rarely-heard Symphony No 3, Glasgow University's Kelvin Ensemble has chosen Beethoven's Symphony No 7, and both the Dundee Schools Symphony Orchestra and the Leicestershire Youth Orchestra will perform Dvorak's Symphony No 8.
The festival always throws up its share of individual successes, and Carol Main has identified two young musicians likely to make a splash this year - Donnie Deacon, a violinist from Glasgow, who will perform Vaughan Williams's elegant The Lark Ascending with the Lothian Schools Orchestra, and Ande-Louise Hypolite, a very promising singing student from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, who will feature in Elgar's Sea Pictures with the Edinburgh International Youth Orchestra.
The Festival of British Youth Orchestras runs until September 5 in Edinburgh, and September 6 in Glasgow. Tickets and full information on 0131 226 5138 (Edinburgh) and 0141 332 5057 (Glasgow). Concerts are free to children, students, and unemployed or disabled people, subject to availability.