Around the world in an evening
Although steel bands have always been a feature of the National Festival of Music for Youth, the appearance of world music as a category in its own right is comparatively recent.
Now, reflecting changes in the music curriculum, the Festival devotes a whole evening to international music, which at London's Royal Festival Hall this year included everything from Irish and Welsh traditional music to a gamelan group and a junk instrument band.
The bizarrely named Dr Nod's 18 Toxic Feet from Somerset is well known at local events. Both this and Fulston Manor Folk Group (Kent) played in a folk-rock style which at times created problems with balance. But even if some very delicate flute playing was occasionally drowned by the backing, overall the melody and colour of the Somerset group, which contained some excellent individual performances, was impressive.
Fulston Manor's intriguing "Papa's got a Gene Tree" turned out to be a homage to Gene Vincent, a rhythm and blues number. Welsh ensembles Ysgol Gerdd Ceredigion and Cor Cerdd Dant Punweddig (Aberystwyth) shared the ability to sing in perfect harmony. An astoundingly athletic display of clog dancing from two young dancers earned YGC the Outstanding Award.
The larger forces of the Aberystwyth group, which included four harps, were well disciplined, as were Paltog (Lancashire), who played a gaelic medley. The evening ended with the flamboyant Pantastics steel band fron Derby. Their classical programme included an extraordinary Brahms' Hungarian Dance and a frantic but highly enjoyable "In the Mood". Awards went to the composer of a new work for gamelan, Pharaoh's Grave, and to an Irish group, Island Road.
If this was an interesting evening the Senior Ensembles day was, in the words of adjudicator Andrew Peggie, "inspirational". A few years ago this section went through the doldrums but this year was undoubtedly one of the most imaginative, with an enormous variety of ensembles.
Group number 20 was the exciting Waltham Forest Steel, whose arrangements of the classics were musical and compelling. Their "Baba Yaga's Hut" won them one of three Highly Commended Awards, the Outstanding Awards going to the male voices of Shades of Harmony (Northampton), whom the judges described as "tasteful and humorous", and to the (Exeter School) Saxophone Quartet.
Birmingham's Asian Music Ensemble demonstrated control and well developed listening skills as they improvised a rag, held together by a small group of young, impressively competent tabla players. The Richmond Clarinet Quartet, one of four clarinet ensembles, played challenging modern repertoire. Unusual instrumental line-ups predominated, from 40 double basses (Sasso Profundo from Dorset) to the Sandwell Euphonium Ensemble whose seductive sound won them a Highly Commended Award.
The Hanson Ensemble (Bradford), consisting of more than 80 voices, soloists and instrumentalists, performed some demanding arrangements of rock and pop numbers. Other rock vocal groups included the Soul Sisters from Rochester, the Beacon Vocal Group and Northamptonshire's Siren Voices.
In a day of music that was almost too varied to permit comparisons, the Yangchin Group from Middlesbrough created some of the most haunting sounds. Their skill in blending their Chinese dulcimers with exotic percussion and traditional folk instruments in music from Argentina and Indonesia earned them a Highly Commended. World music was in safe hands with these young people, concluded one of the adjudicators.
The National Festival of Music for Youth is sponsored by British Aerospace, Commercial Union, GlaxoWellcome and W H Smith in association with The TES, and supported by the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, Department for Education and Science, Department of Education for Northern Ireland, Marks Spencer, Music Industries Association, National Union of Teachers, Trinity College London and The Welsh Office.