The Festival of British Youth Orchestras has promoted
alternative classical music for 20 years. Christopher Lambton looks at this year's Fringe offerings.
You're in Edinburgh for the festival. Where would you look for seven world premieres, 13 symphonies, 14 concertos, and music by six contemporary Scottish composers? The Usher Hall? The Festival Theatre?
Not many of the thousands of people who flock to Edinburgh in August to catch the starry presence of Claudio Abbado, Simon Rattle, or Gunter Wand are likely to stray outside the hallowed environs of the so-called official festival to find themselves in the Central Methodist Hall in Tollcross, a large but somewhat anonymous space at the top of Lothian Road. But this is where a total of 34 youth orchestras and ensembles will be giving on average two concerts a day for the duration of the festival.
The repertoire has an anarchic breadth and fecundity of imagination that thinks nothing of juxtaposing Javelin, an athletic miniature written for the Atlanta Olympics by American composer Michael Torke, with Celebration Dances, a new piece by Alun Hoddinott, written to celebrate 50 years of Welsh language teaching, and rounded off with Rachmaninov's second symphony, one of the lushest and most popular symphonies in the repertoire.
This is the 20th year of the Festival of British Youth Orchestras, and the 12th year in which concerts have been performed over the same three-week period as the main festival, at the Royal Scotttish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow.
The Edinburgh-based National Association of Youth Orchestras (NAYO), whose modest budget of around pound;64,000 covers only basic costs such as administration, hall booking, publicity and programmes, will be promoting 59 concerts. The orchestras have to cover their own travel and accommodation costs, though booking is done through NAYO. As an incentive, lucky players can find themselves on the receiving end of spare tickets for International Festival events at discounts to make an accountant blanch.
It may seem strange to perform at this time of year, when all Edinburgh is full to bursting point with music, theatre and every byway of cultural activity. You cannot go to a morning recital in the Queen's Hall and still make it in time for the lunchtime concert in the Central Hall; in the evening the youth orchestra concerts have to compete with mainstream festival events. But this excess is the very essence of the Fringe, and audience figures over the past few years suggest that about 200 people regularly roll up for each youth orchestra concert - more than many Fringe shows dare hope for.
The Festival of British Youth Orchestras got off to a strong start in 1979, as conductor George Steven was looking around for somewhere to take the Kingston Youth Symphony Orchestra on tour. "My aunt Barbara was friendly with the minister of the Methodist church in Edinburgh, who pointed out that his was the only church in Edinburgh not being used by the Fringe." The Kingston Orchestra duly came north with a light programme that included the Barcarolle from Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann. "It seemed obvious," recalls Steven, who was already on the NAYO committee, "that the hall could become a focus for the activities of the association." And it was clear that the Fringe programme, while incorporating a wealth of comedy and theatre, was short on orchestral music.
So the idea for the festival was born, and the committee moved with astonishing speed. It decided that the administration of NAYO should move to Edinburgh. The stage of the Methodist Hall was too small, so funding was secured from John Lewis to pay for a temporary extension. The department store has remained an important source of funds ever since.
The festival started the very next year with 14 orchestras taking part. Carol Main was appointed as secretary of the relocated NAYO to run the festival. She is now its director, and has seen this remarkable example of administrative harmony flourish into one of the Fringe's key attractions - without it, the programme would still lack almost any orchestral music. From a crowded little office looking out on one of Edinburgh's finer Georgian precincts, she juggles dates, orchestras, and the sleeping requirements of hundreds of young musicians.
Next year's festival is already largely in place, its slots being filled on a first-come first-served basis. There are plans for a specially convened millennium youth orchestra which would play a new piece commissioned from Peter Maxwell Davies.
Conflicts on dates are rare. "We are pretty flexible," says Main. "There's no competitiveness and no back-biting. The orchestras support each other." But she sounds a warning note. Instrumental provision in schools has been the source of much controversy, and NAYO spends an increasing amount of time discussing long-term
strategy and lobbying for its members.
"It doesn't affect us immediately," says Main. "It's the grass-roots stuff that's at risk. What we see at the festival is the blossom. But if one withers away, then the roots will surely die."
Festival of British Youth Orchestras Monday August 16 to Sunday
September 5, Central Hall, Tollcross, Edinburgh; Stevenson Hall,