28th Music for Youth Schools Prom
Royal Albert Hall, November 4, 5 and 6
This year's Music for Youth extravaganza flashed by in a thrilling mix of musical styles, old and new, from around the world. Tom Deveson captures the highlights
If we accept one definition of a prodigy - a child who plays a musical instrument in public long after bedtime - there were plenty of them in London last week. There were hundreds of remarkable teenagers too, all united in making the vast space of the Albert Hall rock, swoon, echo, hum, whoop and shake.
Adults also had a vital role. Compere Richard Stilgoe mixed well-worn jokes with some good new ones, and Diane Louise Jordan brought the more ingratiating style of a practised TV presenter. Other grown-ups were less visible but perhaps more heroic - the stage crew who discreetly changed the space for each orchestra, band, choir, octet, sextet, quartet or duo; and the teachers and parents who cheered and clapped in the darkness, without whom none of the magnificent aural magic would have had any potency.
School concerts should reflect the complex world in which children come to maturity. It needs to be said, with no implied discredit, that they were mainly white, and that it often would have been difficult to recall how many of our finest contemporary young musicians come from families originating overseas. But the music told another story. We heard songs in Latin, Hungarian, Bulgarian and Italian. We were entertained by pieces that used Cuban rhythms, incorporated African and Arabic motifs, visited Central Europe for stylistic inspiration or drew on the now global influences of one of the 20th century's most versatile cultural inventions - jazz.
Every evening ended with the Edwardian assurance of Elgar, but by then we had been round the world several times. It was gratifying to notice the range of composers whose works had been practised in homes, in school halls and at LEA centres on Saturdays.
The opening movement of Beethoven's 1st Symphony may not be one of his most intricate works, but its unexpected modulations, vigorous passage work and extended coda presented a stiff challenge - bravely met - for the Lady Eleanor Holles School Symphony Orchestra, Middlesex.
Britten's reworking of Rossini in "Matinees Musicales" gave us two mighty inventive talents fused in one piece, performed by the "Original" Chamber Ensemble from Essex. There were two fine versions of the Barber Adagio, one for Oxfordshire County Youth Orchestra's string ensemble, one for Portchester community school's Sounds of Steel band, working their wrists overtime to achieve a sustained legato.
Living composers were also to the fore; indeed some of them were in the audience, and some of the youngest played their own work. Django Bates's "Sad Afrika" had a welcome revival from the Aylesbury Music Centre Dance Band years after it travelled the globe as an anti-apartheid anthem.
Some of the most gratifying aspects of the Schools Prom, as ever, were the performers' magnanimity of spirit towards one another, and the commitment and courage they showed in sharing their talents with such a wide audience. Each act drew spontaneous and warm applause from fellow musicians.
Many children who left St Mary's RC primary school in Lambeth last summer came back to join in a wonderful piece on Carnival. The Fairer Six from Wells Cathedral school sang a cappella in a cavernous expanse where adults might have quailed.
A few selected items must suffice to represent the rich and seemingly endless variety on offer. Two groups from Lancashire did the county proud. Wardle high school's Year 9 Band (the school's 23rd band since it opened in 1977) were equally at home in baroque, Salvation Army or trad styles; the Little Voices from Fleetwood were all aged eight or under, but managed to present an entire circus in song and dance while winning the hearts of everyone.
The Orpheus Centre in Surrey is a community of 15 young disabled people whose musical apprenticeship includes composition as well as performance. Maddy Norman uses an alphabet board to communicate; her song "In My Own Time" developed its eloquent refrain into a moving hymn of self-affirmation. Abraham Darby is a mainstream comprehensive school in Telford; its senior jazz band moved with equanimity from a smoky ballad with a gorgeous soprano sax solo to the rough-and-tumble riffs of up-tempo classics.
Two moments were especially enchanting. Boys from the John Fisher RC school in Purley, Surrey, sang Handel's great operatic aria "Lascia ch'io pianga", producing sound of such natural elegance that the centuries since the work appeared slipped away, and it was as fresh as if newly written. The Greater Gwent Youth Brass Band opened the third evening. Towards the end of their set, the marvellous Irish tune "The Minstrel Boy" appeared on solo flugelhorn in a manner that recalled Yeats's phrase "beauty like a tightened bow".
More and more television programmes entice young people to seek celebrity by submitting to marketing gurus or disguising themselves as established stars. Not the least of Music For Youth's special qualities is that it beckons them to a very different destination: to seek fulfilment in music by being, triumphantly, themselves.
The Schools Prom is sponsored by The TES, the National Union of Teachers, Halifax plc, Norwich Union and PJB Publications. See www.mfy.org.uk. Reviews of all performances at www.tes.co.ukthis_weeks_editionreviews