Festival queen gives up crown

31st October 2003 at 00:00
The director of the Festival of British Youth Orchestras leaves today after 24 years. She talks to Kenny Mathieson

Carol Main ends her 24-year reign as director of the Festival of British Youth Orchestras today, as she stands down from the role she created. Over the years she has presided over its growth, making the festival an international event based in two cities, Edinburgh and Glasgow.

She is also leaving her position as director of the National Association of Youth Orchestras, which organises the festival.

The opportunity to expand her part-time work as director of Live Music Now Scotland, an organisation which sends young musicians into schools and community venues, to a full-time post was the catalyst for her decision.

Carol, who is from Kirkcaldy, had just graduated from Edinburgh University with a degree in English and music when she became the first employee of NAYO in 1979. She was charged with setting up the youth orchestras festival and launched the first one in Edinburgh's Central Hall in 1980 with an ambitious programme of 24 concerts spread over three weeks, concurrent with the Edinburgh International Festival.

"In my letter of resignation I told the chairman that there are things I did then that I wouldn't have been brave enough to try now. I think there was a different spirit then," says Carol. "I don't know that a 20-year-old would take that on now, but there was a different attitude to wanting to make things happen then. And of course, I didn't know any better."

The festival quickly became established as a major event in the youth music calendar. Initially it drew a better response from schools in England rather than in Scotland, but they quickly came on board and most regions of Scotland are now routinely represented.

Carol, who played in the Fife Youth Orchestra, is a passionate advocate of the quality of performances from these orchestras and has worked hard to introduce them to young audiences.

The festival took an important step forward in 1985 with the first of a stream of orchestras from outside the UK and the introduction of a policy of free admission for children and young people.

The second expansion came in 1988, when a confluence of circumstances led to the launch of a Glasgow festival.

"It was the year of the Garden Festival, which was organised by Michael Dale, who had been director of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. He thought it would be good to have an orchestra coming to the festival. It was also the year that the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama was opening its new building and the city had been designated European City of Culture for 1990.

"We did do one or two concerts at the Garden Festival, but also started the series of concerts at the RSAMD. We were fortunate to get a significant two-year sponsorship from British Aerospace; it was good for us to get established before the Year of Culture."

In 1988, 57 concerts were performed across the two cities.

Next year will see the 25th anniversary of the youth orchestras festival, and Carol acknowledges that she was tempted to stay on for that landmark.

She believes the new director - who has yet to be appointed - will inherit a strong position. "I'm happy that there is a good funding structure in place now," she says.

"Before I knew I would be leaving, I had applied to the Scottish Arts Council for funding to set up a Festival of Youth Choirs which would be integrated into the youth orchestras festival. NAYO recently heard that we have the money for that, which will be another significant development for my successor to take on.

"I made a successful application for money to appoint a fund-raiser for NAYO, so that will help too," she says.

Carol cites fund-raising as one of the big challenges of the job of festival director, along with the logistics of organising so many orchestras into a three-week period during the school holidays.

Balancing the needs of the overall NAYO membership with the specific demands of the festival is also an issue.

The problem for Carol was that the work was barely containable in the hours of a part-time job. Much the same applied to her other main job, as director of Live Music Now Scotland. (She is also a freelance writer and music critic.) "The NAYO post was really a full-time job, and while I was containing Live Music Now in half-time as well, it was bursting at the seams. There were a number of things that were ripe for development but we did not have time or finances to address them.

"Out of the blue funds became available from the Scottish Arts Council to make the director's post at Live Music Now Scotland a full-time one, which is what it needs. I decided to take that very exciting opportunity and I'm looking forward to that challenge."

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