Hitting the high notes for school music

11th April 2003 at 01:00
THE National Youth Orchestra of Scotland gave its first performance in a tent on a pouring wet day in Falkirk in the summer of 1979. From that somewhat inauspicious start, the NYOS has taken a crucial role in developing and supporting young Scottish musicians, and has expanded to embrace four distinct but overlapping ensembles.

Colin MacLean, a former editor of The TES Scotland, is well qualified to tell the story in Nurturing Talent, having been a member of the committee which brought the orchestra into being. The brevity of his history (a quarter of the book is filled with factual appendices) leaves much tantalisingly unsaid, and rather more of the anecdotes from foreign tours and remoter areas of Scotland might have made it a livelier read.

None the less, his outline history is a fascinating one, and is augmented by a critic's eye view of the NYOS's progress from Conrad Wilson, who has followed the orchestra closely in his work for The Scotsman and The Herald.

As well as sketching in the story of the NYOS and the later development of the National Children's Orchestra of Scotland, Camerata Scotland and the National Youth Jazz Orchestra of Scotland, MacLean provides a great deal of insight into the financial, administrative and logistical challenges.

The book is also a quietly political document, arguing the case for the importance of music tuition in schools in the face of relative neglect from successive governments, and charting the rise and fall of business sponsorship, a crucial problem for many arts bodies.

Internal politics raise their head, specifically regarding the schism within the NYOS's jazz division, which might be crudely characterised as a disagreement over the balance between technical accomplishment and creative freedom.

The jazz tutors named in the book have recently resigned en masse, raising not only the question of which direction the NYJOS will take, but also the issue of whether the NYOS, steeped as it is in classical traditions, is the right organisation to run a jazz orchestra.

Nurturing Talent provides ample evidence to illustrate that it is certainly the right organisation to support young classical musicians, and has done so with real distinction under its successive directors, William Webb and Richard Chester, and their staff.

It is a tribute to their efforts that the NYOS not only offers support and tuition to aspiring young musicians aged 8-27, but consistently achieves highly impressive results on the concert platform.

"Nurturing Talent: The National Youth Orchestras of Scotland - The First 25 Years", by Colin MacLean, is published this week by Mainstream, pound;9.99.

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