Sax and the city score high

18th April 2003 at 01:00
A commission for the Edinburgh Youth Orchestra's ruby anniversary shows its talents in vibrant variety, writes Kenny Mathieson

The Edinburgh Youth Orchestra celebrates its 40th anniversary this year and marked the occasion by commissioning saxophonist Tommy Smith to write his first large work for orchestra on the theme of their mutual home city.

Smith was a daring choice. He is best known as Scotland's leading jazz musician but has performed as a soloist in large compositions by William Sweeney and Sally Beamish and also composed for classical music settings, ranging from a duo with pianist Murray McLachlan to the BT Scottish Ensemble.

The work he produced, simply called "Edinburgh", succeeds in integrating its jazz and orchestral elements in convincing fashion. It was inspired both by the city in which he grew up (his formal musical education began at Wester Hailes Education Centre) and by the work of Edinburgh poet Tom Pow, although the finished work was purely instrumental.

Smith scored the piece for jazz trio (in which he was joined by bassist Aiden O'Donnell and drummer John Blease, both graduates of the National Youth Jazz Orchestra of Scotland) and an orchestra with a greatly expanded percussion section.

The effect in the confines of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama's Stevenson Hall last Saturday was electrifying. The saxophonist made Edinburgh sound like a thrilling place and in the process produced a contemporary Scottish counterpart to such works as George Gershwin's "An American in Paris" or the New York evoked in Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story".

It is a remarkable first attempt at working on this scale. Smith used the orchestra in intelligent and resourceful fashion within a musical score informed by a sophisticated jazz sensibility. His atmospheric orchestral writing was kaleidoscopic in its variety and motion and brimmed over with energy, vibrant colours and an intense rhythmic momentum that was made all the more emphatic by playing the three movements without a break.

There was always something going on within the orchestral writing to grab the ear. The more overt jazz elements were equally effective, including a striking section in which Smith and his drummer improvised with only percussion accompaniment.

Smith explained that he had deliberately kept the written element of his solo part to a minimum to allow him space to improvise and he had also ensured that the structure of the piece would permit the jazz trio to be as creative as possible within the overall framework. These are perilous concepts with an orchestra but they worked beautifully.

The young players of the orchestra coped with the challenge in highly impressive style under their conductor, En Shao. They underlined their quality in the more conventional demands of Sibelius's "Finlandia" and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No 5. The string sound was impressively rich and sonorous, while the winds and brass produced playing of very high quality in all three works and never faltered in even the most demanding moments.

In a nice touch, En Shao passed the bouquet presented to him after their opulent reading of the Tchaikovsky symphony to the young horn soloist.

The concert was repeated in Edinburgh on Sunday, bringing the new piece to its natural home for the first time, but the orchestra's celebrations will not end there. A concert is scheduled for July 4 at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, in which Evelyn Glennie will participate. That concert will feature another new work, by composer Edward McGuire.

Thereafter, Smith and his two rhythm players will join the Edinburgh Youth Orchestra in a tour of Finland, the Baltic States and Russia in July.

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