Three night band stand

13th November 1998 at 00:00
Music in our schools is in critical decline, it is generally agreed. You never would have guessed it from the remarkable standards on display at the annual Schools Proms at the Royal Albert Hall last week.

Over three nights, more than 1,500 young performers aged between six and 21, in more than 30 different groups and ensembles from around Britain, presented a rich cavalcade of music, fully reflecting the diversity of our multicultural society.

They ranged from trios to massed choirs, and backstage the array of instruments, players, singers and conductors choking the narrow corridors of the hall was bewildering. On stage they constituted a marvellously broad and balanced programme that was the perfect advertisement for youth music.

Most of the performers had won their places on the bill by winning outstanding achievement awards at the Music For Youth regional concerts earlier this year. (50,000 young people performed in these "heats".) The paradox is that, while cuts in schools music may mean that there are fewer students learning instruments, as presenter Richard Stilgoe put it, the standard keeps on getting higher every year.

That uniformity of excellence makes it invidious to single out any one group, but there is no denying that the show stealers on the first night were the junior choir from Pownall Hall school, Cheshire. Aged between six and nine, they were the youngest performers in the Proms, and their habit of waving back at their teacher when she raised her arms in readiness to conduct was particularly endearing.

Their big day proved to be a mighty long one, too. They had risen at 6am for the seven-hour drive to London, got stuck in traffic, arrived late for an afternoon rehearsal, and then took the stage at around 8pm. After singing "Ollie, the Otter" and "I Wanna be Like You" with perfect phrasing and crystal clear diction, they remained for the rest of the concert before driving back up the motorway. They could not have arrived home much before 3am. Lord Shaftesbury once fought for legislation to stop such hours. Yet their broad grins and flag-waving during the obligatory "Land of Hope and Glory" suggested they were having the time of their young lives.

From County Down, Northern Ireland, came Fiddlers Galore, a dozen splendid teenage violinists drawn encouragingly from both communities, performing a medley of traditional Irish tunes. When they leave school, roles in Riverdance surely await them all.

The Aylesbury Music Centre Dance Band already has a CV which boasts venues that include Buckingham Palace and the London Palladium. It was easy to see why these teenagers are so in demand: their brass section swung thrillingly on an improvised piece based on the sights and sounds of Africa before they switched continents for a hot slice of Latin salsa. Their trumpet soloist, 18-year-old Julian Buckley, is the first recipient of the Pounds 1,000 TES Bursary for an outstanding young musician at the beginning of his career.

Even more exotic were the Adugna Community Dance Theatre from Ethiopia. Until recently these 18 young men and women were street children in Addis Ababa with no real educational opportunities and poor employment prospects.Now part of a five-year training programme to develop community dancers and teachers, they treated us to what was almost an African version of West Side Story in its drama and excitement. If Adugna got the hall stomping, the Gower Guitar Quartet from Ashford, Kent, produced the opposite effect, with the exquisite counterpoint of their gentle acoustic compositions hushing us all.

Star turn of the second night was Oli Rockberger and his jazz trio from King Alfred School, Hampstead. With their own sizeable and noisy fan club in tow, they played a Herbie Hancock number sandwiched between two of Rockberger's compositions; his own work lost almost nothing in comparison. Rockberger has just won a year's scholarship to the Berklee School of Jazz in America. Expect to hear plenty more of him - and with a name like that how can he fail?

Concerto Grosso, a string quintet from Sheffield, played a movement from Schubert's challenging Quintet in C Major with exemplary tone, obvious enjoyment and infectious enthusiasm. Turnfurlong Jazz came from Aylesbury, like the slightly older Music Centre Dance Band the previous evening, both under the direction of Nick Care. Aged between eight and 12, the precociously talented brass section swung with gusto through a Count Basie tribute and even a big band version of "Rock Around the Clock". Just as impressive were Waunceirch Brass from Port Talbot, who played the largo from Dvoyr k's New World Symphony. It seemed almost impossible that some of them had been playing for only nine months.

The multicultural nature of the event was emphasised by Park High Samba Band from Harrow, which has played the Notting Hill Carnival and brought a little taste of Rio to the hall, and some magnificent Indian classical music with tabla and sitars from the Birmingham Schools' Asian Music Ensemble.

The last night began spectacularly with the Hampshire County Youth Band performing Fanfare for the Common Man. Members of the band were picked out by three dramatic spotlights high up in the gods as they filled the hall with Aaron Copland's stirring tones. Equally dramatic were The Soundwaves of Lytton House Choir, from Putney High School, consisting of the entire years 5 and 6 performing a selection from Oliver! in Dickensian costume and with the ease and aplomb of true professionals. Could they all really be under 12?

Half of Concerto Grosso, who had played Schubert so ably the previous night, reappeared in leather mini skirts as part of the electric violin quartet, Elektra. In particular Sarah Fletcher, who also arranges, is a name to look out for in the future.

The night ended with the Oxfordshire County Youth Orchestra, whose playing of Dvoyr k's Carnival Overture was as sharp and focused as many a professional ensemble. Yet perhaps the abiding memory of the night was the spectacle of the Leicestershire Massed Choirs. With more than 500 singers, and a group of dancers who performed a series of outrageous Busby Berkeley moves, this was entertainment on the grand scale. Even Hollywood could hardly have done it better.

After so many dire warnings about the imminent extinction of schools music, these Proms were uplifting and inspiring. There is clearly no lack of major talent out there. Just as clearly there are still many brilliantly gifted and committed music teachers around - several were bringing their third, fourth or even fifth groups to the Proms.

But, as Richard Stilgoe rightly pointed out, the opportunities to learn and play quality music are available - but only if you are lucky enough to live in the right place. He was not issuing a political broadside, merely emphasising that the provision of musical education is now patchier than ever since the subject was effectively downgraded in the curriculum.

But that argument can wait for another day. The Proms were all about celebrating the richness and undoubted excellence that continues to exist in so many of our schools - against often overwhelming odds.

Music for Youth, which presents the Schools Proms, is sponsored by CGU, Glaxo Wellcome, the National Union of Teachers, PJB Publications and 'The Times Educational Supplement'

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