What a performance

10th August 2007 at 01:00
Overflowing with visitors and performers, Edinburgh plays host to several festivals this month. Rowena Smith reports

EDINBURGH DURING festival time, a city overflowing with culture, performances and visitors, can have its drawbacks for anyone trying to organise an event of their own, as Susan White, general manager of the National Association of Youth Orchestras knows only too well.

Every August for the past 28 years almost half the lifetime of the original Edinburgh International Festival the association has held the three week-long Festival of British Youth Orchestras in the city's Methodist Central Hall. And for the past 20 years, it has branched out to include a sister concert series in the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow.

Yet with the Fringe growing ever larger and increasing numbers of visitors coming to Edinburgh to experience the unique atmosphere, NAYO knows that the extraordinarily high cost not to mention relative scarcity of festival-time accommodation in Edinburgh, especially for a group of orchestral size, has made playing at the FBYO prohibitively expensive for most ensembles outwith Edin-burgh and central Scotland.

Unlike the International Festi-val, the FBYO is not a curated event with performers invited to participate. Nor, however, is it the free-for-all of the Fringe where anyone who pays the fee can have their event in the brochure.

All of NAYO's 130-odd members (many of them umbrella organisations for a number of different ensembles) are entitled to perform, with NAYO absorbing the costs of venue hire and publicity. Those who haven't performed at the festival before are asked to submit a recordingto be checked that they are of a suitable standard.

Most of the ensembles, though, are regular participants. "The festival is part of the annual calendar of performance opportunities for many groups," says Ms White.

"As well as being a unique event in the UK, it gives young musicians the opportunity to experience the atmosphere. The Glasgow concerts also introduce young performers to the RSAMD; where some may subsequently be interested in coming to study."

The FBYO series has always been a mixed bag, with the odd surprise thrown in among performances from local ensembles and regular visitors. I recall a start- lingly good performance from the Netherlands Youth Orchestra three or four years ago that would have been quite at home in the Usher Hall as part of the official festival.

The programme is also rather more diverse than the title might suggest, with wind bands and string ensembles taking part alongside the larger orchestras. There is even the odd choir; a legacy of the 2004 festival which received special funding for a joint orchestral and choral programme.

Groups choose their own programmes and, in recent years, there seems to have been a trend away from the performance of symphonies and other longer works, with a preference instead for single movements from larger pieces and popular works such as film and television themes.

That said, this year's festival features two performances of Borodin's Second Symphony from the West of Scotland Schools Symphony Orchestra and the Edinburgh Secondary Schools Orchestra surely a record in a series of just over 20 con- certs. Other participating ensembles include the Fife Youth Concert Band, Darlington and Dales Youth Orchestra and Moray Concert Brass.

Worth looking out for is the String Ensemble of St Mary's Music School playing Elgar, Britten and Jonathan Dove with esteemed trumpeter and RSAMD principal John Wallace as soloist in Copland's beautiful Quiet City (Edinburgh, August 31, 12.30pm) and the first appearance at the festival of Katabatic Winds from the pioneering Sage Gateshead (Glas-gow, August 11, 7.30pm; Edin-burgh, August 12, 7.30pm in Greyfriars Kirk). There is also this year's sole overseas performer, the Jugendkapelle Lindau (Edinburgh, August 25, 12.30pm; Glasgow, August 27, 1pm).

If arranging accommodation in Edinburgh is the major difficulty for visiting ensembles, then for the National Association of Youth Orchestras the big challenge of the festival is trying to bring in a good-sized audience with only a minimal amount of money in the budget for publicity. To this end, the festival traditionally encourages groups of schoolchildren (whose tickets are free) to attend, while this year they are also approach- ing care homes for the elderly.

"It can be a struggle to get a good audience there's so much else going on," says Ms White. "It's a shame; I know that, once we got them through the door, they'd be pleasantly surprised by what they hear; the standard of these groups is getting higher each year."

Festival of British Youth Orchestras, August 11-September 2 at Central Hall, Edinburgh, and Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, Glasgow; www.nayo.org.uk

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