Who dares wins noteworthy plaudits

2nd September 2005 at 01:00
A dip into any segment of the three-week Festival of British Youth Orchestras is usually guaranteed to provide variety in both ensemble configurations and repertoire.

Inevitably, standards of performance are variable, but it is testament to the commitment of the young players and their tutors that those standards are almost never less than acceptable.

The Halle Youth Orchestra are at the top end of the spectrum. They made their debut in the festival this year and demonstrated another trait of the event, a daring willingness to take on genuinely challenging music.

Scottish composer James MacMillan's "Confession of Isobel Gowdie" became an instant contemporary classic in a hugely successful premi re at the Proms in 1990 and is certain to test the mettle of any orchestra.

The young musicians of the Halle passed that test with distinction. The opening section was not quite ethereal enough, but thereafter they never put a foot wrong in an enthralling performance at Edinburgh's Central Hall, conducted by James Burton, the director of the Halle Choral in Manchester.

The orchestra was formed in 2002 and is open to under-19s not otherwise engaged in full-time music education. They performed with a genuine flair and musicality that was allied to ensemble discipline and scrupulous control of phrasing and dynamics in a programme which also featured Bernstein's "On the Town: Three Dance Episodes" and Dvorak's Symphony No 6.

The junior academy at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow offers specialist musical tuition to school age pupils. The Junior Academy Orchestra can usually be relied on to produce polished standards of performance, and so it proved in their concert under the baton of Timothy Dean .

They opened with Walton's "Coronation March: Crown Imperial", which demonstrated their ensemble precision and the depth and richness of their orchestral sound. They rose impressively to the challenge of Elgar's Cello Concerto, with Iain Ward as a confident and expressive soloist. Bruch's short "Romanze" provided a bridge from England to the United States, but the smaller orchestra sounded a little more exposed, and Ian Anderson (viola) was not yet as assured a soloist. Barber's "Adagio for Strings" was beautifully achieved in terms of intonation and expression. They closed with Bernstein's "Symphonic Dances" from West Side Story, revelling in the colour, energy and dynamic contrasts of the music.

The Edinburgh Schools Concert Band and Wind Ensemble were not on such a high level of musical achievement, but the very fact that over 100 pupils took part in their festival concert is evidence of the good work being done in the capital, especially when you take into account the fact that both the Edinburgh Schools Jazz Orchestra and Symphony Orchestra will play in the closing concerts of the festival on Saturday.

Graeme Hodge conducted the massed winds, brass and percussion of the Concert Band in the first half. Their approach to music that included a suite from The Lion King and another suite, Bruce Fraser's "Young Wizards", inspired by the Harry Potter vogue, was always competent but occasionally a little tentative. They struggled with pitch problems in the lower register on John Ireland's "Elegy".

The Wind Ensemble, a smaller group employing similar instrumentation, performed in the second half under the direction of Stephen Callaghan. They avoided potential for muddle in Nigel Hess's colourful "Global Variations", and produced impressive ensemble skills in Philip Sparke's "Theatre Music" and a vibrant encore, an arrangement of music drawn from the soundtrack of Pirates of the Caribbean.

Solo performances are not usually part of the festival, but Bedfordshire County Youth Second Orchestra slipped one into their Edinburgh lunchtime programme featuring the wind, percussion and brass sections of the orchestra, a prelude to the full orchestra performance in the evening. Emma Weatherill, a former member of the orchestra who is now studying music in London, performed Britten's demanding "Suite for Harp" in accomplished fashion, marred only by the odd buzzing string in the trickiest passages.

The three sections all performed separately and did so creditably. The brass section played Frank's "Intrada" from the balcony rather than the stage, introducing a nice spatial effect to proceedings.

Kenny Mathieson Festival of British Youth Orchestras, until tomorrow at Central Hall, Edinburgh, tel 0131 221 1927; until Sunday at the RSAMD concert hall, Glasgow, tel 0141 332 5057www.nayo.org.uk

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