Young musicians strike the right chords

The 27th Festival of British Youth Orchestras in Edinburgh opened this year with a new departure: a South Asian youth orchestra playing non-Western music.

Samyo, the national South Asian Music Youth Orchestra, played at the opening concerts in both Edinburgh and Glasgow, where a parallel festival runs at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.

Samyo is an unconventional ensemble in that it operates with a large ensemble (17 musicians on this occasion) in a tradition where five or six are the norm. They performed on instruments from both the Hindustani and Carnatic traditions and were a colourful sight in their costumes from the various regions.

The music included a solo from Kaviraj Singh on the santoor, a dulcimer-like hammered instrument, and a duet on the more familiar wooden flute and violin, although the latter employed different tunings and was played by a musician sitting cross-legged with the tuning heads pointing to the floor.

The ensemble material encompassed a variety of styles and instruments, including sitar and the larger veena, and two sets of hand drums, tablas and mridangam. It was a fascinating experiment that the festival organisers are keen to repeat.

The overall concert programme was a little reduced this year, but included familiar participants from Scotland, among them the Perth Youth Orchestra.

Visitors from further afield included orchestras from Warwickshire, Manchester and Darlington, and a debut at the festival for the Junior Trinity Symphony Orchestra associated with Trinity College in Greenwich.

The children who made the long trip from London served up an impressive performance under the baton of Andrew Morley at Central Hall. It provided an opportunity for two of their section leaders, violinist Rebecca Sewell and cellist Flora Cooke, to play one movement each from Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto and Elgar's Cello Concerto, in a programme which also featured Kodaly, Faure, Vaughan Williams, and film composer Debbie Wiseman, a Junior Trinity alumna.

Where4 art thou Johnny Dep? by 16-year-old Duncan Ward was a less conventional adventure romp, written for the National Youth Orchestra's summer school. It was inspired by pirate tales, and included Morley brandishing a pistol at the climax.

Vocal music helped to bolster the programme again this year, including a first visit from Ysgol Gerdd Ceredigion and an outing for two of the National Youth Choir of Scotland's off-shoots.

NYCoS celebrates its 10th anniversary this year with a gala concert at the Usher Hall in mid-September, and Christopher Bell took the opportunity to provide a platform for its training choir, led by Susan Hollingworth, and the intriguing changed voices section of the National Boys Choir, under his own direction.

The training choir was in fine voice in a diverse programme that ranged from sections of Vivaldi's Gloria to delicate arrangements of Japanese folk songs. They achieved a lovely ensemble sound, with excellent pitch, articulation and control. They inevitably lacked the depth of sound in the lower registers of an adult choir, but the singers more than made up for it in the clarity and beauty of their work in the upper registers, and their meticulous balance within the ensemble.

The CV Choir aims to provide an opportunity for boys caught in that transitional process. As Bell said, no boy had been harmed in the making of the music.

Caught between the purity of the unbroken voice and the full acquisition of adult richness, the singing had its own agreeable qualities, and maintained the high standard laid down in the first part of the concert by the training choir, with an even more diverse repertoire. Both groups came together for the finale, "With a Voice of Singing".

Kenny Mathieson

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