NYO rehearsing in Liverpool, Jan 2015

NYO launches the NYO Inspire Orchestra

The NYO is in London this weekend, following up their Radio 3 appearance earlier this week at Sage Gateshead, with a Festival Hall concert on Saturday night. They’re also announcing the launch of NYO Inspire Orchestra – an NYO ensemble touring the UK’s secondary schools and working with talented musicians who wouldn’t otherwise have access to advanced music making. In short, the NYO are touring the country and inspiring schoolchildren in music-making.

The simple idea is illustrated in a film the NYO has made available on its website. It’s a good idea too, so good in fact one wonders why it hasn’t been done before. If you’re going to inspire the next generation of music makers, why not get people just a little bit older than them to do the inspiring. The message is far more likely to get through that way, isn’t it?

The first NYO Inspire Orchestra will come together in Manchester at the end of June for five days of rehearsals before touring secondary schools in the north-west of England between 2 and 6 July 2015. The 70 musicians selected from the NYO’s 164 strong membership will work together and inspire other young people across the country by taking orchestral music into schools where they may have had little or no chance to enjoy it before now.

It’s a collaboration with the UK’s Music Education Hubs – an attempt to deliver the National Plan for Music Education. And judging by the film at the top of this post the project looks like it should generate quite a lot of warmth. I found the Highbury Grove project quite an emotional watch. I’m really excited other schoolchildren are going to get to experience this.

If you’re looking for another flavour of the kind of enthusiasm NYO musicians can share, be sure to take a look at this arrangement of Pharrell’s Happy played by the band’s double bass section during their summer course last year. A real joy to watch.

Prom 49: National Youth Orchestra / Antonio Pappano

Watching an NYO concert is always a difficult affair for me. I’m nearly always reminded of my failed attempts at gaining entry to the band when I was a teenager. Not surprisingly, I didn’t get in. I didn’t even get an audition. (I wasn’t terribly good at my ‘tonguing’ and sometimes my intonation did leave a lot to be desired.) Even so, watching each successive NYO does tend to fill me with bitterness and resetment. I’m nothing if not predictable.

I caught the first work in this evening’s concert – Varese’s Amériques – on the live Radio 3 relay and wasn’t entirely convinced about it. Contrary to what I’ve thought for many years, I don’t think you need to know very much about a composer or the work itself in order to enjoy it. You’ll just enjoy it if it’s good. Varese’s creation didn’t appeal to me and watching the TV broadcast later in the evening did little to change my opinion.

Had I been lucky enough to pull the wool over the eyes of the NYO administration and end up playing in the orchestra when I was seventeen, I think I probably would have been hugely annoyed to discover I was playing Rachmaninov’s fourth piano concerto. As a listener coming to the work for the first time, I failed to identify one single discernible theme to latch on to. Sure, BBC 2 commentator Charles Hazlewood might have suggested the concerto was a jamming session between piano soloist and orchestra, but I don’t think it’s too much to ask for a definite theme, an obvious development and a subsequent recapitulation. There’s a reason we only really hear Rachmaninov’s second symphony and his Paganini Variations. I suspect they’re the best of his orchestral works.

To focus on largely negative and personal views of two thirds of hte programme does the members of this year’s NYO a massive disservice. Tonight was their big night: a televised demonstration of their obvious talent and expertise. I’d always liked the idea of being a member of that particular crowd even if my ambitions were delusions of grandeur. Nevertheless, the end of the Copland Symphony showed how much this event touched the members of the orchestra. I’m sure I observed a number of bottom lips quivering and hands wiping tears from cheeks.

I know, it might be mawkish to flag such an observation up, but its those things which prove that what happened in the Royal Albert Hall was a moving experience for those there. I wouldn’t deny anyone that kind of experience. Good on them.

Prom 49 on the BBC iPlayer

Prom 29 : Spitting Tacks

161 musicians squeezed on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in a gruelling concert demanding both technical expertise and vast amounts of stamina. The fact that these musicians were between the ages of 13 and 19 years old made the concert one guaranteed to provoke a mixture of emotions. I started off with admiration. This (possibly because I need another hefty bout of therapy) quickly led to jealousy-fuelled irritation.

This was the sixtieth appearance at the Proms for the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain in as many years. Musicians gather every school holiday for an intensive series of rehearsals. Highly disciplined and, no doubt, equally driven, these musicians have won their place in the the country’s finest youth orchestra by a series of auditions. The result of a heady concoction of raw talent, years of practise and a devotion to the instrument of their choice.

Any concert featuring the National Youth Orchestra demands the audience listens in a different way from all the other Prom concerts we’re indulged with. Don’t judge them like a professional orchestra, I kept telling myself, they’re not a professional band. You must be more forgiving because they’re teenagers.

It was a difficult gig to listen to because they played like a professional band.

The orchestra opened with Aaron Jay Kernis’ New Era Dance, a work as fun to play as it was to listen to. Short, brash and in your face, Kernis’ five minute exploration opened the concert making all sorts of demands on the players. This was a demanding start. Best not expend all your energy early on.

I glossed over the piano concerto by Prokofiev sandwiched in the middle of the concert. It wasn’t that I wasn’t interested, just that my attention was focussed on the symphony at the end. It was the symphony which would put NYO’s stamina to the test.

There were personal reasons for me paying closer attention to the symphony. It was seventeen years ago that I first went to the Proms, queuing one long, hot, sunny afternoon to hear my then girlfriend play in the NYO.

It was an incredible experience even going along. I knew someone who was so incredibly talented that she occupied a place in the violin section. I recalled the excitement she felt in the run up to every series of rehearsals and the constant reminiscing she did when she returned. I felt entranced by it all and ever so slightly alienated by it. Yet at the same time I knew she was incredibly talented. And it was her involvement in the NYO which prompted me to go to the Royal Albert Hall for the first time ever.

The performance of Shostakovich’s Lenningrad Symphony was, then, totally amazing. At seventeen years old, standing in a space I had hitherto only seen on television, hearing the symphony was bound to be a moving experience. By the end of the work the symphony ends at a staggering 75 minutes. That’s a hell of a lot of time to concentrate for any musician, professional or otherwise. For teenagers to do it and do it so incredibly well is awe-inspiring.

Anyone who knows Shostakovich’s music will flash a knowing grin at you when you mention the Lenningrad. An inexorable march defines the first movement, it’s rhythm introduced by a sole snare drum player who plays the same rhythmic pattern over and over again. To write about the sequence does the moment no justice whatsoever. Just listen to it and take a moment to consider how many times over you’ve heard that same rhythmic phrase. It is relentless and pervasive and utterly, utterly vital the snare drum player gets it right every single time.

Now think of an accomplished snare drum player executing that key role over a 161-strong orchestra. Then think of him as a teenager. Nothing is off limits as far as the National Youth Orchestra is concerned.

To pick out individuals from the NYO’s impressive performance is to deny the talent which abounds the band as a whole. Still, it’s worth pointing out the obvious talent of the principal clarinettist whose mature tone made me wriggle with jealousy. Why couldn’t I muster that kind of quality when I was at University?

If there are any criticisms to level at their performance it’s that the overall ensemble did feel a little unsettled but this is more than likely a symptom of the herculian efforts involved in keep such a large scale group “on track” during such a demanding concert.

There is one indisputable fact which emerges from the NYO’s appearance however. Take it from me that for many of those players in the orchestra their appearance last night will be the first of many they will make in a variety of different orchestras. For them, last night was the beginning of their careers. Those who don’t end up as professional musicians you can be rest assured that they will be the people who are so talented at other things now that they’re afforded the opportunity to choose which career they’d like to follow.

It’s not without good reason I was spitting tacks last night.