Showing posts with label National Youth Orchestra. Show all posts
Showing posts with label National Youth Orchestra. Show all posts

Sunday, January 06, 2013

OK, let's get Britten year off to a flying start


Here's a big Britten favourite of mine. It's the Piano Concerto, written when the composer was all of 25 years old. He had just met Peter Pears and not yet sloped off to the States. Britten, who was a very brilliant pianist when he wanted to be, was the soloist in the world premiere at the Proms and apparently finished the piece just in time for the first rehearsal. It's a wonderfully 1930s sound, full of an Art Deco glitz akin to Poulenc, Ravel or Prokofiev, and I've never understood why it isn't played more often. The most recognisably Britteny movement, of course, is the Intermezzo, which was a late replacement by way of slow movement and dates from 1945, hence contemporaneous with Peter Grimes.

Here's a performance of it to brighten a gloomy January Sunday: another Benjamin - Grosvenor, this time - at the Proms 2011, with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. Benjamin G was 19. Incidentally, if you're wondering where he is at the moment, he's just been wowing Seattle with a spot of Rachmaninov.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Heat and light...

Kicking off the Olympic cultural festivities in style, The Dude and his Simon Bolivár Orchestra of Venezuela are back in Britain. Dudamel & co are taking over the Royal Festival Hall this weekend (concerts to be streamed live on The Guardian website, btw), and right now they’re in Raploch, Scotland, visiting the Big Noise project – Sistema Scotland’s own take on the Venezuelan music education scheme, revolutionising children’s lives through the making of music (an illuminating read about it here). We can see this concert on TV tomorrow, live on BBC4

But one question remains: why are we all so potty about Venezuelan young musicians when the UK has plenty of its own?

Britain’s got talent. And the real talent has little to do with Simon Cowell, but everything to do with our youth orchestras. The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain is a prime training ground for the best young orchestral musicians in the country; to hear them is to be bowled over and out by the standard of their playing, and the passion and dedication they show for their music.

Nor are they alone. The National Youth Orchestra of Wales claims to have been the first national youth orchestra in the world. The National Youth Orchestras of Scotland, the NationalYouth Choirs and the award-winning National Youth Choir of Scotland are all flourishing. The Aldeburgh Young Musicians, based at Snape in Suffolk, takes around 40 talented kids aged ten to 18 from the East Anglia area and provides them with high-level courses in school holidays, treating them not as children, but as young artists who compose, conduct and perform their own music. 

What’s the matter with us, then? Why do we fête the Venezuelans instead? What on earth do they have that we haven’t?

It would be easy to say “Nothing”. It would be easy to pretend that the Simon Bolivárs are all show and no substance: the twirling basses, the football shirts, all that Latin heat and light. But, though it pains me to say it, there is something. And it’s the other way round. It’s something that we have that they don’t have that’s the cause.

In a recent interview for The Strad, I asked Levon Chilingirian, leader of the Chilingirian String Quartet, what he thought about this. He and his three colleagues visit Caracas regularly to coach the students of El Sistema in chamber music. “One aspect which is very different from here,” he says, “is that they don’t have any limits set for them.” Many children learning music in the UK work their way through the Associated Board grade exams system by hook or by crook. “Mostly by crook as far as I can see,” Chilingirian adds. “It can be a case of: ‘You do your Grade V this year and next year I’ll give you a nice present when you do Grade VI’. And if you suggest to someone that they might learn a particular piece, they’ll say ‘No, no, that’s Grade VII and I’m only Grade IV.”

That doesn’t happen in Caracas. Chilingirian met a young violinist who’d been learning for only a year, but brought the Bruch Violin Concerto No.1 to a lesson and was determined to perform it with an orchestra soon afterwards. The group also told me about a 23-year-old taxi driver who, bored with his job, met some youngsters from El Sistema, heard about their work and decided to become a cellist, having never touched an instrument before. “Nobody said ‘You can’t’ - so he did it,” says Chilingirian. “He’s a very accomplished player.”

Music exams in Britain are an extremely mixed blessing. On the plus side, they provide a target to work towards, a chance for youngsters to prove themselves and gain a sense of achievement. The exams set by the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music in particular are a global success story, a system embraced wholeheartedly in countries the world over, notably the Far East.

And yet, and yet... How many people in the UK have horror stories to tell about childhood music exams? How many youngsters who might have gone on to enjoy making music socially are left with a terror of performing after an unfortunate sojourn in the exam room? How many have had a bad experience and given up, because working for an exam is no fun at all? For many of us, these exams are our first-ever try at playing to other people, and an unhappy start can leave deep scars.

This set-up is satisfactory for very few. The examiner has little space to write notes and very, very little time in which to do so. Sight-reading tests rarely bear any relation to real music. The pieces offer a bit of choice, yet so little that often a child has to spend months practising something that he or she doesn’t even like – and then, of course, it often sounds like it, too. And sometimes a candidate’s chin wobbles or the eyes start to brim, but an examiner can’t take time to reassure them, because the system is a conveyor belt - the next candidates are in the waiting room building up their own store of nerves and mustn’t be kept waiting. This is an exam all right. But is that any way to make music?

It’s worth reflecting that in a target-oriented, achievement-focused society blighted by the class-ridden nature of the education system, children have to be very lucky to find themselves making music for the sake of enjoying it. Oftener than not they do so to please their parents, to win a music scholarship (few parents realise the hard work involved in that), to pass exams that will allow them to go on and pass more exams. It’s all about measurement and competition. But for El Sistema, it’s about personal and social transformation. 

Maybe it’s no wonder that many successful British professional musicians of my acquaintance never went through the graded exam system at all; if someone is more than averagely talented, exams quickly become an irrelevance. Do they hold the students back? I believe so. Just think about scales. You could learn them all. But if your grade prescribes only a certain number of them, you’re probably going to bother learning just those few, aren’t you? Levon Chilingirian is right: music exams instil the sense of an invisible ceiling that we dare not shatter. Rarely are we encouraged to chuck out the exam books, find a piece of music we love and damn well learn how to play it, even if it’s by Rachmaninov. That would be real motivation: a passion from within.

Plenty of other ways exist to learn and make music, and plenty exist in the UK. There’s Colourstrings, for example – a Saturday morning music school derived from Zoltán Kodály’s famous Hungarian system in which every child first learns to sing; they subsequently develop excellently trained 'ears'. The kids perform to one another in relaxed concert days, play in ensembles together early on and seem confident with their instruments.

And now we have pockets of El Sistema too: with enthusiasm for these schemes taking root around the country - the Big Noise in Scotland and In Harmony across England, in centres including Lambeth, Liverpool and more - there’s hope that our youngsters may also discover, like the Venezuelans, that making music is about joy, life and love. Not about quaking in your shoes alone with your half-size violin in a chilly school gym in Hatch End.

The Venezuelans are back? Bring 'em on. We need their inspiration. It’s working. It needs to work some more.

UPDATE, 5.40pm: This is clearly ringing some bells, and not just in the UK. Try this post by John Terauds from Musical Toronto:

Monday, August 08, 2011

Happy Monday

"When 5000 people pay to listen to Bach on a solo violin, there's hope for Western civilisation," says The Times. My colleague Ed Seckerson at the Indy says it was 6000 people, so the news is perhaps even better. Either way, bravo Nigel Kennedy. The markets are in turmoil, people have been looting in Tottenham, Enfield and Brixton, but over at the RAH, or in front of our own radios, we're listening to the Proms and feeling lucky to be alive.

Honest to goodness, guv, I really believe the world would be a better place if we could all spend more time making or listening to great music and less time on greed, envy, accumulation, materialism and...oh well. It's worth saying now and then, even if only one person takes it on board.

How anybody could have failed to take the lessons of the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra on board with that Mahler 2 on Friday is beyond me (pictured left: the queue at 1pm). Music for all. Music as the resurrection of hope (to quote Gustavo's words to me). I went to the rehearsal and sat mesmerised by them - these guys give everything. So, too, did the National Youth Choir of Great Britain, so you don't have to be Venezuelan... The churlish have been out in force, predictably, carping on about tempi being too slow, edges being too rough, and so on. There's still an element in British life that loathes anything too successful. Most of us saw past that to the essence of the event, and took it all to our hearts, where it belongs. The point of this Prom was not to offer benchmark Mahler to compete against the recordings of Tennstedt, Bernstein et al. What had to be definitive was the honesty and passionate nature of the music-making, the symbol, the life-affirming pulling-together of it all. Yes, it was the event that came first, and there is nothing wrong with that - not when it's an event you'll remember until your last breath. If every concert could be an event on such a scale, nobody would ever have talked of classical music 'dying', because it couldn't be clearer that that is not true, never was and certainly won't be as long as these guys are around.

Hope resurrected? You bet. Besides, give Gustavo another ten or 15 years and he could potentially grow to be a figure comparable to Bernstein. I can't think of another conductor working today who has quite that type of energy. It's easy to forget that he's only 30 as he is so much a part of the musical landscape at present. Watch that space. (Right: The Dude in rehearsal, flanked by Miah Persson and Anna Larsson, and in discussion with assistant.)

It's been one thing after another at the Proms, and yesterday I caught up not only with the Mahler but also with the National Youth Orchestra with Benjamin Grosvenor and Vlad, plus Nigel's very late-night Bach. Benjamin played the Britten Concerto - a terrific piece and much underrated. It's very much of its 1930s day, a British cousin to Bartok and Prokofiev, and Benjamin's coolly ironic eye and deft, light-sprung touch suited it to a T. Vlad wrought dynamic stuff from the orchestra, too - they're not the Bolivars, but they're the creme-de-la-creme of what young British musicians can be. And full marks to everyone for bringing Gabriel Prokofiev mainstream, putting his Concerto for Orchestra and Turntables centre stage in the Royal Albert Hall. Sergey's grandson may have 'Nonclassical' as his brand-name, but the piece, even with all its 21st-century irony, humour and imagination, still reminded us at times of The Rite of Spring. Character, precision and charm were everywhere; and the Radio 3 announcer's apparent bemusement about the whole spectacle had a type of charm all its own. He even considered DJ Switch's light-blue tee-shirt worth remarking upon.

I missed Saturday evening in London because I went to work with Tomcat. Which means I cried my eyes out over Rusalka. Watch out for the marvellous Dina Kuznetsova (left), a big Russian voice with a great heart to match, her every phrase serving Rusalka's searing emotional journey. Melly Still's production is magical - a timeless fairy-tale taken on its own terms, mildly modernised and exquisitely imagined. We know the Freudian ins and outs of the story's psychological implications well enough these days to add our own interpretation, if desired - it's refreshing that directors need no longer bash us over the head with it, and we can enjoy Dvorak's folksy joys and quasi-Wagnerian ventures with a view to match.

And Nigel? He's still working his own brand of magic; and it's as irresistible as ever because beneath the famous image is a passionate and phenomenally accomplished musician. He has not only magic, but the staying power that comes from true underlying solidity. Others may try, but there's still only one Nigel.