Sounds so fresh from the National Youth Orchestra
Jul 30 2010 By Christopher Morley
Christopher Morley meets the National Youth Orchestra as it takes up residence at the University of Birmingham.
I’ve rarely experienced such a barrage of enthusiasm as the one which met me when I talked to members of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain on the lawns outside the Great Hall of the University of Birmingham this week – and this wasn’t just from the youthful players, but from the management, too.
None of the hardboiled yawnings you occasionally get from long-serving professionals, but sheer delight and pleasure as 165 young musicians and their dedicated staff and mentors come together to prepare a performance of orchestral music to the highest standard.
And every summer from now on, those preparations will take place for a fortnight in Birmingham, right here on the Edgbaston campus, where the musicians will also reside.
“We wanted to make this National Youth Orchestra truly national,” said Sarah Alexander, who has been director of the organisation for the last three years.
“So instead of just arriving at a public school for a few days of rehearsal, we decided to go out into the community.
“We’ve held open days with young people in Gateshead and Durham, but we’ve now chosen Birmingham as our summer base because of its exciting cluster of arts organisations and all the infrastructure built around them.
“Our idea is to expand into collaboration with other arts groups for the young, and as Birmingham is the youngest-minded city in Europe, this is the place to be.”
James Murphy, director of communications with NYO, tells me about the orchestra’s recent collaborations.
“During the last month we’ve had members involved in a performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, masterminded by the conductor Marin Alsop, combining with young orchestral players from Brazil, Africa and Iraq: ten members taking part in a tour to Portugal, ten doing a project in Aldeburgh with the South Asian Youth Music Orchestra, learning how to improvise in south-east Asian classical music modes and seeing how they converge with western music.
“We’ve seen how South American youth orchestras dance onstage, so perhaps we’ll see our contingent with Brazilian connections dancing during the Ball Scene of Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique.”
And enthusiasm for the National Youth Orchestra bubbles unstoppably from the two players I met, 18-year-old violinist Susanna Quirke from Sutton Coldfield, who has just completed her A-levels at King Edward’s School for Girls just over the road from the university, and who is hoping to study Classics at Oxford, and 17-year-old French hornist Ed Spencer from Wimbledon.
But I began by asking them how their non-musical friends reacted to their involvement in this prestigious but time-consuming organisation.
“It’s not something you can really talk to them about,” says Susanna, “because they don’t really understand what’s involved. But they appreciate you’re into something good.”
Ed adds: “I think they’re semi-aware of what we get up to, and the time-commitment it involves, with several residential courses a year, but they don’t understand what we actually do.
“When we did Edgard Varese’s Ameriques at Easter, that was a very new thing, and perhaps moved towards pulling in a new kind of audience – including our friends.
“And with these £5 tickets for young people, that might help.”
And there’s a right up-to-the-minute contemporary work receiving its European premiere in Birmingham next Wednesday, when the National Youth Orchestra performs Fantasias by Julian Anderson (a composer well-known to CBSO and BCMG audiences).
I heard the first sectional rehearsals (woodwind in the Barber Institute, brass in the Elgar Room), and the expertise was already awesome – as was the input of the NYO tutorial staff directing them (conductor Semyon Bychkov arrives at the end of the week).
“They all started falling in love with Varese,” James Murphy reminisces. “They even put things up on Facebook – ‘Varese is a genius’”.
“And now the Anderson,” adds Sarah. “If the players can’t own what is happening in music right now, what hope is there? And they’re so keen to ask, can we talk about what the music means to us?
“We’ve invited the students to blog about the July projects they’ve done. The harpists have got particularly excited about that, having a harpists’ blog.”
Some of the parents aren’t so enthusiastic about the NYO’s espousal of contemporary music, having had their offspring practising the orchestral parts they were sent about a month ago.
“One trumpeter’s mother emailed me and said, ‘thank you very much,’” James said. “But they will all come to the concert, either here or at the Proms on August 7, and I’m sure they’ll be won over.”
Though both heavily committed to the NYO, the attitudes of Susanna and Ed to their membership could not be more different.
“My life doesn’t revolve around music at all, as I have other interests, but the holidays are for the NYO,” said Susanna.
“I’m into film and writing.” And in fact James has given Susanna permission to film a DVD of this current course, both for her own career purposes (“I want to be a director”) and for the archives of the NYO. “Music is not the centre of my life,” she admits.
Ed, however, is totally focused upon a musical future.
“I want to do music at university. I’m interested in all the arts in general, and their relationship and connections. I want to broaden my horizons in an academic way.”
Susanna adds. “What the NYO teaches you doesn’t stop at music – you learn about leadership, teamwork, mixing with people from all kinds of backgrounds for two weeks.
“People from all over the United Kingdom,” adds Ed. “And you learn so much discipline and etiquette, including being silent for two minutes before the rehearsal starts. And we bring so much youthful energy, instead of the bitterness of professionals.”
Ed, looking forward to a career in the arts, is fascinated about learning about management styles in the NYO. Susanna is much taken with the NYO’s “concentration on doing well”.
And James Murphy has a slogan which sums up that last point beautifully.
“We want to inspire people to aspire to excellence the way that national sporting teams do.”
Obviously I interject about the appalling performance of the England football team in the recent World Cup.
“That’s it,” smiles James. “We’re announcing ourselves as ‘A national team that’s guaranteed to score!’”
* The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, Semyon Bychkov conducting, performs Dukas, Anderson and Berlioz at Symphony Hall on Wednesday, August 4, (7.30pm). Details: 0121 780 3333.