Monday 9 December 2013

National Children's Orchestras at the Royal Festival Hall

NCO Under 13 Orchestra at the Anvil in Spring 2013 - photo Alex von Koettlitz
NCO Under 13 Orchestra at the Anvil in Spring 2013 photo Alex von Koettlitz
The National Children's Orchestras of Great Britain (NCO) celebrated its 35th birthday this year and the final event of their season was a concert at the Royal Festival Hall on 8 December 2013 by the Main Orchestra, conducted by Peter Stark, and the Under 13 Orchestra conducted by Roger Clarkson, Principal Director of Music. The NCO offers talented children aged 7 to 13 opportunities for training and performance in a network of regional orchestras, with the two orchestra performing at the Festival Hall being the national showcases. In the Under 13 Orchestra all players were under 13 with the youngest being 11, in the Main Orchestra all players were aged 14. Both orchestras were huge, over 110 players each. Which means in both halves of the concert (the Under 13 Orchestra played the first half, the Main Orchestra the second), the platform was full to bursting with young musicians. They all wear a uniform, the boys in white shirts, black trousers and red tie, the girls in white shirt, long red skirt and hair held back with matching red ribbons. Truth be told, the skirt was rather unflattering, but the sea of bright red certainly indicated how many young women there were on the platform.

At the beginning of each half, as the young players walked onto the platform, the auditorium erupted in cheering and whistling. Both groups impressed with the confidence and seriousness of their demeanour on the concert platform, the confidence with which they undertook solos, and they way that the strings functioned smoothly as a single unit. You had to keep reminding yourself how young these players were.

The Under 13 Orchestra opened with a lively account of Kabalevsky's Overture to Colas Breugnon, followed by a nicely dramatic performance of Sibelius's Finlandia. Next came the Dance Bacchanale from Saint-Saens Samson et Dalilah, the first of three items in the evening with sexual overtones giving the concert a somewhat racy tone. The Saint-Saens included a lovely moment for solo oboe and the whole was full of some nicely exotic moments. We then heard the final two movements of Rimsky Korsakov's Scheherezade with the leader, Philip Edwards giving a stunning account of the solo violin part with fine solos from oboe and flute. Only the merest hint of sourness in the wind tuning at one point suggested that anything but the highly professional; if you had listened to the performance blind it would have been difficult to guess the age of the performers.

The members of the orchestra having just auditioned to see who will go up to the main orchestra, Vivienne Price, the orchestra's founder, presented a prize for the best audition to one of the trombonists, Ifan Llywelyn.

The Under 13 Orchestra's performance finished with Danzon No. 2 by Mexican composer Arturo Marquex (born 1950). A lively dance-based piece which the orchestra clearly enjoyed playing, with a great solo trumpet part, and the players even managed to bring in some co-ordinated movement! A real joy to listen to.

During the interval there was a reception at which Tony Hall, Director General of the BBC, spoke and his first word was 'Wow', which just about summed up the reaction of everyone in the room. Hall went on to congratulate everyone involved and talked of the sense of exhilaration which young people bring to performance.

The second half was played by the Main Orchestra, under guest conductor Peter Stark, with the players all aged 14. Before playing started Vivienne Price returned to present on of the orchestra with the Dame Ruth Railton memorial prize.

The orchestra opened with the Prelude to Act 1 of Wagner's Die Meistersinger, giving the piece a lovely sweep and creating a quite sophisticated sound. Next followed five movements from Prokofiev's Winter Bonfire Suite in a lovely confident performance full of fine control. From the opening horn whoops of Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier Suite it was clear that the music held no terrors for the young players. Strauss gives us a whistle-stop tour of highlights of the opera and the orchestra gave us some wonderfully ecstatic moments and some finely subtle ones. The orchestral finished with the Berceuse and Finale from Stravinsky's Firebird Suite, in which we were treated to some ravishing playing and magical moments, including a very fine horn solo.

This is the last concert for the present players, they all going on to other things (the NCO is an important feeder organisation for the National Youth Orchestra), and a new intake will be performing next year.

The orchestra's support extends beyond just orchestral coaching. Earlier this year 20 of the most talented members were awarded Leverhulme scholarships at the Royal College of Music enabling them to have a masterclass from a tutor of their choice. The NCO also runs a bursary scheme to ensure that no talented child is ever denied a place for financial reasons.

Further information from the National Children's Orchestras website.

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