Sunday 6 March 2022

A joyful celebration of playing together: MiSST's 9th Annual Concert

Sibelius: Finlandia - SMS Orchestra, MiSST Voices Choir, Jonathan Gibson at Queen Elizabeth Hall
Sibelius: Finlandia - SMS Orchestra, MiSST Voices Choir, Jonathan Gibson at Queen Elizabeth Hall

On Thursday 3 March 2022, Music in Secondary Schools Trust (MiSST) celebrated at Queen Elizabeth Hall with its 9th Annual Concert, the first opportunity MiSST's orchestras have had to play on such a large scale since 2019. The evening featured the SMS Orchestra, MiSST Together Orchestra, MiSST Voices Choir, MiSST Leaders Orchestra (MiLO), SMS String Orchestra, SMS Concert Band along with conductors Jonathan Gibson, Stephane Bissell, and Natalie Wild in repertoire that ranged from Sibelius' Finlandia and the finale from Dvorak's Symphony No. 9, to music by Florence Price and Peter Warlock, to songs from the musicals Rent and Hamilton, to the premiere of Rise by MiLO member Ricardo Little.

There was a lot to celebrate, and the numbers are impressive, but perhaps what was most joyful was the sheer ability to make music together. The finale featured the SMS Orchestra, conducted by Jonathan Gibson and Massed Choir (i.e. everyone else from the evening) singing 'This is Me' by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul from The Greatest Showman, a powerful yet joyful celebration of everything that MiSST stands for.

Central to MiSST's work is their Andrew Lloyd Webber Programme which enables young people at MiSST partner schools to play an instrument. So this year, the programme has 8030 students with 14,500 students reached throughout the years 2013 to 2021. There has been a steady growth, and this concert celebrated the joining of nine new partner schools. Whilst students learn their instruments in school, there are extra activities to encourage them. The MiSST Saturday Music School (SMS) is designed to provide opportunities for the most able students to play with others at a similar standard. The SMS Orchestra opened and closed the concert, performing Sibelius' Finlandia, and the final movement to Dvorak's Symphony No. 9, with the strings giving us three movements from Warlock's Capriol Suite and the wind performing a suite from Lin-Manuel Miranda's musical Hamilton. All impressive performances of music that its not a straight-forward play. The Dvorak in particular featured some very fine solo moments from woodwind and French horn, and in all the pieces the orchestra played with impressive professionalism, creditable tuning and a sense of vibrant togetherness. Whilst the players were largely in white shirts and black trousers/skirts, I was rather taken by the young man who had dressed his outfit up with sparkly braces and bow tie.

Finlandia which opened the concert, including a choral refrain, has a particular significance because in 2020 with the cancellation of that year's annual concert, an online version of Finlandia was created, the start of a number of online activities through which MiSST kept its young players interested and playing.

In complete contrast the MiSST Together Orchestra provides opportunities for students in the early stages of the programme, so their impressive performances of Quincy Jones' Soul Bossa Nova and music from John Williams' Jurassic Park represented for many players their first outing on such a large stage.

The MiSST Leaders Orchestra (MILO) gives talented players a chance both to play with similar standard players and to develop leadership skills. So the music played was the responsibility of the students too, this is anything but a 'turn up and play' ensemble. We heard them in a conductorless account of the Juba Dance from Florence Price's Symphony No. 1, and then (with conductor this time) in the premiere Ricardo Little's Rise. Ricardo plays the flute in MILO, and his piece was quite a surprise. Inspired by Arturo Marquez Danzon No. 2 it was striking and certainly not easy, Ricardo was not making life easy for himself!  The work was developed with his peers in workshops and with mentoring from composer Oliver Mayo. More power to Ricardo's elbow. And Ricardo shared with another young man, Ivo Elgueta, the Musician of the Year award.

For more background on MiSST and its founding, have a look at my interview with the MiSST founder, Truda White. We chatted in February 2020, just before the world changed [see my interview]

There were 18 schools in total represented on stage, with a wide range of pupils, the majority of whom would not be performing music to such a standard without MiSST. The trust gets significant funding from The Charles Wolfson Charitable Trust, The Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation and The Dame Alice Owen Foundation, and other partners and supporters include The Benedetti Foundation, Chetham's School of Music, Middlesbrough Council, Music Education Islington and The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain.

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