El Sistema this, El Sistema that...there have been times over the last few years when I’ve grown sick and tired of hearing about the music education method famous for producing Gustavo Dudamel from within the ranks of the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela. Every time they appear in Britain, the press go into a frenzy. The jackets! The twirling instruments! The dancing! Of course, celebrating young musicians is wonderful and I’m delighted that it receives coverage in the mainstream media, and for the record, I happen to think that they are brilliant!. I just wish the coverage didn’t often have the subtext of I wish we had stuff like this in Britain. Of course, it’s not just the media, music students can be just as bad. I can guarantee that when regular visiting orchestras come to London, students are fighting to get hold of a ticket, but when they can get a £5 ticket using the excellent Student Pulse App for a London based orchestra, suddenly that essay that had been meaning to get around to writing demands to be written. It seems to be a feature of being British. That self deprecating humour that we’re famous for and foreigners find endearing (so I’m told) often also manifests itself in being unable or unwilling to celebrate our own home grown talent. In short,(look away UKIP) if it’s from overseas, it must be better.
Last night, I was at the Barbican centre. Despite the presence of many colleagues, Darren Henley the new chief executive of Arts Council England and Kathryn McDowell from the LSO to name a few, I was not there as a flute player but in my preferred and most important capacity. Last night, I was dad. Our son was playing in a concert which saw John Wilson conducting the NYO, or to give it it’s official and impressive title, The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. We in the LSO regularly shoe horn 100 musicians onto that stage and it’s a real squeeze, but they managed to get around 160 people on stage last night. It was an awesome sight. I put a picture up on twitter and a friend of mine asked if they were doing Mahler 8 as it was so packed. Nope, just Elgar 1 GTi.
The typical demographic for the audience of an NYO concert is one to make most arts managers green with envy. It ticks the stakeholder boxes with all colours, creeds and an age range from cradle to grave. Not only that, but as there are so many children in the audience, quite often shifting around to see their big brothers or sisters on stage, allowances are made. There are no death stares or shushing at the slightest blemish in concert etiquette by the unwary. There are no terrified parents waiting to be asked to leave if their kid coughs in a quiet passage. There is just one enormous, smiling, attentive audience and a celebratory and encouraging atmosphere. I wish it were always like that.
But it’s only a glorified school concert right? I mean, it doesn’t matter if the audience can’t sit still - they’re only kids on stage, so it doesn’t matter, right? Wrong. Firstly, once the concert began, my 10 year old daughter (concert tally - 8 fruit pastilles) was riveted. When the sea of cellos made their impressive entry in the Bach Fugue, she grabbed my hand, looked up and grinned at the sound. I couldn’t disagree with her. She wasn’t the only one. Everyone in the audience was gripped by the performance. There is one reason that this was the case. It wasn’t because they all had siblings/children/grandchildren on stage, it wasn’t because they all had lots of fruit pastilles, and it wasn’t because they were terrified of moving in a hostile concert hall atmosphere. It was because of the quality of the music making. Make no mistake, these young people, your young people, were playing difficult music in a thrilling way. When the offstage brass made their appearance at the climax of the Pines of Rome, the wave of energy that crashed off the stage was quite overwhelming. John Wilson, stood and grinned at them from his podium. We grinned from the circle.
To entertain a diverse audience, you don’t always need to have gimmicks, or themes, or clever lighting or live twitter feeds on t shirts - you need great music played brilliantly well with passion and commitment. The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain well and truly ticked all of those boxes. Even the concert dress code for the youngsters was refreshing. They don’t have a uniform but ask the players to choose concert clothes that ‘best express yourself as a bright teenage musician.’ How marvellous.
As a musician, it was a moving experience seeing the next generation of young British musicians sitting in my seat.
As dad? I sat back and smiled from start to finish, my fruit pastilles untouched.
You can listen to the Barbican concert on Radio 3 on Friday night at 7.30
Or you can go and see the Simon Bolivar Symphony at the RFH on Friday too
Reviews on Classical Source and The Guardian
This is my personal blog. All views are my own and are not endorsed by any of the organisations I work for.