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How the National Youth Orchestra is levelling the playing field

Changes to the recruitment process and the musical output are helping freshen things up, says chief executive and artistic director Sarah Alexander

Sarah Alexander, chief executive and artistic director of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain (NYO), is talking me through the recent changes to the ensemble’s recruitment process. I’m finding the conversation a little – to use current parlance – triggering.

My own unsuccessful foray into NYO life involved an arduous journey to Kettering, where, despite possessing reasonable technical skill and obsessive interest, I failed to convey either aspect to an unwelcoming panel. I silently vowed never to go through such a process ever again and quickly switched to less collaborative activities. 

Today’s teenagers have a very different experience. “We like to see the people involved in the process as gate openers, rather than gate keepers,” explains Alexander.

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The NYO now works with hundreds of young musicians alongside the ‘official’ ensemble, and its Inspire scheme is open year-round to all students who play an orchestral instrument to Grade 6+ standard (it’s not necessary to have taken the grades).

Those who attend state schools, are home educated and/or are Black, Asian or ethnically diverse will automatically be admitted in a radical move to support diversity. Auditions for the NYO itself are more accessible: musicians need to be at Grade 8+ standard, but no longer need to have taken the exam, and bursaries are available. The latest round of applications has just opened, and closes on May 29.

At the recent Association of British Orchestras (ABO) conference, there was a general consensus that it was no longer acceptable for ensembles – particularly those in receipt of funding – to simply “turn up and play”. Alexander, who was appointed OBE in 2018, has spent the past decade rebalancing the proportion of state and private school pupils in membership of the 164-strong NYO from one in two to nine in 10. 

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She’s also committed to ensuring the orchestra plays a broader range of music. For Running Riot!, the recent London Southbank Centre concert, the NYO took inspiration from Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, which famously shocked attendees at its 1913 premiere, pairing the work with new music from Gabriela Ortiz and Dinuk Wijeratne. Tickets were free for all teenagers.

As I was enjoying some pre-concert refreshment, idly flicking through Opera magazine, a name popped off the page.

Jan Latham-Koenig was praised for his “taut baton”, under which “the orchestra’s playing rippled with detail”. The work in question was Rigoletto, which had a run at the Royal Opera House Muscat in Oman earlier this year. Latham-Koenig was the reason I was at Basingstoke’s Anvil, where the conductor was appearing with the Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra, as part of the Croatian ensemble’s current UK tour.

Seeing an international orchestra still feels miraculous after the two-year travel hiatus, but the Zagreb Philharmonic’s arrival has a particular significance. Just as the pandemic was beginning to wreak its havoc, Zagreb was dealt an additional blow – an earthquake damaged nearly 2,000 buildings in the Croatian city, including the concert hall and many of the musicians’ homes. This tour, the first time the group has performed in the UK since 1974, was a statement of determination.

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That grit could be heard in Mahler’s first symphony, which was bright and colourful, if not finely textured. Latham-Koenig brought infectious energy to the podium; bringing out the woodland motifs – such as the famous ‘cuckoo’ emblem – and brass embellishment.

British violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen was the superb soloist in the Sibelius concerto, garnering repeated applause. Four songs by Croatian composer Dora Pejačević, largely unfamiliar to British audiences, were pleasant additions. Given that the heavy programme had the potential to be stodgy, the evening flew by. As my neighbour exclaimed at the conclusion of the Mahler, “That was the fastest hour I’ve ever experienced.” 

Claire Jackson is a writer and editor. claire-jackson.co.uk
@claireiswriting

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