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21 March 2020

Youth Makes Music

Tag(s): Education, Languages & Culture
Like all of us I have received numerous emails in the last few days cancelling events that were in the diary. The latest came from the Barbican which has been closed until at least 1st May. My wife and I were looking forward to an LSO concert on 29th March featuring Elgar’s Violin Concerto and the Sibelius 4th Symphony, two of our favourite pieces of music. But at least we managed to get to a very special concert at the Royal Festival Hall on 3rd March. We were invited by the music director of Youth Makes Music, Nigel Grant Rogers who is also Chairman of our local branch of the English Speaking Union of which I have been a member for many years. Youth Makes Music is organised by the Rotary Club. I have never been a member of the Rotary Club but am aware of the fine work it does.

Rotary International is an organisation with around 1.2 million dedicated volunteers around the world, devoting their time and expertise to doing good in the world. In London, Rotary’s youth programmes enable young people to grow and develop in areas such as public speaking, science and technology, art, photography, cooking, environment, citizenship and in this case music. These can often be life changing opportunities.  

Every other year, schools in the London area are invited to apply for musicians in the school to participate in a concert at a prestigious venue. It started some 45 years ago in Alexandra Palace and has also been held at the Royal Albert Hall and the Barbican Centre. Nigel chairs a selection panel which has the difficult task of auditioning the candidates and making a final decision that will also allow for a balanced and varied programme.

The result was stupendous. There were some very gifted soloists some of whom I’m sure are destined to have professional careers in music. There were also impressive duos and trios, large and small choirs, excellent orchestras, a jazz band and a steel band. The show closed with a performance from Rotary Drummers for Peace which featured 70 young children from several different schools, and we even had an opportunity for some audience participation. The evening’s compère was Bill Turnbull, the popular TV and radio presenter.

We began with a steel band, no doubt because it takes so long to set up all their instruments.  Whitmore Steel Band was started in 1982 as part of a borough-wide multicultural programme. The band has performed on many TV programmes including Blue Peter and Record Breakers. It has toured Europe including Italy, France, Spain and Austria. Their talented musicians come from several Harrow Schools and many play multiple instruments. Their repertoire includes jazz and many different popular styles of music. On this occasion they performed ‘Oye como Va’ by Latin jazz and Mambo musician Tito Puente. On our various trips to the Caribbean my wife and I have come to adore steel bands and this group stood fair comparison with anything we have seen over there.

Next was a young man who writes and performs his own electronic music, Jake Savage. Jake has agreed a new music management contract with the objective of releasing his material later this year. It was not to our taste but the many young people in the audience seemed to enjoy it.

Three young girls call themselves Heathers Ensemble and met at Queens Secondary School in Bushey. They all share a passion for singing and musical theatre and gave their version of ‘Burn’ from the hit musical, Hamilton.

Then came the Latymer School Chamber Orchestra. Latymer is a co-educational school in North London with about 1350 pupils, founded in 1624 by benefactor Edward Latymer.[i] Its Chamber Orchestra has made several appearances at the Regional and National Festivals of Music for Youth. Every summer the Orchestra undertakes a music tour with the school’s Chamber Choir and in recent years has performed in Spain, France, Holland, Germany and Italy. The current ensemble ranges in age from 14 to 18. They played a delightful piece by the little known Russian composer Vasily Kalinnikov. He composed his Serenade for Strings in1891 and it shares a similar lyrical character to the Serenades of Tchaikovsky, Dvorák and Elgar.

Joshua is a 15 year old singer from West Hatch High School in Chigwell. He has only been performing in front of an audience for the last four years but has already sung on stages like Her Majesty’s Theatre, Haymarket. It was rather incongruous to hear someone so young singing ‘My Way’ with its opening lines:
 
“And now, the end is near
And so I face the final curtain
My friends, I'll say it clear
I'll state my case of which I'm certain
I've lived a life that's full
I traveled each and every highway….”
 
But nevertheless he sang it like a real trouper, with huge self-confidence and vocal accuracy.

Drapers’ Academy choir includes girls from Year 7 to Year 10 (11-16 years). It has performed at a variety of events including Guildhall, London for the Garsington Opera Don Giovanni project. Here they sang ‘The Climb’ by Jessi Alexander and John Mabe. This was first released by Miley Cyrus in 2009 and had been arranged for the choir by their director Laura Dunn.

Tashi and Kaj Litch are brothers born in England but brought up on Orcas Island in Washington State. Their musical lives began from the age of five with Suzuki violin lessons and playing along with their Mum and Dad at the local weekly Irish session. Tashi was given his first mandolin at the age of nine and began busking with it ten minutes later with Kaj playing the fiddle. Kaj then took up the guitar and they discovered Bluegrass and have made a big impression at country music festivals across the western USA.  Kaj has recently won a major music scholarship to study at Forest School in Snaresbrook. They gave us exciting renditions of ‘St John’s Train’ by David Francey and ‘Fortunate Son’ by John C Fogarty.

They were followed by the London Celtic Youth Orchestra, an ensemble of students from Feith an Cheoil School who play traditional Irish music. What makes them special is they also dance very well. At last year’s Mayor of London St Patrick’s Day celebrations, the Orchestra entertained their biggest audience yet, of 15,000 people and later made their debut on prime-time TV in Ireland. They gave us ‘The Proclamation’ by Michael Rooney and the traditional air ‘The Shores of Lough Bran’. Then they closed the first half with a rousing performance of ‘The Scorlacht Jig’ also by Michael Rooney and in this one some of the girls showed off their dancing skills. It was no surprise to learn that past pupils have gone on to perform in such notable productions as “Riverdance” and “Lord of the Dance”.

The second half was opened by the Veenalaya Orchestra consisting of performers varying from ages 11 to 17, from Hertfordshire and North West London. They play a fusion of Carnatic and Western styles of music blending instruments from both. It was led by the Veena, a South Indian stringed instrument, accompanied by Violin, Flute, and Keyboard. The percussion was a mixture between the South Indian principal instrument Mirudangam and a Western Drum Kit. They played ‘Reetigowlai and Kalyani’ by Flute Navin and it was fascinating.

Riley is a 12-year old who at the age of 9 won his local talent show ‘Elstree & Borehamwood’s Got Talent’. A year later and without any singing training, Riley appeared as a contestant on The Voice Kids UK 2018. He performed his mum’s favourite song ‘Hallelujah’ by Leonard Cohen. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

St Marylebone School Chamber Choir is an auditioned choir for girls in years 10-13. They sing a wide range of repertoire from classical to lighter numbers and they have sung services in venues including Southwark Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, St Thomas Church and St John the Divine both in New York City. For us they sang ‘O Swallow, Swallow’ with words by Tennyson and music by Gustav Holst. Holst was a pioneer of girls' music education and composed this when he was Director of Music at St Paul’s Girls School in Hammersmith. They then sang 'What a Wonderful World' by Bob Thiele and made famous by Louis Armstrong.

Jaren is 14 and a Year 9 Music Scholar at University College School in London. He started playing the viola at age 6 and currently studies on a scholarship at the Junior Royal Academy. He has won several competitions and we could see and hear why when he played the first movement of Robert Schumann’s Violin Sonata No 1 in A Minor, transcribed for viola.

Highlands School Close Harmony Ensemble was only reformed in September 2019 with a small group of selected students.  They demonstrated their close harmony skills with a rendition of ‘White Winter Hymnal’ first performed by Fleet Foxes.

Kingsdale is an ‘Outstanding School’ in every area and that certainly includes music. Their music department has trained large numbers of students over several decades who have gone on to have successful careers in music, studying in music conservatoires and universities. Under the direction of Harry Brown, a former Kingsdale pupil, who studied at the Royal Academy of Music, The Barry Graham Big Band showcases the continuing affinity for jazz at the school. They gave us an uplifting performance of ‘On Green Dolphin Street’ by Bronislaw Kaper and it was smack in the best traditions of Big Band with several members given the opportunity for a few moments in the spotlight with a solo.

The evening finished with the Rotary Peace Drummers, a group of 70 young people aged from 11 to 17 who attend schools in Hertfordshire. Many of the drummers are just 11 or 12 and some still attend primary school. They were trained by the celebrated Ghanaian drummer, Abass Dodoo and they performed his work ‘Ayeeko’ which means ‘Well done’. It was composed specially for this project and we all learned how to say, or even shout, ‘Well done’ in Ghanaian. And we meant it too because the whole evening was ‘Well done’.

So this may be the last concert we will be attending for quite some time but it was rich and tremendously varied and gave us a feeling of hope for the future that so many of our young people still throw themselves in to learning and practising these vital skills. And just on the subject of the crisis I have often thought that if the BBC had behaved in the Second World War as they do now then we would have probably lost it. I now know that as I see the way they behave in a situation that is like a war. With each new initiative by the government they try to find holes in it or get people on the programme who will say it’s wrong. They ask ‘Will it work?’ instead of asking “How do we make sure it works?”


[i] As a sixth-former at Manchester Grammar School I went on a History trip to Shropshire which we shared with boys from Latymer because our form and history master had also taught there.




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