A cross-section of music and youthful performers
Presented by Richard Stilgoe, Howard Goodall & Lisa Duncombe
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 7 November, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
The Schools Prom is an annual feature at the Royal Albert Hall, and has been for three decades. Three concerts, each different in terms of programming, save, this year, the bookends of Fanfare for the Common Man and Pomp and Circumstance March No.1 (or, if you prefer, “Land of Hope and Glory”).
This first concert was, in one sense, a thoroughly enjoyable and uplifting occasion. There was, after all, much genuine talent on offer. But such a razzmatazz evening also asks questions. How do we listen? What is needed to sustain an audience for three hours? For this writer certainly not lights, whether official or audience-produced (hand-held torches were provided!). As for listening … well, if you’re joining in the music with clapping, and eager to applaud anything and everything, then is the level of listening that engaged? Do we need three presenters praising each other, and each addressing the audience as if this were a pantomime? One of them, Howard Goodall, was so biased towards this concert’s format as to be embarrassing. Everything today is levelled at “fun” and entertainment … fortunately there are deeper responses being followed elsewhere. To answer Goodall’s numerous shouted-out questions: “No!” Let brash presentation be the sole preserve of the Schools Prom; there is, after all, something to celebrate. And Goodall took a (vulgar) swipe at those who are concerned about music-education in schools … yes, on this concert’s showing then music is flourishing; but what is worrying, if this programme was a fair refection, is the relatively small amount of classical music (even in its widest meaning) that is being performed.
At this first Schools Prom, Mount Charles Youth Band began with a confident Fanfare for the Common Man, the precarious top notes handled with aplomb, but the drum strokes were never together. Then Northamptonshire County Youth Concert Band gave a very impressive showing in Frank Tichell’s Vesuvius (likeable music but not suggestive of a volcano) and a lively Cossack Dance by Franco Cesarini, which was a standard recreation of such things; but excellent playing, really good. The Greater Gwent Percussion Ensemble also impressed; a little stiff maybe, but very confident, and the members’ togetherness on five xylophones was a highlight in an engaging novelty number. The 7-9-year-olds from Pownall Music School looked and sounded the part in some Music Hall numbers, although audience participation did rather obscure their gentle voices! One String Loose – including penny whistle and electric violin – was, again, very proficient, although the fiddle’s amplification wasn’t kind on the ear and was over-balanced. As a beguiling corollary, the Calderdale Youth Guitar Ensemble was quite wonderful – in sound, balance, blend and sensitivity. To close the concert’s first part, Mount Charles Youth Band again displayed its corporate talent. Cued by a protracted Stilgoe intro (he had earlier made an unfortunate reference to the late Robin Cook) Ravel’s Boléro was a regrettable choice, as arranged, although it was mercifully cut to a mere four minutes (about a quarter of its length) – but you shouldn’t mess with a composer like Ravel – and a conga number was a rousing James Last-like entrée to the interval.
After which Aylesbury Music Centre Dance Band made little impression, partly because attempts at choreography seemed as important as the playing. Then the Loretto Chamber Ensemble appeared – one of the groups to be featured on the platform in the Arena – and began with a poor arrangement of Gershwin’s “Summertime”, not particularly well sung, in ‘pop’-style, and not helped by the use of a microphone. Any relation to “Porgy and Bess” was entirely coincidental! Poor tuning between instruments was a worry, though, although Sophia Dalrymple’s appearance on the Lowland Pipes produced piquant timbres. In terms of numbers Norwich Massed Choir made the biggest showing – a sea of (football club) yellow making a well-blended sound and vocalising to some nimble and injury-threatening dancing. Jinza Jazz Ensemble then belted out four numbers: loud and louder seem the only dynamics known to these guys, and the amplification was gratuitous.
To close was the combined Crompton House School Orchestra and Oldham Youth Orchestra. Great that a whole symphony orchestra could be assembled, but the tuning deficiencies were alarming as was the tepid nature of the performances – conductor Jack Pickford could have challenged the players more and got a much better return. Malcolm Arnold’s Little Suite No.1 was bedevilled with clashes of pitch.
One could question certain aspects of the presentation – and continue worrying about classical music itself – but there’s no doubting the across-the-board talent that was heard and seen here, which will almost certainly be repeated in the remaining concerts. It’s not just these three evenings; Music for Youth is an all-year, country-wide initiative that stretches financial and human resources – and the tributes that Stilgoe led for the stage-crew, teachers, performers, parents, etc – and not least Larry Westland, Executive Director of Music For Youth – sealed an event that was full of promise.