Review and photos by Ben Hogwood
There is a justified amount of doom and gloom in the arts at present, with organisations striving for increases in attendance figures while clinging to the hope that their funding will not fall through the trapdoor, as it effectively has done in the recent Arts Council England announcements for English National Opera, Britten Sinfonia and London Sinfonietta, to name just a few.
Art forms are nothing if not resilient though, especially when powered by raw talent, enthusiasm and hard work – as this night of Music For Youth Proms clearly was. How inspiring it was to see hundreds of young performers create their own bookmark experiences at the Royal Albert Hall, delivering performances of power, confidence and poise, fuelled by a clear and sheer enjoyment of music.
There was no evidence of stage nerves as performers ranging from aged six to 25, from Gwent to Ukraine (via London) united together in music, each and every one of them doing themselves proud under the Music For Youth umbrella. The registered charity works, in its own words, ‘to provide young people aged 21 and under across the UK with free, life-changing performance and progression opportunities, regardless of background or musical style’.
The range of musical styles here was testament to this approach, creating an environment where genres can be celebrated rather than restrictive. The word ‘Proms’ may still conjure images of seated classical concerts, with a smattering of world music maybe, but here it stood for hip hop, soul, brass band, solo vocals, choir, classical for small and large orchestras and even jazz fusion bands.
To pick out a single performer would be unfair, as each one was fully deserving of their moment in the spotlight. For raw, upfront sass, the Sedgehill Academy Rap Collective from Lewisham excelled, especially when three soloists came forward to take the game to the audience, their sparky wordplay in original compositions making the Girls Rap Collective a thrilling live experience.
Illustrating the breadth of this country’s music, an affecting performance of Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis followed from Musica Youth Strings, the Huddersfield-based ensemble giving true depth of feeling in their cleverly abridged account.
Cantilena from the Abbey Junior School in Reading were next, utterly charming as they sang The Puzzle and Silver Moon. They were complemented in the second half by the remarkably accomplished singing of the Northamptonshire County Youth Choir, whose accounts of music by Bob Chilcott (The Isle is Full of Noises) and Ola Gjeilo (Northern Lights) were breathtaking in both accuracy and emotion.
The brass players excelled, too – Gwent Youth Brass Ensemble in 3 Brass Dances by Ryan Linham, and the Mountbatten Big Band bringing exuberant lines to their Brooklyn medley. That the ensemble made such a big impression after No Trixx, a London fusion band of formidable musical capability, said much for their spirit.
The lasting image of the first half was provided by Ukrainian students from LPMAM (The London Performing Academy of Music, above), cleverly working Queen’s The Show Must Go On into the torch song Melody, from Ukrainian composer Skoryk. The students are on permanent placements at LPMAM, thanks to an initiative headed by conductor Stefania Passamonte, whose initiative and drive continues to bring more funding to enable more students to come over and base themselves in London. Judging by this performance they are revelling in the experience – typified by oboist Lola Marchenko, whose solos in both songs stayed long in the memory.
The second half of the Proms was similarly spectacular, with hundreds of singers and orchestral players forming the Lincolnshire Massed Ensemble (above). They delivered a Beyoncé medley of eye-opening power and positivity, headed by a group of girls whose vocals and dance moves showed just what a positive influence the former Destiny’s Child singer has exerted on them. As a celebration of 30 years of the Boston Music Centre, this took some beating.
From hundreds to just two, and the Emeli Sandé-influenced duo Chris and Baaba, whose intimate odes to friendship struck a very different but equally affecting chord, drawing the audience in closer to the round of the Albert Hall. We then heard remarkably assured solos from the York Music Forum Youth Jazz Ensemble, their Blue Matter a collection of cultured solos. A bracing account of the Overture to Hérold’s opera Zampa followed, given an excellent account by the City of Belfast Youth Orchestra. Finally, The Spy Game brought us full circle back to rap with Wag1Fam, a Stormzy-esque anthem to which the group bounced across the stage, never missing a note or a word.
The finale, a specially composed song Back Together, united all artists in a celebratory mood, a show of resolve and unexpected defiance.
Clearly this country – in the face of apparent efforts from on high to downplay the importance of music education – continues to nurture music making of astounding ability and refreshing confidence. Music For Youth is the ideal platform from which these artists can grow – but what needs to happen now is for them to get the ongoing support their talent craves and deserves. Politicians take note – music is a force for so much good and should be treated as such.