( All musical opinions here are personal and untutored)
Every year in Britain, year in, year out, around 700,000 babies are born but more than a million musical instruments are sold. You will not be surprised to learn that over 300,000 of these instruments are the recorders beloved of infant and junior schoolmistresses, and 200,000 are electric guitars – more than one for every two boys born. Acoustic guitars are not far behind, even if many seem to migrate to charity shops. More surprising is the sale of 300,000 portable keyboards – but perhaps many of these are Christmas toy keyboards for toddlers rather than band background blasters. That leaves about 200,000 for all the rest – woodwind, brass, “bowed instruments” and pianos, in which latter category digital models now heavily outnumber acoustic pianofortes, “free to collector” as they are often now advertised.
So EVERY CHILD must surely be learning an instrument. Well of course they are – either their parents are musicians, in which case the tradition must be cherished, or Mum or Dad failed to become musicians themselves, in which case they are desperate for their children to do better. Perhaps most couples are “mixed marriages” – a musician with a would-be musician, and this can be an especially potent background.
I’ve lots of personal experience of this – both as a semi-willing young learner myself (becoming a just-about-half-competent pianist) and as a single and a double parent ferrying my children to guitar, piano and violin lessons up dark and narrow back lanes in ingeniously secluded Derbyshire towns and villages. These days, the opportunities for young learners to perform in public are at least as great as in the mythical golden ages of the parlour song and of the competitive festival, perhaps greater than ever before. In addition to the annual concerts put on by instrument teachers and the Christmas and Easter concerts at school, there are the frequent performances by the Music Centres which have recently sprung up in nearly every town, rehearsing on a weekday evening or a Saturday morning and encompassing wind and string groups at every level from absolute beginners upwards. Well, nearly every level – every level except GOOD, you might think. Musical parents must steel themselves for about a decade of concert attendance at which your hands will be worn out by clapping and your seats made sore by sitting through far too many pieces played excruciatingly badly by far too many children including your own. The piano, at least, makes its own sound sound, and woodwind instruments, even the reedy recorder, can sound lovely at an elementary level, but teachers of other instruments seem rarely to select performance pieces that are both sufficiently challenging (not ALL on open strings) and can sound nice when played by learners. The intermediate brass will threaten to damage your inner ear, and as for strings! Well, the violin played by any but very skilled players makes a sound which is either excruciating or hilarious or both together. Every tune is out of tune and it is difficult to suppress either uncontrollable giggles or a tetanic grin of anguish. One of the most memorable ordeals of my youth was sitting in the front row of the choir, visible to everyone in the Grammar School hall, trying to keep a straight face and suppress an explosion of mirth during the mixed-masters-and-boys string quartet. Of course, our parental love and pride and the civic comradeship with other families does overcome the mirth and loathing and the tedium. It is wonderful to see how children so young learn to find their way through the intricately interwoven instrumental parts of consort pieces and how a generation seems to be growing up without the terror of performing that afflicts so many of their elders, myself particularly. Soon we will be as confident and competent as the Eisteddfodaued Welsh.
And then, suddenly, after all those years of striving and suffering, there is a joyful emergence. Suddenly the string players are good enough to join the PDSO, the Peak District String Orchestra, Founded by Pat Curteis and now conducted by Ian Naylor. Every year, a highlight is the Peak District Music Centres Christmas Concert at the Buxton Octagon. In the first half, we listen to the long progression of all the preparatory, junior, training and intermediate groups. Apparently angelic children, some pieces flatter, some over-strain their capabilities. Uninhibited applause, a re-run of the growth of our own children condensed into an hour and culminating in Jason Curteis’ spirited conducting of the ambitious and almost-there Intermediate Strings. I sit up tensely, willing them to get it right, rejoicing in the sweet passages, lamenting those slightly out-of-tune high passing notes.
Then the dash and the queue for the interval drinks, peering over heads to locate those acquaintances seen four times a year before we find our seats again for the second half and the patiently-awaited turn of the senior group of all, the PDSO, to play. Their first piece will be the Adagietto from Symphony Number 5 by Mahler. There is a hush – and suddenly we are in a quite different world. Bows and the conductor’s hands are raised and still. There is movement, but at what moment did they begin to play? Silence has become an almost inaudible whisper; the whisper swells and then sweeps into the first full chords, and, once again I’m prickling with emotion. This is what all those years of practice and performance were leading too – this beautiful, to my amateur ears exquisite and finally professional, sound. The dynamic and emotional range, the rich colours, the intensity and control, the communication between the conductor and the players – the orchestra are an enchanted unity and we are spellbound. Instead of the customary telegraphed winding up to a thunderclap ending that composers usually lay on, this piece dies away as gradually as it began. Finally the sound is imperceptible. The bristle of raised bows is still, the conductor motionless. Is that the end? The audience in the Octagon is absolutely silent. We hold our breath. Then Ian lowers his hands. We explode into applause. I cheer. They’ve done it again! Maybe there were one or two moments when the texture wasn’t quite right, or the timing slightly ragged, but it is early days, only a term since their most senior and accomplished players left, as they must each year, to go to University or Music College. How can they survive that annual loss of their most brilliant? But every year they do. (and, stop press March 09, they have one more, another concert that again felt like the best ever!) What a privilege to hear such an orchestra – what a privilege to play in it!
Not every piece will be performed with such intensity of course – there will be lighter or more rumbustious compositions during which the grins and shared laughter (which characterise the weekly practices) will be seen flickering round the benches – but every year Ian does come up with his Great Romantic Number, which will absolutely slay the audience. The first year I heard them play it was the shivery Nimrod of the Enigma Variations, then another Elgar, the Introduction and Allegro for Strings, then Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings – and this year the Mahler. Ian usually turns to the audience to introduce the Great Romantic Number, and his introduction goes something as follows – I hardly exaggerate at all, though I will stir several intros in together. The “greatest” actually applied to the Tchaikovsky.
A few words about our first piece tonight. This is almost certainly the greatest piece of music ever written for string orchestra. The lyrical initial theme is taken and reprised in a climax that is technically about as near perfect as can be. Of course, Mahler wasn’t happy composing it, to quote from his letters:
I am still working on the string piece, it will be as good as I can make it, I suppose, but how good is that? There is nothing for it but more discipline, work, work and discipline! (here Ian looks pointedly at the orchestra) Your ever-unhappy friend, Gustav.
Well, now we are going to play it for you – and it’s an extraordinarily difficult piece – it CAN sound like a landslide of lost notes – but it won’t when we play it, will it!! Here it is.
So, when they didn’t win their category in the 2007 national youth final at the Birmingham Symphony Hall, we were all outraged – they wuz robbed! – how can there really be youth orchestras elsewhere in the land better than the PDSO? Well, I suppose there is Chetham’s School, and the Yehudi Menuhin. The wonder of the PDSO is how a consort of grade 6 and upwards (and upwards +++) players can be inspired to play so impressively together. Update: In the 2009 Festival of Youth Music the PDSO at last WON their category; we don’t yet know whether they will be included in the Albert Hall concert. This last Summer, as part of twinning celebrations, Derbyshire hosted the Toyota Junior Orchestra, who played with formidable professionalism, and our daughter Ruth generously admitted that they were, well, just perfect! – but then they are the so-focused Japanese who rehearse at the end of EVERY school day, not just once a week! The Toyota juniors paid a complement to their host culture by playing a Benjamin Britten piece at once enchanting and little-known to most of us audience, and also joined with the Derbyshire City and County Youth Orchestra for a mind-blowing symphony. The City and County Youth Orchestra gets together for short residential courses just twice a year and in a few days, often under under Peter Starke and the section tutors, work up a classic or a seldom-performed work that will have you standing up and shouting for an encore! I have the CD from a couple of years ago. Almost finally, I should mention the tumultuous Wirksworth Music Centre, one of the longest established, most various and most inclusive (even of adult learners and people from Matlock!) and therefore requiring most stamina from its audiences. A host of groups currently culminate in David Francis’ Senior Strings and Chris Dixon’s Senior Recorder Consort, small groups particularly hard-hit when players leave, but both getting better and better just now!
As regards singing, rather than playing, old school-choir and choral-society hands like myself have long been bewailing the decline of school singing, perhaps because it is seen as girlish in mixed comprehensives. No-one is coming through and we are all getting older, we observe, although there is now a new wave of popular everyone-can-sing choirs who are in great demand. Round here, The Fishpond Singers and Derbyshire Diva are sucking up all the singers and would-be-singers. Formed only a year ago and already making an intriguing sound, neither childlike or “adult” is the Derbyshire Youth Chorale, twenty odd young people drawn from Derbyshire schools and directed by “King Phil”. They paid a return visit to Japan in October for a very busy week of performance and workshops and were gobsmacked by the place and their reception.
So, all is far from lost in the world of classical music here in Derbyshire; all that parental investment is worthwhile, the kids take off – and I haven’t even mentioned all the Rock Bands, and the Folk Groups, and the leaders and mentors who (sometimes) guide them, but that is another story, or rather stories.
DJM January 09