Location: On the 9-hour plane from Helsinki to Guangzhou
My happiness of the weekend has diminished a little after reading someone’s written words. The good memories on- and off-stage, regardless of their emotive strength and permanence, are now partially smudged out by one particular 5-star review about our BBC Prom – quite ironic I know. Sadly, some of the review was not written in the right way, and I thus feel guilty for enjoying our success and accepting the praise. It also brought my attention to an even bigger issue – NYOS and Scotland’s reputation that has been largely ignored in the classical music scene.
These thoughts have been brewing in my mind ever since I read it, muffling the glorious music I saw performed this weekend. Believe me it really takes a lot to beat Petrushka, Scythian Suite and The Rite of Spring. So, I am going to let it out.
The disappointing words were from David Nice, writing on behalf of The Arts Desk a joint review on both the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain Prom and the NYOS Prom. Many nice things were said for both orchestras. He lauded them both. He rightly recognised the potential, standard and professionalism of NYOS that have been ignored for far too long by the BBC Proms and everyone else. NYOGB was given a much-deserved 4-stars. However, a few sections render it a distasteful comparative analysis of two fantastic youth orchestras, which bothers me quite a lot. I speak out against it as a young Scottish musician, as an alumnus, friend and former intern of NYOGB, as a friend to some of its current musicians, and finally as Leader of NYOS Symphony Orchestra.
I have picked out the parts that I don’t like from the review, quoting directly from the website (version: Tuesday 9 August 2016).
“[Firebird] Not as quirky, perhaps, as Kristjan Järvi’s unpredictable flaming with the NYO at the Festival Hall earlier this year…”
“…there were some wonderful orchestral solos along the way, with the first horn [NYOS] a match for her counterpart in the NYO the previous evening.”
“Here Ye Ye Xu and Findlay Spence were rightly in the limelight; I’m sure NYO leader Millie Ashton was equally good in her important solos the previous evening, but from my seat, and given an extra desk of first violinst [sic], she was turned too far away to register.”
Though these three extracts do not directly say “he or she is better than them”, they are undoubtedly read as a blatant comparison exercise. Not only does the author compare the orchestras as ensembles, but he has actually singled out players and judged them against each other. Musicians, especially young ones, cannot be compared in such a black and white way. The ones singled out above are at different stages in life and come from different cities. I know that the NYOS 1st horn and I are heading into graduation year, whereas most of NYO have yet to leave school. It just doesn’t make sense to assess us when everyone plays differently, embarks on music in their individual way and learns at varying paces.
As eloquently put by one of my good friends in NYOGB, the tone of this article, thanks to these back-handed comments, invites unnecessary antagonism and toxic competition between two groups of highly talented young players. Furthermore, it does nothing for their morale and confidence. Musicians, especially in the classical world, are super insecure and worried about doing well; we are constantly thinking, X played this concerto amazingly, why don’t I sound as good? Young people are super worried about getting As in exams and winning places at good universities; X got 90% in Maths but didn’t even study, it is just not fair. The stage is a special place where they can escape from a judgmental world, where they can be free to express themselves fully. The last thing we want is to judge and frighten them away from that platform.
What Mr Nice should have simply done is write a little less than what he did. Was it really necessary to say that Millie was “turned too far away” to be acknowledged or noticed in her stunning solos? Was it really necessary to say that NYOS 1st Horn was just as good as that of NYOGB? I doubt he would ever write like this about two professional orchestras. All he needed to do was give his honest opinion of our concert, rather than picking different sections apart and comparing them. He could have given the Scots the recognition they deserve in a way that doesn’t discourage the other young players.
On a wider note, this weekend at the Proms was arguably one of the most exciting in history – in my short history anyway! A huge celebration of great musicians from a wee country so often ignored and dismissed in the arts world, and overshadowed by a bigger England. I feel like even the adults are neglected, and but why even? Holy cow, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra had never sounded this good on Friday and Sunday. I don’t know what happened – is it the fruit of a the perfect new partnership with Thomas Dausgaard? Whatever magic it is, keep doing what you’re doing because it’s working and it makes me want to be in your orchestra.
And now I turn to the youths. Indeed, from a historical and organisational point of view, NYOS has been in the shadow of its GB counterpart. (I think everyone in NYOS is aware of this and it doesn’t bother them, because it is simply the way things have turned out.) NYOGB is much bigger, has existed for much longer and has nearly always been invited to the Proms. The Prom is televised each year – the exception is 2016 and the dominating coverage of the Olympic Games in Rio. The orchestra enjoys from the outset a prime national importance thanks to its membership, which represents a larger teenage population – the whole of Great Britain – and its stellar contribution to society through relentless outreach work. As a result, it receives more donations – not ignoring the amazing work from a very dedicated Development Team – and has won more awards.
For the three years I was in NYOGB, I confess that even I relished in this organisational prestige, believing that no other youth orchestra could ever compare. But I speak of pride rather than snobbery or elitism. (NYOGB have been doing all in their power to delete the latter two from their reputation, spreading the breadth of their training across the country to music hubs and other ensembles.) Whatever the reputation of so-and-so before, this does not justify the dumbing-down of other national ensembles across the country, such as NYOS, simply because they are ‘just Scottish’ and smaller. These are not good justifications for a ‘less prestigious’ concert date (our Sunday matinée scheduling, very well-attended though I admit). It does not justify talking about these ensembles condescendingly to our friends.
What most people don’t know is that at NYOS Symphony Orchestra, we are just as passionate to excel and keen to learn. That in Perth we had only 3.5 rehearsal days on really hard repertoire before our first concert in Glasgow City Halls. That we were rehearsing at least 9 hours a day (not including personal practice time) and worked with, in my opinion, one of the toughest conductors ever. NYOS and the National Youth Jazz Orchestra of Scotland deserve to be in the limelight for once in their own right. Not as side or supporting acts, but as the main one at 7:30pm on a Friday or Saturday night.
The youth were forgotten in Mr Nice’s article. He wrongly drew comparisons and saw it acceptable to target young individual players and put them against each other on a mean, pointless ‘talent scale’ of who could play this-and-that better. The Scottish (and equally Irish and Welsh) youth have always been forgotten and neglected in the UK. This must change. If NYJOS didn’t convince you on Friday night or if NYOS didn’t win you on Sunday, then you seriously need to open your eyes and ears. Because we’re all here, doing all we can and we’re playing our socks off.