The Forgotten Youth – a response to David Nice (The Arts Desk)

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.

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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.

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5 thoughts on “The Forgotten Youth – a response to David Nice (The Arts Desk)

  1. You misunderstand the remark about Millie – it was to do with our respective positions in the Albert Hall, neither her fault nor mine. My duty is to report what I hear from where I hear it, and I should have thought that stating that was being considerate to the musicians. U couldn’t hear the violin solo in Zarathustra properly simply because of the acoustics.

    You also seem not to have noted that the only unfavourable comparison I may have made was between conductors in specific works, not the players at all – I made it clear they were absolutely equal. I thought it was fair to praise both first horns but, no, you seem to think that’s setting up comparisons.

    As for the rest, I’m sorry you took it that way but you are of course entitled to your opinion, even if I can’t agree with it. What a shame to have soured an event that was obviously joyful for both of us.

    • Hello David, thank you for your comment.

      I did note that you had begun your article stating that both ensembles were equal – this was much appreciated – and after reading your response, I realise that perhaps part of my reaction might have grown from a misunderstanding of what you had written.

      Nevertheless, I still believe that what you wrote could have at least been worded and phrased in a way that would have been less offensive to the young musicians in these orchestras. It was not just me who felt that the comments were inappropriate. My friends (some of whom play/have played in either of the ensembles) and even their parents shared their concern, and so I felt it right to write a reply and speak out on their behalf.

      I think it is important to imagine yourself as one of these musicians when writing articles about their playing. We knew we were going to share a weekend at the Proms and accepted with a cool head that the public viewed each ensemble differently, based on previous reviews/concerts/word of mouth/intensity of publicity. Most of us embarked on our respective courses with the right positive mindset: let’s work really hard and do the best we can in the circumstances – we are all working towards the same goal. Yet we all knew fine well that we were still vulnerable to public judgment and comparison. It’s natural and as I hinted above I have even done it myself. It is an atmosphere where you know that confidence and self-belief can plummet the moment someone says something negative or inappropriate about our playing.

      For example, it wasn’t clear to me that you were complaining of the acoustics, because you added that comment directly after you described the NYOS performance of Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto and praised the solos played by Findlay and myself. Maybe a clearer structure in the article (Part A: NYO Prom / Part B: NYOS Prom) would have led to a clearer understanding of your opinion.

      As for NYOS 1st Horn, saying that she was a match for her ‘counterpart’ immediately suggests that she should be thinking about her playing in comparison to other young (or younger) horn players. It invites the NYO Horns to do the same. This is not a healthy attitude for young musicians or any young person to say the least.

      But in the end, we all had a great time and went home crying and smiling. Don’t get me wrong, we at NYOS really appreciated your kind words!

  2. To an extent, I think I understand your feelings here YeYe. I hope you don’t mind my putting in a different perspective:

    The role of a classical music critic in 21st century Britain is so insignificant compared with even a decade ago. The reviewer has even stated in his own comment that it is his ‘duty to report what [he hears]’. But we now have ample opportunity for large portions of audiences to do exactly the same thing (via FB, Twitter, blogs, whatever). In summary, music critics used to have much more clout, respect and influence. Today, their opinions have next to no impact in the real world.

    Going further – in two weeks, years, decades, this review will be forgotten, while the performances of both NYOS and NYOGB will be remembered by everyone who performed in them, attended the concerts and tuned in on Radio 3.

    One last thought: I think a touch of comparison can be healthy. If anything, it helps identify what is unique about something. Comparing two symphonies by the same composer, or two performances of the same work can be enlightening to our receptive experience. Perhaps youth orchestras shouldn’t be subject to public comparison (I don’t know – discuss!), but would you not agree that they should be treated as any other orchestra visiting the world’s largest classical music festival?

    • Hi Galambborong (cool choice of name by the way).

      I can see why you think the role of a classical music critic might be diminishing in the 21st century, but I disagree that it has become so insignificant that people don’t care or listen to what they have to say.

      It is wonderful to have positive response from social media, posted by friends, family, colleagues and strangers. They will always support you and be there when things slip up. They understand all the hard work you’ve put into a concert and want you to do your best. But, I hate to say it myself, these people have the benefit of knowing the performer and will be biased. Even strangers, perhaps followers of a particular orchestra or organisation, are loyal fans who will love it unconditionally, in spite of a negative review.

      This is why the opinion of a critic could be seen to be more valuable and informed than that of social media. If a critic praises you, one can say “Ah, so my friends weren’t just being nice when they paid me that compliment, I did actually play well.” It is a little sad, but that I am sure many musicians will share with me this view. Personally, I know it is unhealthy to think like that and refuse to dwell on mean adjudications and reviews. If I did mull over it I would not be where I am today.

      Comparison of interpretations is very useful and enlightening, and reminds us that there is no one way of playing a page of notes. So I was not completely taken aback by the comparison between Järvi and Volkov. But this comment, read together with the other extracts, does not lead to a healthy comparison. I believe youth orchestras should be reviewed with the professional ones because that encourages extremely high standards of playing. But like I said, I have never read a review that invites the public to compare the standard of specific players (e.g. principals), which was the effect of the one written by Mr Nice. If the BBCSSO were playing the same weekend as the BBC Philharmonic, I don’t think anyone would dare to say that the first horn’s solos were on par with his or her counterpart.

      All that being said, you are right. NYOS and NYO both totally changed history this weekend and we had a good party on stage! Everyone will remember what they saw and heard.

  3. On China, family and writing – The Diary of a Noggin

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