Life and Death

My first tongueless snog was on a clear moonlit night in the back of the cricket pavilion at Radley College in Abingdon, Oxfordshire. The ecstatic intensity of these fleeting minutes was accompanied by the voice of my deeply religious upbringing, insisting God would smite me down for such a terrible sin. But I didn’t care. I was prepared to risk the worst for this hair-gelled and fringe-highlighted mortal along with his taste in Nick Kershaw, Drakkar Noir and guyliner.

In the 2 hours that followed I spun the pinkest, fluffiest dreams of love, knowing we would be married before long and wondering already what kind of present I could buy such a paragon of style. A thin leather piano keyboard tie perhaps? Name bracelet? An alternative to the Drakkar?

80s style icon Nick Kershaw (above) and this marvellous yet deluded bloke wearing (one suspects) his own accessories.

Glowing with purest fantasy, I floated into the Harry Potter dining hall where everyone was gathered for bedtime cocoa and biscuits. There, right in front of me, sitting entwined on my beloved’s lap was viola player Sarah Heartfield, replete with helmet hair-sprayed mullet and huge purple earrings, locked in a full-on frenchy.

The only thing to do was wait for God to finish his hideous punishment, doubtless ending in a lonely death, fat and unloved in my off-white C&A jumper and hideous sensible shoes from Clarkes.

My rival in first love looked uncannily like this style queen. The more I think of it, it’s a mystery quite how the 80s passed fashion security. I mean, how did we sleep at night with all that backcombing?

Quaking with misery, abandonment and shame I crawled from the night’s hellish pits into the next morning’s rehearsal of the last movement of Mahler 6. You know, the one with the hammer blows of Fate. Conducted by Simon Rattle. My sniggering desk partner, cello innocently in hand, was none other than my cruel Judas.

Here’s what it sounds like if you don’t know it, c/o fabulous Chicago and Haitink. The last 3 mins or so will give you a flave of Fate’s deadly hand if you can’t face the whole thing. But it’s really worth having a go on all of it if you get a mo.

Now imagine that incredible music played by 170 hyper-talented super-trained hormone-crazed teenagers in the Albert Hall.

This was, is, the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain.

The most precious days of my teenhood were spent in it’s life-giving embrace and it was the greatest privilege to find myself back on site at Radley for the NYO’s recent winter course, coaching the cello section.

In some ways little has changed. I see my young self over and over again in these kids who are often outcasts at school for being too swotty, square, weird and worst of all, for loving classical music. It wouldn’t surprise me if there are still a few labouring under the religious fervour and terrible clothes that often go with a classical music background.

165 strong (the helicopter view over the stage is the only way to see them all at once), the orchestra is made up of the best instrumentalists aged 18 and under in the land. Competition for places is fierce and those that make it have worked extremely hard since a young age to achieve these standards. They are an exceptional lot in all kinds of ways. Many of those I saw at auditions (and not necessarily the ones who got through) have a grade 8 or higher standard in several instruments, speak more than two languages fluently, are years ahead of their peers academically and often highly evolved creative thinkers.

One 14 year old NYO violinist told me she’s seen over 50 operas and intends to be a conductor. The violin is her third instrument. A cellist on last year’s course was in the middle of writing a full-scale opera in between GCSEs and already had an impressive prize-winning brace of chamber and orchestral pieces to her name. Others excel at sport or chess at national level. One section principal is a world champion in competitive computer gaming.

You can imagine that achievements on this level can isolate such gifted teenagers from the rest of the world, and it is a joy to see them light up with delight at suddenly finding themselves surrounded by like-minded souls, perhaps for the first time in their lives.

Here I am at around the time I was in NYO, terrible 80s hair, jumpsuit and earrings in place along with existential angst, feeling misunderstood and a definite need to be alone in my room with Sibelius 7.

Again and again I’ve seen kids opening like thirsty flowers put in freshest mountain spring water as the NYO course progresses, and completely transform from withdrawn non-communicators to bouncy chirpers in a matter of days.

No therapist could get near these kind of results.

An incredible percentage of members of the UK’s top orchestras were in NYO, not to mention principal players of some of the world’s leading orchestras, ensembles and quartets. Many of my oldest friends and colleagues are those with whom I shared those first intense life-learnings: getting drunk for the first time on cider and Cinzano, choking on illicit B&Hs, philosophising endlessly on the wickedness of school, parents and boys, the difficulties of Popper studies, the beauty of certain books, all discussed in whispers until late into the night in freezing shared dorms. And saturating everything was MUSIC!

Marvellous CLASSICAL music!

Our guides into this greatest of the arts included Norman Del Mar (right) with Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben, Don Juan, oboe concerto; Vernon Handley with Rachmaninov and Bax; Rattle (himself an ex NYOer) with Debussy’s La mer, Jeux and Mahler; Christopher Seaman Walton and Elgar; Sir Mark Elder Turangalila; Pierre Boulez and Jessye Norman Gurrelieder.

And so the list went on.

Daily sectionals were intense but invigorating grilling sessions, sometimes desk by desk so that every last player pulled out the stops. Much was learnt every day about how this music could be played, and then how to improve on it the next day, and then improve even more. By the time it came to concert, we knew the pieces inside out.

Even now, hearing that music gives me a visceral thrill that instantly transports me to back to those emotion-heightened days of intense learning.

Vernon “Tod” Handley. I seem to remember he had the most exacting standards in rehearsals, insisting on dynamics being played with absolute precision whilst at the same time having us all in fits of laughter. A huge character.

There was a 5 minute group silence before every full rehearsal and players would stand to respectful attention for the conductor, as they also did, incidentally, for the section tutors in sectional rehearsals. We were instructed to attach 6B pencils and rubbers (that’s erasers, for all you American types) onto our carefully name-tagged music stands, and in full rehearsals girls were to wear knee-length skirts and boys shirt and tie. Woe betide you if you forgot your cello spike stop.

Dane Hurst in Ballet Rambert’s recent revival of Nijinsky’s “L’Aprés Midi d’un Faune” at Sadler’s Wells. The music has to be up there in my all-time top ten faves. For context, read on.

On concert days there was a compulsory NYO afternoon nap. Talking in rehearsals was an expellable offense. As was on-course shagging or drinking. But almost no one ever got caught. I seem to remember one red-faced red-handed horn player blaming Debussy for his amorous encounters with a busty young flautist. Good call. After all, L’Aprés Midi is undoubtedly one of the trickier ones to resist.

Strict? Yes.  Formal? Yes.  Old fashioned? Undoubtedly.

Did we love it?

Every minute!

Thirty years on, the standard of playing is as high as ever, the kids are bursting with joy and enthusiasm to play and hear classical music, a 2 minute silence remains along with respectful conductor salute, and the same lifelong friends are being made along with the music.

The instrumental tutorial staff continue to be an impressive line-up of the profession’s who’s who, this time round including the Concertgebouw’s lead bass player Dominic Seldis, Leader of the Hallé Lyn Fletcher, no. 3 RPO fiddler Clare Duckworth, star wind players Melinda Maxwell (oboe), Sarah Burnett (bassoon), Tim Lines (clarinet) plus luminaries of the brass, harp and percussion world along with their first-hand knowledge and experience of the world’s greatest orchestras and conductors. A large number of these musicians were in the NYO.

Here I am, perhaps something of a wild card amongst this illustrious teaching team, with my beloved cello section (2010 winter course). On closer inspection it would appear that I might be more enthusiastic about the traditional cello salute than some of the undoubtedly more sophisticated cellists around me.

Horn tutor Jim Beck (also a former NYO member) worked extensively as solo horn player with Benjamin Britten on the early performances of his church operas and has many stories to tell. It was moving to hear what a gentle soul Britten was, what a fine conductor, how open to discuss his new pieces with his performers. Yet at the same time the composer was deeply tormented by his forbidden sexuality, said Jim, snapping shut like a clam if it was even hinted at in public.

Fascinating stuff given that the Britten Sea Interludes were part of this course’s programme in the composer’s centenary year, and leading me to note that one interesting difference between the orchestra in my day and now is how many happily out gay NYO musicians there are. Virtually unthinkable in my time, it’s sad to think how many back then would have been unhappily struggling with a major part of their nature in this most hormonal of gatherings.

Tenor Jon Vickers as the troubled Peter Grimes. Apparently Britten hated his interpretation, quite different from Peter Pears’ original reading. But the heavy-weight brooding intensity Vickers’ brought to the role with its layer of suppressed violence remains one of the classic performances of the troubled hero.

Like all orchestras and classical music organisations in these cash-strapped times the NYO faces the constant problem of how to attract and maintain audiences and keep funders on board whilst maintaining artistic standards. Each NYO player now costs £6000 a year to support through a mixture of bursaries, fees and hard-line fundraising. And with the collapse of state-funded music tuition, it becomes ever tougher to recruit outside the private sector. The pressure on the NYO’s Chief Executive and Artistic Director Sarah Alexander to reinvigorate the old model and bring the orchestra up to date must be tremendous.

Recent programmes have included collaborative work with folk group Bellowhead (left); new commissions Nico Muhly’s Gait, Anna Meredith’s instrument-free HandsfreeJulian Anderson’s Fantasias, Gabriel Prokoviev’s Concerto for Turntable and Orchestra with DJ Switch; and pieces by other living composers including Mark Turnage’s Beyoncé tribute Hammered Out, John Adams’ A Guide to Strange Places and James MacMillan’s Britannia.

And they’ve also played the bejeezus out of Janacek’s Sinfonietta, Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, Messiaen’s Turangalila, Berg’s Violin Concerto, Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Holst’s The Planets and a complete programme of Varése.

It’s not often you’ll see Facebook postings from 16 year olds saying “I ♥ Varese”.

Recent conductors include Vasily Petrenko (now NYO’s principal conductor), John Wilson, Charles Hazlewood, Kristian Järvi, Antonio Pappano and the marvellously-named Semyon Bychkov.

Charles Hazlewood. Recent conductor of the NYO.

Along with the varied rep and new commissions, courses are now packed with dance workshops, improvisation sessions, daily physical warm-ups, regular folk and jazz components, Creative Hubs, team training exercises. There are “Buddy meetings,” name games, tutor meetings, feedback meetings, principals sessions, Think Tanks, peer learning sessions, Alexander technique sessions, letter writing sessions, chamber music sessions, quiz nights. Many of the kids also somehow manage to cram exam revision and homework into the schedule.

Presumably for financial reasons, the main conductor no longer shows up on the first day of the course as in former years, but starts working with the orchestra in the days leading up to the show, prepared for the first week by the NYO’s assistant conductor Gerry Cornelius.

Alcohol is strictly forbidden on campus to members and staff alike on pain of instant dismissal. There was a special Think Tank session for students this course devoted to coming up with good anti-drink slogans. One of the winning creations was “Loving it too much to get pissed”.

(Leading one of the in-house composers to wryly remark on their future career: “Loving it too much to get paid.”)

Pierre Boulez. Conducted Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder with the NYO and Jessye Norman in the 1987 Proms.

One can’t help wondering if these teenagers have the faintest hope of managing even a fragment of the snogging and philosophising that formed such a memorable part of my musical training during NYO time. And if any of them did manage to sneak in the odd glug of Smirnov without being discovered, well, my hunch is they’ll do just fine in the profession.

It was reassuring to observe how at this year’s NYO New Year’s Eve disco, members integration of pop culture continues (for the most part) to lag behind their contemporaries. Reports of section groups huddling together in crap fancy dress awkwardly performing the classic stiff foot-to-foot muso shuffle under strip lighting to S Club 7 warms my heart.

How FABULOUS that in this image-obsessed age where the pressure to conform to lowest common denominator cultural taste is shoved down every throat with unavoidable business-backed persistence, there is SOMEWHERE where these kids are allowed to be different. Dare to be square. (Although a fair number of them aren’t of course.)

And they all looked SOOOO happy…

Incidentally, kids are now to be referred to as young people in today’s PC educational climate. For some reason I find this hard to do, but am trying my best to learn the lingo. Interestingly, the young people themselves have now pretty much mastered it. Time and time again at auditions when they were asked the question, “What would you bring to the NYO?” they were able to rattle off with mind-boggling fluency sentences like:

“My passion is to share the challenge of contributing to the overall focus of the NYO’s thriving community of young people, bringing exciting new energy to exciting new challenges, building bridges between cultural differences and working together in an exciting team.”

They are no fools.

There are also also myriad NYO happenings in between courses, including outreach projects, education work, NYO Inspire Days to help recruit new players and chamber music performances, often including new pieces by the NYO’s impressive composer members.

Given this overwhelming agenda of laudable activities, it becomes ever harder for the orchestra to find enough time to focus on the vital business of learning the art of orchestral playing itself. For some of these young people it’s the first time they’ll have played in an orchestra, and certainly one of this colossal size, and for those used to being a relatively big fish back at home, playing solo or in small groups, it can be a shock to have to play a quality orchestral pianissimo and blend sound and intonation with such a vast body of musicians. It’s not at all easy in the beginning, and takes practice, guidance and experience.

The outrageously successful, prolific and beautiful Anna Meredith (right) coaches the NYO composers, along with maveric musical super-brain Larry Goves. (Not to be confused with the current Education Secretary of similar name.)

Amidst the pressure to tackle technically difficult and thus time-consuming modern repertoire in every concert there is arguably a danger that the orchestra is overlooking the importance of learning the great classics of Mahler, Strauss, Debussy, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, etc. that they are most likely to face in a professional orchestra.

The music of the last 80 or so years can make a lot more sense once you’ve first got to grips with some of the symphonic giants of late-19th and early-20th century. Great music ignores trend, funding, age and politics and simply offers up its myriad secrets to those willing to explore. There is still much to learn.

This is an organisation watching itself closely as it transforms with the times. Young people fill in feedback forms about staff who fill in feedback forms about young people all of which is fed back to management, who presumably give feedback on each other in dull moments back in the office.

Former head of the Arts Council Dame Liz Forgan (left) is no stranger to controversy, and has just taken over from Guardian editor Alan Rusbriger as Chair of the NYO. From what I hear, she knows her stuff.

It’s forbidden for tutors to discuss students or course business with a soul outside NYO, including parents and teachers. Everything must be monitored by management, dissent doesn’t go down big and heads have rolled. (See last summer’s Private Eye.) It’s inevitable that when the governing body of a National Treasure goes about the business of revamping time-tested formulae with such gusto, controversy will follow.

But somehow, amidst the swirling waters of political and cultural change, economic meltdown and public indifference to the fate of the greatest art music, the NYO keeps going and continues to produce thrilling results. They’ve just been awarded the illustrious Queen’s Medal for Music for their outstanding contribution to the UK’s musical life.

The NYO’s principal violist accepts the award from Brenda herself at the Barbican ceremony last month.

As Sir Peter Maxwell Davies says:

This award celebrates the overwhelmingly positive influence the NYO has had on the musical world as the standard-bearer for youth orchestras, both at home and abroad. When you conduct an orchestra its quality is always enhanced by a core of former NYO members and the boundless talent that they bring. The NYO is undoubtedly a worthy and deserving recipient of this year’s award.”

There’s been a lot of noise in recent years about the marvels of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra and the Sistema education system, whilst perhaps the astonishing achievements of our own extraordinary National Youth Orchestra are put to one side. The NYO receives a tiny fraction of the Venezuelans’ vast international funding, rehearsal, management and publicity resources, and when you think of what what they’re up against, it’s amazing the NYO continue to play at such a consistently high level and keep their place as one of the world’s great youth orchestras.

If you haven’t ever heard the NYO live, please do. You’ll love it. (Unless you’re Cherie Blair, who sat in front of me at the last show in a huge shapeless brown caftan, yawning quietly and twiddling with her watch. Perhaps she’d had a bad day in court or with that tricksy husband of hers.)

It’s one of the most uplifting experiences you can have, whether or not you like classical music, to see a stage filled with ecstatic bright young faces playing their hearts out. Extremely well. And if you are a professional musician, it will reignite the fire that impelled you to set off on this wonderful and precarious musical path in the first place.

“Chorus of Angels” by Paolo Veneziano (active 1333-1358). Tempura on panel. I’m notching up the tone.

Our National Youth Orchestra is a pricelessly precious commodity, holding a brave flag for the future of world-class excellence in classical music*, the greatest art of all. In our materially-obsessed age with its culture of instant gratification, mind-numbing slavery to the screen and increasing inability to communicate with our fellow human beings, our sick souls need music’s healing wisdom more than ever.


As good old Plato says:

Music is a moral law: it gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness and life to everything.

Long may the NYO continue to remind us that this is so.



If you’d like to receive Z blog new post alerts, go to right hand menu at top of post and click on the orange blob by “subscribe via email”. 

For previous posts, go to top of page and click on small title above the main title.


*Taking the term “classical music” to mean the notated western art music tradition of the last thousand or so years.