London Schools Symphony Orchestra/Armstrong, Barbican, London

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The Independent Culture

The significance of a youth orchestra lies less in its achievement, than in what it portends for the future – and in what it says about the climate in which its playing has developed. We currently have two global benchmarks against which all youth orchestras should be measured.

Daniel Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra is recruited from both sides of the Arab-Israeli divide; Gustavo Dudamel's Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra comes from the poorest parts of Venezuela. Although Barenboim's band is impressive, it is Dudamel's that leaves London critics speechless with admiration.

Britain's two leading youth orchestras have just taken the stage. At the Roundhouse, we heard the National Youth Orchestra: aged 13 to 19, and with a distinction in Grade 8 as the entry qualification, the players must meet stiff technical requirements.

Yet how dull their concert was: they could play all the notes in some demanding music – interludes from Britten's Peter Grimes, and Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet – but there was no flicker of the beauty and excitement latent in these works. The Roundhouse acoustic didn't help, but the real problem lay in Scottish composer James MacMillan's puddingy presence on the podium.

The visibly younger London Schools Symphony Orchestra had assistance from a better acoustic at the Barbican, but the exhilarating fizz they produced in Janacek, Strauss and Dvorak was, at least in part, because they had an inspirational conductor in Sir Richard Armstrong.

From its first explosive notes, the terse sound-drama of Janacek's "Jealousy" sprang vividly to life. And as the orchestra laid out the terrain for soloist Stephen Stirling in Strauss's Horn Concerto No 1 – and provided a rich underpinning for him – one felt in good hands. The strings had expressive warmth, and the woodwind textures were fastidiously calibrated, as they were in the final work, Dvorak's Symphony No 6. There were some glorious moments in the Adagio, and the Scherzo lived up to its subtitle, "Furiant". The finale had rough edges, but it was filled with a bounding, joyful energy. In sum, our kids can do it, too – provided they have leadership and ambition.

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