Edinburgh Festival '99 Classical: Oh what a lovely Fringe

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The Independent Culture

THE RANGE and variety of music offered by Edinburgh's Fringe is bewildering.

Trawling through this year's offerings, Graffiti, definitely in its last year at the amazing venue on Broughton Street, came up trumps again with an exotic selection of performers from around the world. "Prodigies" - two young ladies from Siberia and Ukraine - were astonishing technically, with vocal ranges far beyond their years, though the younger of the two, Pelageya, had an arch style that verged on the kitsch, and the musical accompaniments consisted of an electronically enhanced soup that smacked of the commercial "world music" industry.

More refreshing, because simpler and purer, was the marvellous Moussa Kouyate, maker and master-player of the west African kora lute-harp. His rippling, hypnotic instrumental and vocal pieces were a joy to listen to, inducing a glorious kind of laid-back euphoria.

Choral and organ music are pretty well represented in the festival, performed in Edinburgh's many magnificent churches.

None of these is more magnificent than St Mary's Episcopal Cathedral, where the excellent choir of St Mary's kept up their taxing daily programme of choral services surveying the music of William Byrd, in addition to four concerts featuring Durufle's works. Slightly less inspiring was the "New Voices" series at the Canongate Kirk, if the concert by the Addison Singers was anything to go by; here some serious deficiencies in intonation, from the opening Guerrero Magnificat onwards, demonstrated that they were simply not up to the ambitious programme that they had chosen to present.

Youth groups are a great feature of the Fringe. Among the musicals on offer was that perennial favourite, Oh What a Lovely War, given by Newbury Youth Theatre - a non-auditioning group whose main requirement of its members is enthusiasm and commitment. And that's what they got in this energetic show, with a number of outstanding individual performances, but above all a tremendous sense of group effort. This turned out to be great, and thought-provoking, entertainment.

Sadly, The Hired Man is nothing like such a good piece, and all the 100- per-cent commitment of Leicestershire Youth Arts couldn't make it one. This marvellous organisation has been bringing shows to the fringe for 20 years now, consistently achieving the highest standards. Melvyn Bragg's story of working folk in north-east England is engaging enough, but Howard Goodall's semi-pop tinklings were simply inadequate to the subject matter. This production and performance, though, proved to be well up to YA's high standards, and the skill and professionalism of the performers were a pleasure to behold.

Last, but not least, the biggest youth element in the whole Fringe is the Festival of British Youth Orchestras - a magnificent showcase of the amazing young talent that this country continues to nurture despite endless music education cutbacks. On 30 August the West of Scotland Schools Symphony Orchestra under William Conway presented an ambitious programme featuring a recent piece, Unity and Conflict by Ronald Walker - much more enjoyable than its title might suggest - and a truly rousing rendition of Rimsky- Korsakov's Scheherazade. Those with any energy left at all are strongly recommended to sample this festival within a festival while there's still time.