Preview: Messiah, St John's Smith Square, London

Let the kids play, but make it for real...
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The Independent Culture

Remember Denise Leigh, the blind soprano who won the ENO-Channel 4 Operatunity competition three years ago? Her career has since taken off like a rocket, with recordings and concerts galore. Next Tuesday she'll star in a performance of Messiah, which will integrate disabled young musicians with professionals in a novel way.

Under John Lubbock's baton, the soloists and players of the Orchestra of St John's will be joined on stage by a blind percussionist, plus a posse of other disabled young musicians, all of whom will have been mentored by members of the orchestra. "It's a lovely idea," says Lubbock, whose own son is autistic, and who spends much of his time working with groups with this disability. "But the presence of these young people will not compromise the quality of the performance."

The idea originated with a Russian foundation called Music of Life, whose chief executive is a young Russian pianist called Maria Teterina. And she brings a typically Russian sternness to the project: in her view, we Brits do it all wrong. "Most British orchestras include children with special needs in their outreach programmes, but they do it without the pressure of a real performance. As the disabled players attending these classes know they have been specially designed for them, it's not real. And the professionals don't treat these situations as seriously as they do their normal concerts - so the young people never taste first-class classical music.

"Since we are presenting them in a kosher professional situation, charging normal ticket prices, the audience will have high expectations. Our main task has been to persuade these top-flight artists to trust us, and to trust that the children will not spoil their performance. This is our chance to show these young people that they can pursue a professional career - that their talent means more than their disability.

"A concert like this, in which they are treated like professionals, can be a psychological turning point for them."

12 December (020-7222 1061)

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