Rites of passage, notes of credit

The youth orchestras of Great Britain and the European Union are both playing at the Proms this weekend. But guess which gets most government support. Andrew Stewart visited Luxemburg and Newbury last week to watch both bands rehearse and to compare notes on their musical states of health
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The Independent Culture
Even a composer of Stravinsky's vision could scarcely have foreseen the day when his fiendishly difficult ballet The Rite of Spring would be performed to perfection by a band of college-age players. And yet that's exactly what members of the European Union Youth Orchestra aim to do at tonight's Prom. Equally, the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, which follows the EUYO into the Royal Albert Hall tomorrow, is eager to prove that it has mastered Mahler's gargantuan Third Symphony.

Judging by the nerve-tingling, passionate run-through of Le Sacre that the EUYO delivered in rehearsal at 10am last Friday in Luxemburg, the orchestra is on course for an unforgettable concert. Founded in 1976 by the Massachusetts-born Joy Bryer and her South African dentist husband Lionel, the EUYO can now hold its own against the world's finest orchestras.

Bernard Haitink, who recently succeeded Claudio Abbado as music director, confirmed his faith in its young players by closing his score of Le Sacre and delivering his verdict: "Excellent!" Haitink's rehearsal manner - quiet, undemonstrative and to the point - may seem low key, but his trust in the ability of the youngsters to sort out obvious problems for themselves commands their respect and affection. "This is an escape into a musical paradise for these players," he observes. "The emotional experience of being together to make music, without day-to-day worries, is one they will never forget."

Besides The Rite, Haitink has selected Strauss's Death and Transfiguration and Four Last Songs for tonight's Prom programme, repertoire guaranteed to challenge and stimulate. The 66-year-old Dutchman reveals his obvious pleasure in working with the EUYO. "The first time I came to conduct the orchestra, I thought, 'My God, what should I tell them?' So I said, 'I'm more nervous than you, let's start.' They were sensational."

Haitink insists he doesn't treat the EUYO any differently from a professional orchestra. "It's impossible to fake anything with them. They know exactly what they're getting from a conductor. I like that challenge."

He points out too that the organisation has done much to enrich the orchestral profession, delivering what he describes as an injection of positive, highly motivated players into the business. "My heart breaks when I hear that the first horn player in the Strauss Four Last Songs has finished her studies and can't find a job. That can demolish so many of the good things such orchestras can offer young people."

Even so, around 85 per cent of EUYO graduates find full-time work with leading professional orchestras, the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics prominent among them.

David Strange has watched the EUYO's development over 14 years, as its head of strings and cello tutor. With the orchestra's director of studies, Professor Lutz Kohler, he re-auditions existing members and selects new recruits from the 900 or so hopefuls, out of over 4,000 applicants, who pass the preliminary auditions each year. "From those finalists, we could select two first-class orchestras," he says. "You use your judgement of people's musicianship and personality, and hope that you make the best choice."

EUYO members are drawn from the 14 to 23 age group; the National Youth Orchestra is open to players from 14 to 19. "The two orchestras tend to arrive at the same spectacular point, but from entirely different directions," explains Strange, who works with both. "With the EUYO, the conductor will arrive two or three days before a concert, and the players are experienced enough to cope with that. The NYO has a more structured rehearsal period, with shorter, less intense sectionals, gradually building towards full rehearsals. Generally, the conductor is on hand from day one."

Of the 32 British players in this year's 140-strong EUYO, 22 are NYO alumni, including thetrombone section, many wind principals and a healthy number of strings.

Besides obvious differences in age and experience, the EUYO enjoys a more robust financial position than the NYO. Joy Bryer, who may fairly be described as tireless, unstoppable, even obdurate, has won the battle to gain recognition for her orchestra throughout the European Union. An all-American go-getter, she has used her best fundraising and lobbying efforts to secure a sound future for the EUYO, together with an increasingly diverse mix of players from all 15 of the EU's member states.

"Building up the French numbers has been my great triumph," she proclaims. "lt became a passion to introduce the orchestra to as many young French musicians as possible. I'm very proud that we now have 22 players from France. Through our efforts, I believe there is a new generation of first- class orchestral musicians and a desire to create a great symphony orchestra in France."

The Bryer sights are currently set on increasing the orchestra's Spanish contingent, and she is considering a grand plan to create another youth orchestra in Russia and the former Soviet states. Any hint that there might not be enough hours in the day to raise money for two prestige youth orchestras is met with a withering response.

The EUYO receives support from a variety of sources. National governments contribute an annual total of around pounds 150,000, topped by a pounds 26,000 grant from the British Council. A further 400,000 ECU were pledged last year in scholarships by the European Commission. "This orchestra was launched on a wing and a prayer," Bryer recalls. "But its future is secure, providing it continues to receive support from the Commission."

With an average orchestra tour costing around pounds 350,000, Bryer needs to raise at least pounds 800,000 a year. "I'm a capitalist; I understand sponsors and I am not ashamed of them. We've managed to combine money from the public sector with private money, without offending individual governments, and yet we've still been able to give our sponsors what they want." The American communications group AT&T recently signed a three-year sponsorship deal with the EUYO worth $1,200,000 as part of a European marketing strategy.

Government funding barely troubles the NYO's accountants. Its chief executive Michael de Grey, a seasoned arts manager who remains realistic about the prospects of public subsidy ever exceeding much more than 15 per cent of the NYO's revenue, does well to put a positive spin on the orchestra's pounds 25,000 grant from the Arts Council of England and the pounds 8,000 it receives from the Department for Education.

"Clearly, the importance of what we're doing is recognised by the music department of the Arts Council. We might fare better in future applications to the DFE, but there is no guarantee that we will receive any more money from that source." The orchestra's residential courses, held during the Christmas, Easter and summer school holidays, consume most of its annual budget of pounds 500,000.

Unlike the EUYO, where entry is conditional only upon ability, NYO members have to contribute towards the cost of each orchestra course, grist to the mills of those who find the organisation guilty of providing an exclusive pursuit for the children of the well-to-do. De Grey points out that bursaries can usually be found to help those without the necessary parental resources, adding that the pounds 90,000 raised in course fees is unavoidable, given the present level of state funding.

NYO concerts yield an additional pounds 50,000 to pounds 60,000 in box-office income, leaving charitable trusts and corporate sponsors to balance the books. From October, the BOC Group is set to join luxury car firm Lexus and Williams Holdings plc as the major sponsors. "We have to raise around pounds 320,000 every year to meet our needs," says De Grey. "It's a challenge, since without our sponsors and trusts we simply wouldn't exist."

Judged by the orchestra's powerful grasp of Mahler's mighty Third Symphony, revealed in rehearsal at Downe House school near Newbury last week, tomorrow's Proms audience is likely to hear a vintage NYO performance. Jill White, the orchestra's music director, makes no secret of her admiration for the talents in her charge and for the way they respond to professional treatment.

"There is always an element of the unknown, because the turnover of players is high. But we have a wonderful corporate spirit here, helped by focusing on making music and our team of professors." A significant part of the NYO equation is provided by the conductor, with Mark Elder this year making his third appearance in charge of the band.

As a former NYO member, Elder holds a special affection for the orchestra. Here he has the luxury of time to experiment with different bowings or the balance of a densely scored section, rarely available to a conductor working with Britain's hard-pushed freelance orchestras. "With the NYO, you can expect to find an orchestra drawn from the finest possible players in the country and a situation in which you can get the best from them. Mahler makes so many demands on players that it is a delight to have the chance to explore them fully. Above all, I feel it is very important as a performer to stay in contact with the next generation of professional musicians - to bring some continuity into my music-making."

Proms booking: 0171-589 8212