“Absolutely mental” is not my usual reaction to Elgar’s First Symphony, but that’s what I exclaimed on exiting the National Youth Orchestra’s performance in the Barbican on Sunday. It probably had something to do with the 163-strong orchestra; when I finally write my symphony, I’d like 10 horns, 9 trumpets and 40 violins like the NYO had squashed onto the platform for this concert. My previous memory of the Elgar was rather pale and ghostly, with interesting material periodically becoming apparent below the surface. But with the wonderfully upfront conductor John Wilson in charge (a perfect match for these 18 years-and-under performers) all the notes were right there in the foreground; you could hear and see how the score is simply packed with detail. A fascinating experience – though now I’m looking forward to hearing it in its usual, partly inaudible condition (for which the Royal Albert Hall is perfect.)
Big numbers were anyway on my mind at this event. We learned that 750 musicians auditioned for this year’s orchestra; as every auditionee has to have passed Grade VIII with distinction, that represents a torrent of very high-level instrumental talent in the UK. And NYO Chair Liz Forgan announced that 56% of this year’s orchestra attends a state school – not exactly close to the percentage of the UK under-19 population that attends a state school, but closer than it has been, and again remarkable given the patchiness of access to instrumental teaching in the state sector in the recent past. Ever the optomist, I would like to think that the music hubs are now getting into their stride, that instrumental teaching will rise again, and soon all over the land will be heard the sound of ever-improving violin scales and horn arpeggios.