A year or two ago I met some friendly members of Yorkshire Late Starters Strings at a COMA summer course in, naturally, Yorkshire; and this year I joined the judging panel for YLSS’s New Music Commission. This venerable event has been going for over ten years (it’s biennial, this was edition no.6). The competition is impeccably organised, and there is no age or nationality bar on the entrants, whose scores are read under anonymous conditions. At the very end I was allowed to see a list of where all the entries had been sent from, which proved to be truly worldwide.
On judgement day, an impressively sized group of around forty string players squeezed into Seven Arts Centre in suave Chapel Allerton just outside Leeds. Under conductor Stuart Hazelton (excellent throughout) the orchestra spent a full day sightreading music by the four finalists in a good-humoured atmosphere which you don’t always find when professional orchestras deign to play new music. An important feature of the judging process is a discussion after the final rehearsal in which all the players take part. I was impressed by their insight and sympathy for the job the composers had tried to do. And as a final indication of their positivity, I learned later that the competition is financed by the orchestral members themselves, as part of their yearly subscription.
I had spent the previous day meeting the four finalist composers, who were Mark Browse, Sheena Phillips, Ruth Rose and Amy Preece. I soon realised that all of them were steeped in music – as composers, teachers, conductors, writers, publishers, performers in many contexts, not all of them ‘classical’. All had spent a lot of time thinking about the performing needs of late starters; working on an important set of skills to which many composers still seem largely indifferent. Having chosen a winning score (Mark’s rich-textured Five Variations on Pange Lingua) YLSS will now spend the rest of the season rehearsing it for a concert performance (venue and date to be announced.)