Arts Arts & Books

While the National Youth Orchestra exists, there is still hope

There is a terrible dearth of music education in Britain's schools, so it's wonderful to see some young people still interested in classical music

One of the most depressing things on British television these days – apart from the new adaptation of Les Misérables, which is such a painful testament to human cruelty that I can’t bear to watch it – is University Challenge. And what’s depressing about University Challenge is that it features smart young people who can answer arcane questions about everything from astrophysics to Anglo-Saxon – but ask them who wrote Messiah, or what nationality was Mozart, and they’re stumped.

They’re stumped because there’s such a dearth of serious music education now in British schools. The state ones barely teach it any more, only the private, fee-paying establishments do – which means that only children from the middle classes get much opportunity to know about Messiah. Still less, any chance to play or sing it.

None of this is healthy. And I couldn’t help but wonder, as I watched the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain deliver their New Year’s showcase concert at the Barbican last week, what percentage of the players were from state-run comprehensives. Not too many, I suspect.

But that said, an encounter with the NYO is a relief, proving that whatever disincentives there are for children to take up classical music, some still do. And to a high standard. As youth orchestras go, the NYO is supercharged, able to draw on the most talented young players in the country. And being a totally laudable institution, it’s hard for a critic to criticise. Anything except encouragement feels wrong, and I wouldn’t for a moment want to discourage any of the youngsters on the Barbican platform last week. They were great, and all power to them.

But power was actually the problem. The NYO is a huge ensemble of some 160 players, designed to give as many as possible the chance of involvement. But that makes for a congested, overwhelming sound which becomes pure noise without nuanced musicianship. And there were times in this concert – with high-impact works by Sibelius, John Adams and Ricky Dior – when noise ruled.

The fault lay partly with conductor Kirill Karabits, who struck me as soft on the podium, letting the young players get away with things he wouldn’t in one of his professional orchestras. But it may also reflect the problem of music in schools, which presumably means that children come to the NYO with less developed skill sets than they once did.

Whatever the reason, this wasn’t the orchestra at its very best. But it was still remarkable, outclassing any other youth orchestra I can think of, and something to be grateful for. While the NYO exists, there’s hope. And we must cling to it.