People fuss about El Sistema - but for the sake of £50,000, the most important public showcase for Britain's youth orchestras has gone
Just a week in, and 2010's age of austerity already has its first musical victim, and it's a sad one: the demise of the Festival of British Youth Orchestras. This is bad news, potentially the end of the most important public showcase for Britain's youth orchestras, which has been going since 1980 in Edinburgh, and for the past 22 years in Glasgow as well. Staged in August, the festival was the chance for our youth orchestras to experience a real international atmosphere, playing as part of the Fringe in Edinburgh, and was the highlight of the musical year in 2009 for bands from Argyll and Bute to Fife, from Sheffield to South Korea. Historically, the festival has had an important role as a place for our youth orchestras to measure their progress against their rivals, injecting some healthy competition into the scene.
George Caird, chairman of the festival's organising body, the National Association of Youth Orchestras – which represents the 125,000 young people who play in the 1,800 youth orchestras in this country – says there's a £50,000 shortfall in their funding that means what would have been the 31st festival in 2010 won't take place. Caird also says that recent festivals have had a distinctly Scottish rather than British bias (the Sheffield orchestra was the only ensemble from south of the border this year), a change from a decade or so ago, when I remember hearing orchestras from all over the country in Edinburgh. But that's just another reason to revitalise the festival rather than to scrap it, and for the comparative peanuts that keeping it going would cost, and the obvious benefits the festival has for the thousands of young people who participate in it and the audiences who experience it, it's shaming for Arts Councils in Scotland and England, and relevant local authorities, that the money can't be found.
For all the excited bleating about El Sistema and the lip service paid to the importance of musical education in government circles, we can't even keep a major, established celebration of our own youth music-making going. In the absence of any institutional support, anyone with a spare 50 grand knocking around knows where to spend it this year: save the Festival of British Youth Orchestras!
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