National Youth Orchestra Play Belfast and Derry~Londonderry

One of the UK's most prestigious orchestras begin ten-day residency in the City of Culture

‘I went into the first full rehearsal and we played ‘Mars’ from Holst’s Planets Suite. And it was just the most massive sound I had ever heard. It was just magnificent, like nothing I’d ever really experienced.’

Belfast teenager Angus McCall, a cellist, is talking about the day earlier this year when he attended his first rehearsal with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. It was, he says, a transformative experience. ‘I knew then that it was just a massive inspiration. I was so proud to be a part of it.’

It’s a view echoed by violinist Katherine Sung and trombonist Ryan Gray, the two other Northern Irish representatives among the 162 teenagers from all corners of the United Kingdom who are part of this year’s NYO contingent.

All three are pupils at Belfast’s Methodist College, a hub of musical excellence whose alumni include the internationally renowned concert pianist Barry Douglas, and Michael McHale, now following hard in Douglas’s trail-blazing footsteps.

Fans of classical music from across Northern Ireland will have the opportunity to see the orchestra in action during a ten-day residency in Derry-Londonderry (beginning July 30) as part of the UK City of Culture music programme.

150 of the finest musicians in the UK will link up with over 150 local children for a series of workshops, free lunchtime concerts, street level performances and fanfares. The residency will culminate with two special concerts in Belfast and Derry~Londonderry on August 7 – 8.

One of the special things about the NYO is, of course, its size. Some sections have twice as many players in them as a typical symphony orchestra – the NYO has eight trombones rather than three or four, for instance.

‘It was just a crazy thing,’ observes McCall. ‘I wasn’t really sure how many people were in the orchestra, and I just walked in and said, “Oh my goodness”. It was just huge. Being from Northern Ireland, the orchestras here aren’t that big, and there aren’t that many people who are so keen on classical music. But all these people were just absolutely in love with the music we were playing. It was really fabulous.’

Choosing from the cream of the UK’s classical music talent, it’s no surprise that the NYO operates at such an enviably high level, rivalling (some say bettering) many a professional orchestra. There is, explains Katherine Sung, no room whatsoever for technical sloppiness.

‘You do have to up your game and really be on the ball all the time. It’s challenging but really incredibly rewarding. You learn so much. You’re getting incredible advice from the tutors in orchestral playing, and they’ll talk to you as well individually about how you’re getting on in your own playing. Everyone really works so hard to play as a group, as an ensemble, to an extent that I haven’t really experienced before.’

Although all the players are still teenagers, the internationally eminent conductors who direct NYO concerts in no way lower their expectations of what it means to be a high-performing classical musician. This could be intimidating, but cellist Angus McCall loves it.

‘There seems to be a level of respect between them and us, which I hadn’t experienced that much of previously,’ he explains. ‘It’s nice to be treated like a professional musician rather than a child, actually.’

The NYO’s large membership has one major non-musical advantage: it makes the orchestra a hive of social activity, a place where new friendships are forged that last a lifetime. Trombonist Ryan Gray is, it seems, already developing the convivial habits for which orchestral brass players are globally famous.

‘It’s great fun,’ he comments. ‘The trombone section, for example, we’re obviously rehearsing together every day, and we get on incredibly well. There’s a section night, which happens on every course, where each section gets together and does what they want. With the trombones, we always have a curry together and watch a film. It’s just great!’

Though the NYO is currently celebrating its 65th birthday, this summer’s residency in Derry~Londonderry as part of the UK City of Culture 2013 celebrations will, remarkably, be the first time that the organisation has visited Northern Ireland. For McCall, Sung and Gray, it’s an unexpected bonus.

‘That was just a complete shock,’ McCall remembers. ‘I think we were told that around the beginning of the year.’ Trombonist Ryan Gray is equally delighted to be part of the NYO’s first appearances on his home territory. ‘It’s very nice for me personally,’ he says, 'because I can invite lots of my friends and all my family to come and see the concerts, whereas it’s normally quite difficult if we’re playing in England.’

The 2013 NYO programme has already taken the players to some of the UK’s most prestigious concert venues – Leeds Town Hall, The Sage Gateshead, and both the Royal Festival Hall and Barbican in London.

No platform, however, is bigger than the one which they are about to occupy – the Royal Albert Hall in South Kensington, where, on Sunday, August 11 the orchestra will play its annual BBC Proms concert, with the dynamic young Russian Vasily Petrenko conducting.

‘The building is phenomenal,’ says Ryan Gray, who in common with his two fellow NYO members from Belfast appeared there last year with the Ulster Youth Orchestra, in a joint Prom with the Ulster Orchestra. ‘There’s no other place I’ve ever played that is anything like it.’

Before then, Northern Irish audiences have two opportunities to catch this year’s NYO cohort in action, first at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall on Wednesday, August 7, then the following evening in the Millennium Forum, Derry~Londonderry.

On each occasion the orchestra will be joined by the outstanding National Youth Choir, whose already considerable numbers will be further swollen by the addition of the Irish Youth Chamber Choir and Derry outfit Codetta.

Beethoven’s Choral Symphony – ‘Probably the greatest symphony of all time’, in Ryan Gray’s estimation – with its famous ‘Ode to Joy’ finale, is the main item on the agenda, and a wall of glorious, celebratory sound is promised.

‘I think there are about 400 musicians that are going to be on stage,’ McCall beams. ‘It’ll be the most massive sound, and it’s such a brilliant piece. I’m sure that will just be, like, a main highlight of my life actually.’

Violinist Katherine Sung is confident the orchestra will make a major impact. ‘Hopefully it will inspire people,’ she comments. ‘I think it really will. Every time I go and play with the orchestra, I’m inspired to play more myself. And I think it’s a great thing the NYO is coming here and doing outreach to the young musicians in Derry. I think Northern Irish people can maybe sometimes be too modest. I would definitely encourage anyone who is thinking of auditioning.’

The National Youth Orchestra perform at the Waterfront Hall, Belfast on August 7, and the Millennium Forum, Derry~Londonderry on August 8. Visit the UK City of Culture website for information on all NYO events during their ten-day residency in Derry~Londonderry.