Ulster Youth Orchestra's Summer Season

Fresh faces and old hands look forward to performing the Russian masters

2011 marks the Ulster Youth Orchestra's 18th birthday, making this summer's concerts in Derry~Londonderry and Belfast – on August 19 and 20 respectively – a coming-of-age for the organisation.

While acknowledging the chronological milestone, UYO General Manager, Stanley Foreman is keen to emphasise the high standards that have characterised each stage of the orchestra's development.

'Those who run the orchestra have always had the highest vision,' he comments. 'The hope has always been to get to the highest level, to get as close to a professional performance as possible.'

Foreman underlines how important it is in this respect to hire the right conductor to work with his young, relatively inexperienced players (aged 14 – 23), and waxes lyrical about this year's maestro, Scot Garry Walker, who first conducted the UYO two years ago.

'Right from the very moment he started to conduct, there was no time-wasting,' Foreman remembers. 'The guy had fabulous ears. He could analyse instantly, correct, fix, and move on. I would have the highest admiration for him.'

It's an admiration reciprocated in Walker's own recollection of the Northern Ireland youngsters who played for him on his first visit. 'I felt we got a really wonderful result, having started at a level that needed improving. It was an amazing journey.'

The secret of Walker's success with young players is that he changes virtually nothing, compared to when he conducts the finest orchestras in the UK, such as the Philharmonia and Royal Philharmonic. 'I treat them like professionals, with respect,' he adds. 'I demand very high standards of them. You can be quite tough with them, and they will respond to that. They don't like not being challenged.'

Walker has special words of praise for the attitude of Northern Ireland's young musicians. 'The thing that really struck me last time was just how concentrated the kids were, how respectful they were to each other. I do think your kids have a different attitude somehow, a bit more maturity. I don't say that lightly. There was something different about them, perhaps it's to do with the education system.'

One special point of interest in this year's UYO concerts is the return of Belfast pianist Michael McHale, himself a 'graduate' of the UYO system. 'It's a very special feeling to return to the Ulster Youth Orchestra, having played the cello in the orchestra when I was younger,' McHale beams. 'I first returned to play the Rachmaninov Paganini Rhapsody three years ago, so it's great to have the opportunity to work with them again this year.'

McHale brings with him, as he did in 2008, a piece new to his repertoire, Rachmaninov's 'Second Piano Concerto' (used unforgettably in David Lean's film Brief Encounter).

'I think it's a particularly fortunate way to begin performing a new concerto,' McHale enthuses. 'Rarely do I have the luxury of several days of rehearsals with the orchestra and conductor. It's a great opportunity to try different things out, and it means that my interpretation will have already developed considerably by the time of the first concert.'

McHale has the warmest memories of his UYO years. 'I still have a lot of very close friends from my time in the orchestra, some of whom are also pursuing musical careers, and others in every conceivable walk of life. We always had a lot of fun, both in rehearsals and concerts with the fantastic tutors and conductors, as well as in the evenings with our regular struggles to beat the welfare staff's strict curfew!'

McHale rates the Rachmaninov concerto as technically a tough assignment, though one that he is clearly relishing. 'One of the most obvious challenges is the stamina and concentration required, but there is the added issue of the work's immense popularity - I hope the audience will find something fresh to enjoy in this wonderful music when we perform it.'

Stanley Foreman is confident they will, reminiscing fondly about the rapturous reception the UYO's performances have gained in recent years. 'The special thing about youth orchestras is youth. It's their energy, it's their enthusiasm, there's a dynamic created. And even with the most difficult of music they're up for it. This is what you get with young people, they're striving so hard. Audiences respond to that.'

This year's richly colourful Russian programme, bookending Shostakovich's 'Festive Overture' and Rimsky-Korsakov's orchestral blockbuster 'Scheherazade' round the Rachmaninov 'Second Concerto', certainly gives the UYO class of 2011 their opportunity to glisten.

You're in for a real treat,' is Foreman's parting shot as I depart the UYO's Belfast headquarters in Royal Avenue. The recent history of the orchestra's performances suggest this is an extremely safe prediction.