Reminiscences on Walton's 1st Symphony.*

*this somewhat rambling blog is an emotional response to the announcement that the EUYO would cease operations this September.

One of the most electrifying and profound concerts I have ever had the good fortune to attend took place on August 21st, 2005. That date is burned into my memory. In spite of extremely heavy rain and thunder, Cork’s City Hall was packed with people eager to hear Ravel’s Sheherazade and Rapsodie Espagnol, and Walton’s electrifying 1st Symphony, conducted by Sir John Elliot Gardiner. This was my first exposure to the music of Walton, and it sparked a love affair that remains strong to this day. It’s been some years since I last listened to his symphonic works, having become obsessed in later years with the Viola Concerto (which I was lucky enough to play in the following year, with our own NYOI) and Façade, but I will particularly never forget what happened as the great final chords ripped through the air at the end of the piece. The audience reacted first with stunned silence, for what seemed like an eternity, before bursting into rapturous applause. I was 16, and, though I loved music, I didn’t yet know that it was to become my entire life. Further explorations into Walton’s output (how could I ever forget my first time hearing Belshazzar’s Feast!?) made me sure of several things, among them that music was absolutely my calling. How could I ever have done anything else after having sat through such an awe-inspiring 45 minutes? From its restless opening, through its tense second movement (was ever a musical instruction so explicit as Presto con malizia?), its bitter-sweet third movement, and finally onto those unforgettable final few triumphant minutes, I was taken on a musical journey from which I could never return.

What is most remarkable about this transformative experience, however, was that the orchestra who gave the performance weren’t a seasoned, experienced professional orchestra, but rather a collection of the finest young (16-26) instrumentalists from across the EU. This was the first time I heard the European Union Youth Orchestra performing, and regrettably, I’ve only had the chance to hear them once since. In 2014 on August 5th, Vasily Petrenko led them in a performance of Berio’s Sinfonia and Shostakovich’s 4th Symphony in the Proms. The orchestra, though necessarily completely different in membership, had lost none of its vitality and excitement. In each performance, it was obvious that on stage were the future of classical music in Europe, and that they absolutely loved what they were doing.

Today, the EUYO announced that, due to funding restructuring within the EU, it would be ceasing operations in September of this year. Across the world, music, alongside other art forms, is being asked to justify its existence in a capitalist society. Artistic organisations are being asked why they can’t turn a profit, and how they can justify their existence without being profitable. Where funding is offered, it is invariably offered to people who use a list of buzzwords ­– innovative, entrepreneurial, multi-media, the sort of words that grew out of board room meetings in order to justify the grossly inflated salaries of people who do nothing else but come up with this kind of business jargon, in order to continue to justify the gross inflation of their own income at the expense of nearly everyone else. While I’m sure good artistic endeavour can come out of these concepts, they don’t gel with the centuries old traditions of music. An orchestra shouldn’t need to justify its need for 100 people to play some of the most incredible music ever written, in particular one providing an early platform to young musicians from across the EU to meet to play these works, at the same time necessarily improving relations between these countries at an a-political level. One would have thought it an essential component of the European project. A bureaucrat, however, only sees that these things cost more to run than they can possibly make, and so, the arts suffer. In our own country, the arts have been neglected to the point that they now share a governmental department (and budget) with “Regional Development, Rural Affairs and the Gaeltacht”, headed up by a woman who has seemingly no interest in the arts (and specifically music) whatsoever. In 2007 we lost one of our own National Youth Orchestras, the senior tier, although the Esker Festival Orchestra, set up and run by Peter Joyce, has filled that vacuum in recent years. If we can’t nurture the young artists of today, the future of art, in Ireland and now abroad, seems bleak.

Read more about the disastrous situation here.
And find out how to help here.