It is a great privilege for former members of the National Youth Orchestras of Scotland to be asked back to perform as soloists with the organisation that helped shape their careers. It happened to Sarah Ayoub sooner than she expected. Two years ago, at the age of 22, and not long graduated from the Royal Conservatoire of Music, the cello and piano-playing half of the multi-instrumental Ayoub Sisters appeared as solo pianist with the NYOS Senior Orchestra in George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.
“It was so amazing,” she recalls. “The first time I played with NYOS was in the Junior String Orchestra as a cellist, and over the years I moved on to the Symphony Orchestra, Futures and Camerata ensembles, on piano as well as cello. Being part of that really opened my eyes to like-minded youth and really challenged me. It was the highlight of every summer.”
The musical journey of Sarah, pictured, and her younger sister Laura has been the stuff of dreams. Both had attended the specialist music school at Douglas Academy in Milngavie, before embarking on separate routes of graduate study: Sarah at the RCS, where she undertook joint principal studies in cello and piano; Laura at the Royal College of Music in London, majoring on violin.
For Sarah, the RCS gave her exactly what she wanted in terms of specialist teaching and flexible options. “It was definitely the right stepping stone into the professional world,” she says. “I was always a very curious person and the Conservatoire nurtured all my interests. So if I wanted to try jazz, I had an elective in jazz. The same went for chamber music, or playing concertos. Any area I wished to explore was encouraged and looked after. That’s not always the case in such institutions.”
What was missing, of course, was her sister. Having grown up within a close-knit Egyptian-Scottish family near Glasgow, both girls were encouraged to play music from an early age. “Mum enrolled us into music school, and we certainly knew early on that we wanted to follow a music career,” Sarah explains.
Yet the idea of that career being a joint one never really manifested itself. “To that point we had only collaborated on the basis that Laura needed an accompanist because she played the violin and I played the piano. But when it came to being apart at different colleges we really began to miss each other.
“There were such great people at the Conservatoire, but no-one can quite replace your sibling. That energy is quite special, so after graduating Laura said, why don’t you come to London and we can do more together and explore the opportunities? It seemed like a no-brainer.”
Four years on, and the Ayoub Sisters are now an emerging force in the glitzy world of classical crossover. Signed up by Decca, and recently a major hit at the closing ceremony of the World Youth Forum, where they performed the Egyptian National Anthem in the presence of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, fortune has favoured their bold individuality.
The “magic moment”, Sarah believes, was their five minutes of instant fame at the Royal Albert Hall. “We had started playing duo repertoire, but there just wasn’t enough of it, so we thought, why not write stuff ourselves?
“We showcased that for the first time in a competition called The Big Project. We thought, we’ll just record a video and name it The Ayoubs. It was a piece by Piazzolla, for which I dressed up the piano part to be like a real duo, not just accompanying the violin. The prize was to appear live in a winners’ concert at the Albert Hall.”
A member of Decca’s A&R team heard the performance and offered the sisters a contract. “Around the same time we were dabbling in classical crossover and decided to upload a silly video of us trying to play Uptown Funk. It was spotted by the song’s original producer Mark Ronson, who invited us to record a brand new cover at Abbey Road with other musicians he’d selected from Youtube.”
Now in high demand to perform all over the world – including a China debut that saw 13 concerts in four days – the Ayoubs still keep in touch with their Scottish roots. “We have performances this June with the RSNO as part of its summer Proms concerts in Perth and Inverness,” says Sarah.
There’s a determination, too, to keep in touch with NYOS. “We’ve made it very clear that we must do outreach as part of our wider work. We’d love to get involved with NYOS, maybe working with the string players in some quirky, groovy crossover repertoire. It would excite us to keep in touch with those who nurtured our musical upbringing.” - Ken Walton
To watch video interviews with Sarah Ayoub and other NYOS alumni, and to find out about forthcoming NYOS 40th Anniversary concerts, visit www.nyos.co.uk