National Youth Orchestras of Scotland to mark 40th birthday with a season worth celebrating

If anything stands as a tangible measure of the excellence of Scotland’s musical youth, it is surely the National Youth Orchestras of Scotland. Despite the current uncertainty around local authority instrumental tuition in schools, NYOS continues to root out our most talented children, nurturing their musical development from age eight to 25, and providing a natural stepping stone to the music profession.

NYOS chief executive and artistic director Nicolas Zekulin

Earlier this week, NYOS chief executive Nicolas Zekulin announced this year’s ambitious plans for NYOS’ 40th Anniversary Season. They include residential courses and concerts around Scotland for the jazz and symphony orchestras, exciting new partnerships with top level conductors and professional organisations like the RSNO, and active support from such eminent NYOS alumni as Nicola Benedetti and Colin Currie.

The flagship NYOS Symphony Orchestra will take over the RSNO’s Usher Hall and Glasgow Royal Concert Hall residencies on 12 and 13 April in a programme directed by the RSNO’s principal guest conductor Elim Chan and featuring Scots pianist Steven Osborne in Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto. The August tour, to Kirkwall, Stirling and Dundee, is under the baton of Jessica Cottis, former assistant conductor with the BBC SSO.

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The Jazz Orchestra heads further afield with a July tour that concludes in the ensemble’s debut performance at the Sligo Jazz Festival in Ireland, alongside guest artist, the British-Bahraini trumpeter Yazz Ahmed.

These two groups are, of course, only the tip of the NYOS iceberg. Zekulin is a pragmatic enthusiast, whose passion for boosting young musical potential is matched by intelligent, strategic vision. His understanding of musical training as a long game, one that crucially starts at an early age, is central to the broader structuring of NYOS.

“There are two things that make us unique on a global scale,” he argues. “One is that we offer both classical and jazz, which marks us apart from any other youth orchestra organisation in the world. The other is that we operate a pathway. We’re not just a single orchestra in isolation. What we offer is much more of a progressive learning journey for young people.”

On the classical side, NYOS has three orchestras, a junior, senior and symphony orchestra, which creates a developmental route from primary age, through secondary and right up to those about to make a go of it in the highly competitive professional world.

“The jazz side is very similar in terms of age range”, Zekulin explains. “It’s a little smaller in numbers, but we have a feeder system that leads from regular summer programmes into the Jazz Orchestra itself. Often, it’s the only jazz instruction our youngsters will encounter, so our role here is absolutely vital.”

In both genres, getting the right repertoire, conductors and arrangers is absolutely essential. “We look for conductors who understand young people, but who are also working at the highest level and therefore have the highest expectations,” says Zekulin.

The same balance comes into play when choosing repertoire. “Whatever the music is, we want them to be challenged by it, perhaps with an initial perception of it being beyond them, but we also want them to be engaged with it.

“When you speak to professional musicians, they will still remember a piece they first played in a youth orchestra. Take a work like Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, which will be new to most of our symphony orchestra this Spring. I bet in 30 years or so, when they bump into their old NYOS friends, they’ll say: ‘remember when we first played Pictures?’”

For the more junior orchestras there’s a delicate balance to strike, says Zekulin, between challenging these younger players and giving them a sense of immediate fulfilment. “We’re very fortunate with the Jazz Orchestra to have the wonderful artistic team of Andrew Bain and Malcolm Edmonstone, who’s one of the best arrangers in Britain bar none, so everything we do there is arranged bespoke for each individual line-up,” he says.

In this 40th birthday year, NYOS’ significant legacy – over 3,000 young musicians have passed through its doors since 1979 – will be celebrated, partly through high-level association with famous alumni, but equally in developing new initiatives that support musical education in Scotland more widely.

“One of our most successful programmes are the jazz workshops,” Zekulin explains, “in which Andrew and Malcolm work alongside our Jazz Ambassadors - recent leavers who are now established in the profession. We give them some teacher training and they go out into schools.”

It goes without saying that NYOS is keeping a concerned watch over the current crisis in state sector tuition. “We feel NYOS is for everyone,” says Zekulin, “and we are very keen that involvement with us is reflective of Scottish society as a whole. We’re monitoring this very closely, and have been collecting meaningful data for the past couple of years to see what that balance is in terms of people’s ability to come through the state system and reach the highest level.”

“We all know how important music is in terms of broader life skill development, and also as a reflection of Scotland as a nation.” - Ken Walton

For full details of this year’s NYOS concerts, visit