'There’s a hunger to do new things' - Kirsteen Davidson Kelly on her post-Covid plans for NYOS

As she takes over the reins at the National Youth Orchestras of Scotland, Kirsteen Davidson Kelly aims to move in bold new directions, she tells David Kettle
After two years of coronavirus restrictions, The National Youth Orchestra of Scotland is poised to return to live, in-person performancesAfter two years of coronavirus restrictions, The National Youth Orchestra of Scotland is poised to return to live, in-person performances
After two years of coronavirus restrictions, The National Youth Orchestra of Scotland is poised to return to live, in-person performances

“Getting together again in the same room is the thing that absolutely excites us all.” NYOS is indeed back, live and in person for the first time in more than two years, bringing together Scotland’s top young musicians across its three orchestras for courses and concerts this month. And the National Youth Orchestras of Scotland’s new CEO Kirsteen Davidson Kelly is understandably thrilled – on behalf of the NYOS staff, tutors and of course young players.

Intensive Easter holiday courses have just kicked off, and a trio of ambitious concerts follow later in the month, with the NYOS Junior Orchestra playing Márquez’s fiery Conga del fuego nuevo under Venezuelan El Sistema alumna Natalia Luis-Bassa, for example, and the NYOS Symphony Orchestra tackling Shostakovich’s mighty Tenth Symphony with young prize-winning conductor Kerem Hasan.

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They’re sure to be spectacular events, made only more intense by the young players’ lengthy time away from live performance – though NYOS kept activities alive online during the pandemic darkness. Undeniably, however, it’s a time of flux, and a significant moment for Davidson Kelly to take the reins of Scotland’s training ground for young musicians. But just a few months in the role, she’s understandably reluctant to be drawn too specifically on what might be on the cards. Even so, there are clearly changes afoot.

NYOS's new CEO, Kirsteen Davidson KellyNYOS's new CEO, Kirsteen Davidson Kelly
NYOS's new CEO, Kirsteen Davidson Kelly

“I think there’s a hunger to do new things,” she explains, “but also not to lose anything we’ve been doing. So it’s a case of including new and different things in the whole menu that we offer.” One immediate change has been a shift in focus for the NYOS Senior Orchestra, which has slimmed down to more of a chamber orchestra. “That change was made before I arrived. But it’s about not simply ploughing through the big orchestral repertoire, because that’s not the only thing you need to do as a player. It’s about having a point in the journey where you’re involved in a more intimate style of music making, and a closer relationship with the tutors, but also more responsibility for the orchestra’s individual musicians.” Beethoven’s effervescent Eighth Symphony should provide ample opportunity for the new, smaller ensemble to works its magic.

Underlying Davidson Kelly’s thinking, however, is an acute awareness of the broad range of activities that classical musicians undertake today. As a founding performer of legendary multi-keyboard ensemble Piano Circus, it’s something she understands well from the inside. “The key to what I want to do is about holistic approaches to music making: how can we train, encourage and educate people in the best possible way for them to flourish as human beings, through the medium of music?”

She also spent six years as Director of Creative Learning at the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. “I was really lucky to work with some very fine musicians there, and I can remember specific individuals who told me that doing community engagement work or sitting in a classroom working with young children were just as important to them as performing on the stage of the Royal Albert Hall.”

Classical musicians’ activities and responsibilities have undeniably changed dramatically during the past few decades, broadening out across strands of playing, composing, improvising and teaching, all serving to enrich and complement their concert performances. And that’s a crucial perspective from which to view and reconsider the role of an organisation that mentors, trains and encourages Scotland’s young musicians.

But even if Davidson Kelly is unwilling to divulge in too much detail any changes she might be considering, she’s clear on how she plans to begin. “There’s an increasing understanding across all sorts of activities that you need to listen to your participants. We want to centre our youth voices in our work going forward – existing members, alumni, young musicians more generally. We’ll be going out to people and saying we want to have a big think, and we want people to be involved in that conversation with us over the next year or so.”

A live return, a broadening of activities, consultations and collaborations with the young players themselves – clearly exciting times ahead for NYOS.

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The NYOS Junior Orchestra performs on Tuesday 5 April in the Albert Halls, Stirling; the NYOS Senior Orchestra performs at the New Auditorium in Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on Sunday 10 April; and the NYOS Symphony Orchestra performs on Friday 15 April at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall, and Saturday 16 April at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. www.nyos.co.uk

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