Is this another UK club biting the dust?

London 18 August 2018

They say that death by a thousand small cuts is the worst way to go. For a current example conforming to this type it’s probably necessary to look no further than the ever present Brexit story, every week bringing another small unfolding drama. This weekend is no exception, when one of the less likely episodes in this lamentable contrarian chronicle is likely to play out in an unusual location: that of a classical music concert.

A concert with a live audience of almost six thousand in a packed Royal Albert Hall to be precise. Plus many thousands more listening on BBC radio 3 in the UK and around the world. Together they will hear a Sunday morning BBC Prom concert performed by an orchestra credited by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker as being “the best possible ambassador for the European Union”.

39298_0006The EUYO performing at the BBC Proms

Juncker’s comment by no means stands alone. Feted around the world, the orchestra in question – the European Union Youth Orchestra (EUYO) – comes to London in the midst of a six-week tour. The London concert follows sold out concerts in Warsaw, Berlin, Amsterdam and its summer home in Austria’s Grafenegg, during a year that has so far seen it pick up two awards – the European Orchestra Prize in Dresden and an international Cultural Diplomacy award in Abu Dhabi.

But as Andrew O’Hagan wrote this week in his selection of the BBC broadcast of the concert as this week’s Radio Times ‘pick of the week’, “They’re not just a fantastic orchestra, they represent an ideal”. And that is the point: as the last chords of Sunday’s concert die away, that ideal will, in all likelihood, begin to come crashing down as far as future young talented UK musicians are concerned.

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The irony – the very big irony – is that amongst the Orchestra’s approximately 140 members selected annually from several thousand hopeful applicants across 28 EU member states, the UK has always had a distinctly strong showing. Places in the Orchestra are hotly contested and in an average year many EU countries can boast only three or four members at most. Yet on Sunday seventeen UK players will be on stage as part of the BBC Prom performance in what is by no means an unusual UK showing. Perhaps this has something to do with training for young UK musicians; the EUYO, for example, has become a natural progression route for generations of talented UK classical musicians once they have graduated from the exceptional National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain.

And here is the rub: as the Orchestra opens its Sunday concert conducted by LSO chief guest conductor Gianandrea Noseda with the UK premiere of the young Polish composer Agata Zubel’s aptly named Fireworks, it is worth considering that this may well be the last time that an EUYO orchestra that includes UK members appears at the famed BBC proms.  As a current UK member of the Orchestra recently remarked, this is devastating news for young UK musicians. Yet another exclusive club that the country is about to leave.

Many people will likely say, ‘yes, very sad for the few hundred young UK musicians that might otherwise have been EUYO members in the next few decades, but in the grand scheme of things how important is a youth orchestra?’ And of course this is true: the EUYO’s move of headquarters from London to Italy earlier this year has not had – and will not have – any juddering economic effect on the UK’s economy or the level of sterling. Or indeed the state of most people’s lives in the UK or Europe. Yet it is a metaphor worth pausing to consider.

The ideals that O’Hagan mentions the EUYO as representing are at the heart of that metaphor. Sitting in the audience on Sunday will be the Orchestra’s now 88 year old co-founder, the indefatigable and visionary American (yet another irony …) Joy Bryer, who began the EUYO with her South African husband Lionel Bryer, Sir Edward Heath, and the legendary conductor Claudio Abbado in 1976.

The ideals were, and continue to be, simple but powerful: bringing together the European Community’s finest young players to work at the highest level of excellence in an ensemble that mirrors the EU’s most important higher-level aims of cooperation and harmony between nations. It sounds like the very definition of an orchestra, which is precisely why the EUYO is such a powerful metaphor and ambassador for the EU and its ideals.

But such an arrangement mirrors the EU in another important respect: it balances the natural tension between European and national aspirations. The players come together as Europeans, they play as Europeans, yet they never lose their own national identity. Unity in diversity, as the EU slogan puts it.

You will hear this diversity in the Zubel commission that celebrates the 100th anniversary of Polish independence. You can also see it in the way the Romanians never cease to amaze with their improvised folk playing at the drop of a hat, or in the Spanish players’ habit of taking to the stage even after the end of a concert to play a quick paso doble and to host a riotous annual summer sangria party. I could go on. Each country retains its place, its meanings and its identity then, in this most European of organisations.

In the current febrile atmosphere of increasing nationalism across Europe this is an unusual win-win, even a rare modern utopia of sorts, making the Orchestra something of critical importance beyond simply being a well-respected international youth orchestra of exceptional quality. And that’s great for everyone.

Except, it seems, the UK. As the sounds of Tchaikovsky’s heroic fifth symphony die away on Sunday into the multiple byzantine recesses of the magnificent Royal Albert Hall, yet another little  ‘cut’ will have taken place in the slow Brexit progression. The EUYO is not, and should never be, a political organisation. But If ever ‘second referendumers’ had wanted a background hum for their slowly rising campaign, then the sounds of Sunday’s concert will surely provide just the metaphor they should be reaching for.


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