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Let’s hear it for the London Schools Symphony Orchestra

03 January, 2020 — By Michael White

Everybody knows about the National Youth Orchestra who have their annual start-of-year concert this Sunday at the Barbican (see below). But not everybody knows about the London Schools Symphony Orchestra, which runs along similar lines, is just as stunning a showcase for young talent, and has its own start-of-year concert at the Barbican next Wednesday.

As the name suggests, the LSSO has a more limited geographical remit than the NYO, but there’s an element of competition between them and players do sometimes pass back and forth – “which is fine”, says the LSSO’s artistic director, the conductor Peter Ash. “There’s room for us both, and a need for us both, especially right now when there’s a crisis in music education in schools that’s not being addressed by any long-term government policy.”

The hard truth is that if you’re at school in London these days, you’ll be lucky if you get the chance to play an instrument or any kind of introduction to the world of serious orchestral music – unless your parents are rich enough to send you to a fee-paying establishment like Highgate or Westminster.

The LSSO helps to fill that void. And in doing so, it also helps to break down the social barriers between state-school pupils and their privately-educated contem­poraries – because, as Ash says, “an orchestra like ours has kids from Highgate alongside kids from Brixton, giving them all the experience of a far wider demo­graphic than they’d otherwise get”.

In business since the 1950s, the LSSO will field 106 young players at its concert next week, aged 13 to 18. And they’ll all have been working very hard over Christmas to prepare, through an intensive holiday-period course that runs over 10 days.

Auditions for the orchestra are held in the autumn, and the idea is that everyone signs up for at least three concerts and an overseas tour (this year to Spain in July). It isn’t free: there’s an annual fee of £1,200 to cover tuition and other expenses. But there are bursaries to help. “We don’t turn anyone away,” says Ash – thanks to the generosity of individuals and support from the Corporation of London who foot much of the £280,000 a year it costs to keep the orchestra going.

“It’s my dream to make the whole thing free on access,” says Ash, “and I’m currently trying to set up an endowment scheme to at least cover the tour. 2021 will be our 70th anniversary, so raising funds in time for then is high on our agenda.”

Something else on the LSSO agenda is careers advice for those who want to be professional musicians – “though that’s not by any means a given,” Ash insists. “The important thing is for music to be part of their lives, whether they end up doctors, lawyers, bus drivers, whatever – and to have the experience of playing at a high level, in a place like the Barbican. An experience that will stay with them always.

“I’ve been running this orchestra since 2001, and I know what a fantastic edu­cational platform it is. The great pleasure for me is to have people coming back 10 years later and telling me that being in the LSSO was the most significant thing in their youth. Which they do.”

No doubt they will again after next Wednesday’s concert when they’ll be on stage alongside the celebrated actress Janet Suzman for a programme of music and readings based around the Faust legend. And you won’t have to make allowances for the youth of the participants. They’re serious, they’re good, and they will play as though their lives depend on it.

• Music from The Dark Side, LSSO, Jan 8, 7.30pm, £9-£26, Barbican Centre, Silk Street, EC2Y 8DS, 020 7638 8891, www.barbican.org.uk

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