The Armidale Youth Orchestra

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The Armidale Youth Orchestra (AYO) is celebrating their 50th year. FOCUS caught up with Caroline Downer, who told us all about the past, present and future of the AYO.

When was the Youth Orchestra formed?

It is actually the Armidale Youth Orchestra’s 50th birthday this year – which is quite an achievement and a momentous event for a community youth orchestra. It was formed in 1968 by a small group of interested community members, including K Aubrey, Davydd Williams, Sue Metcalfe, Wendy Huddleston, Mrs Colbeck and Mrs Dewhurst. Mr Neville Meale was the first conductor.  It was just the one orchestra of about 30 players.

There have been a number of conductors over the 50 years – but key people include Laurie Pulley, Sue Metcalfe, Warwick Dunham, and Phil Oxley.

What is different today?

Today the Armidale Youth Orchestra has expanded to three ensembles – the Armidale Youth String Orchestra, the Armidale Youth Wind Ensemble and the Armidale Youth Orchestra, with almost 100 players in total.

Is it usual for a regional town to have a Youth Orchestra?

There are only a handful of youth orchestras in regional cities, and certainly not many in towns the size of Armidale, and who have had the longevity of AYO.

It is also unusual that a town of Armidale’s size is able to have an orchestra with all of the symphonic instruments, even ones that are considered endangered. Endangered instruments are the ones that are in high demand, like the bassoon, oboe, French horn, trombone and double bass. AYO has been able to offer some scholarships to encourage students to study instruments on the Endangered List. Our scholarships are funded through donations from the Armidale Symphony Orchestra, Armidale Music and Drama Society and individual community members.

Over the 50 years that the orchestra has been in existence, there must have been many players?

Yes, and there are many alumni of AYO who continue to play their instrument, some in community orchestras and in their spare time while they pursue their careers outside of music.  Some have remained in Armidale, and some have moved elsewhere. But there are also alumni who have pursued a career in music.   Some have studied music (or are currently studying) at the Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University in Brisbane, Sydney Conservatorium of Music, WAAPA Perth, Elder Conservatorium Adelaide, Canberra School of Music and Royal Academy in London.

And I’m sure there are some key performers today who played with AYO in the early years?

One 1980s AYO Alumni is David Griffiths, a Senior Lecturer in Music (Performance – Clarinet) at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. He studied first at the Canberra School of Music, and then New York at the Manhattan School of Music. As a winner of the Artists International Award in New York, he made his Carnegie Hall Debut in February 2000. Engagements have taken him to Israel, Switzerland, Austria, Japan, China, Korea, Canada, Serbia and the United States. He has collaborated with members of the Cleveland, Shanghai, Oxford, Tin Alley, Flinders and Ciompi String Quartets, appeared with the New York Wind Soloists and performed chamber music with Principal members of the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras. David has also held positions as Associate Principal Clarinet with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Principal Clarinet of the Macau Orchestra and Principal Clarinet of the Shanghai Radio Orchestra, as well as Guest Principal with all of Australia’s major symphony and opera ballet orchestras.

Alice Rickards, an Alumni of the mid 1990s completed her undergraduate at the Queensland Conservatorium before moving to the UK and completing a Masters at the Royal Academy of Music. She is currently a member of the BBC Scottish Orchestra and also performs with the Dunedin consort.  Her violin and cello duo, “High Heels and Horse Hair” have created interesting platforms for chamber music, including commissioning eight composers to write new works inspired by wild Scottish plants.

But of course, there are not just performers, but some of AYO Alumni have gone on to teach music both privately, but also in schools throughout Australia.

It is certainly a wonderful legacy of the orchestra …

Absolutely. And we even now have children of Alumni who are part of our current membership. 

Who are the current players of AYO?

The AYO offers music students from 8 – 21 years a weekly ensemble program during term and provides opportunities to share the love of music making to our community. It caters for students from about Grade 2 AMEB all the way to A Mus and beyond. It is wonderful to see the mix of schools – we have players from all the high schools in Armidale – O’Connor, Armidale High, Duval High, PLC, NEGS and TAS.  We also have members from some of the primary schools – including PLC, TAS, Ben Venue, Armidale City, Martin’s Gully, St Mary’s and the Waldorf School.

Many of our current players have had success with auditions to Australian Youth Orchestra programs (National Music Camp, Young Symphonists), to Playerlink (Sydney Symphony program), ACO Academy (Australian Chamber Orchestra), State Music Camps (Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide), and to the NSW Regional Youth Orchestra (an initiative of the NSW Regional Conservatorium Association). There are certainly some very talented musicians in our orchestra!

Does AYO have public performances?

The Armidale Youth Orchestra has a calendar of events throughout the year.   In February of every year, AYO moves to Sawtell for its Annual Music Camp.  Students spend the weekend rehearsing, often with a guest conductor, but there is always time for beach, fun and games. It is an important start to the year, where players can really get to know the repertoire and have specific sessions with instrumental tutors.   This Annual Music Camp started about 20 years ago at Valla Beach, under the direction of Mal Hewitt. For the past couple of years, the guest conductor has been Ben Castle, a string specialist who is Head of Strings at Melbourne Grammar School. 

Sawtell is also a great way to plan for the first concert of the year and the orchestra’s major fundraiser, the Rosemary Leitch Garden Party, held in Autumn of every year. This fundraiser started 20 years ago in Rosemary’s Garden in Armidale. Rosemary has been a long time supporter of the orchestra and opened her garden for the event. For the last two years, the Garden Party has been held in the beautiful gardens of Chevy Chase.

There are plenty of other concerts that the AYOs are involved in – from Eisteddfod performances, to school concerts, both in Armidale and further into the region. Our school concerts are designed to introduce students to orchestral music and instruments, and our students particularly enjoy playing to their peers. 

For our final event of the year we have a major performance at Lazenby Hall, our Gala concert.

I understand that this year your Gala Concert will be a bit different?

Since it is our 50th birthday in 2018, we have something very special planned.  We have a celebratory concert – The AYO Big Birthday Bash, on 19th August at Lazenby Hall. We have commissioned local composer Paul Marshall to write a piece specifically for the orchestra and have invited alumni players to join us in its performance. 

Tell us a bit about Paul Marshall and his piece.

Paul Marshall began composing while still at school. He is published by Reed Music (17 books – saxophone, clarinet, bassoon, viola, cello, bass, chamber music and concert band). Paul’s orchestral suite, Landscapes, was premiered by Beecroft Orchestra in 2008; a year later, the same orchestra premiered his Saxophone Concerto. The AMEB has included pieces on the syllabuses for saxophone, clarinet cello bassoon, and in 2016 Paul was accepted as a pedagogical member of the Australian Music Centre.

Paul has written a number of evocative compositions which reflect landscape, and which highlight the individual timbres of a number of orchestral instruments. Our commissioned work, Where the mountains kiss the sky is an orchestral tone poem inspired by the wild mountains in the areas surrounding Armidale. The opening depicts a frosty winter morning, the sun burning off the overnight mist, then moving to spring and the start of new life. There is a brief interlude of a hot, dry summer’s day before the final flourish to complete the piece. Paul has tried to make the most of all sections of the orchestra, challenging the young players to rise to new heights, and we are very excited about its world premiere!

Sounds like we need to put the 19th August into our diaries now!

Yes, and we are also inviting any AYO alumni to come along – either as players (particularly strings!) or as audience members. Come and celebrate this special occasion with us. Contact NECOM for more information 6788 2135.

Thanks Caroline.

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