The destruction of the European Union Youth Orchestra is a devastating betrayal of young people by the EU
This week, a European institution based in the United Kingdom which has, for 40 years, contributed immeasurably to the cultural and artistic lifeblood of Europe, promoting and nourishing the European ideal, announced its destruction.
Due to a lack of funding from the European Union, the European Union Youth Orchestra (EUYO) will cease to exist from September 1st.
The timing of the announcement is bitterly ironic. It comes in a week in which Britain prepares once again to be alienated from Europe and an international laughing stock at the great parody of culture, the Eurovision Song Contest.
More importantly, it comes six weeks before Britons must soul-search on the question of British vs European sovereignty and identity at June’s Brexit referendum.
Each spring since 1976, 140 talented musicians from across the EU have assembled for a six-week orchestral course. Dedicated staff and tutors look after them, inspiring and motivating them to achieve the very highest standard of artistry. They then rehearse with the best conductors and soloists in the world (Yehudi Menuhin, Daniel Barenboim, Mstislav Rostropovich, Leonard Bernstein, Bernard Haitink and Claudio Abbado, the founding musical director, have all worked with the orchestra) before embarking on a tour, thrilling audiences across Europe and the wider world. But due to bureaucratic funding structure changes to the EU’s culture programme, it will no longer fund pan-European arts projects, and this year’s 40th anniversary tour will be the last.
I was a member of the EUYO between 2010 and 2012. It was, hand on heart, the greatest experience of my life and, in many ways, the making of me as a professional musician. At a time when my personal experience at music college had all but destroyed my self-confidence, EUYO believed in me and gave me a chance.
The orchestra is totally unique. It is the most important training orchestra in Europe, and, crucially, it is free to attend, allowing musicians, no matter what their financial situation, the same opportunity. We performed in Amsterdam, Berlin, Belgrade, Zahgreb, Bolzano, at the BBC Proms, and in Boston’s Symphony Hall, Chicago, Washington DC and New York’s Carnegie Hall, opportunities most of us could only have dreamed about otherwise.
Unlike the other major European youth orchestra, the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, which is dominated by German and Austrian musicians, there is always at least one musician from each of the 28 member states of the EU. For players from many smaller countries from Malta to Slovenia, it is their only opportunity to play at such a high level.
The musicians of the EUYO are kind, intelligent, sensitive, conscientious, fantastic young people. Each of them brings a bundle of youthful energy, passion, enthusiasm, love and musical pzazz, producing “gripping, exhilaratingly good orchestral playing, surging with energy, laser-sharp focus and collective daring”, as the Guardian described an electrifying performance of Mahler 5 in Edinburgh’s Usher Hall which I was lucky to experience last August.
Youth orchestras are devoid of the tiredness, cynicism and boredom that invariably creeps into most professional orchestras. In my EUYO concerts, every single member of that orchestra played as if it was the last concert of their life. Forgetting the cultural barriers and languages that divide us, during those concerts we were united by our common language, music. And at the end of it all, dripping with sweat, aching, exhausted but sky-high on adrenaline and endorphin, every musician turned to embrace their section partner. This profoundly moving sight is unique to the orchestra and is a visual embodiment of the European ideal of peace and solidarity.
The EUYO embodies the spirit of friendship and cultural exchange that the EU was established to protect. The official language on the course is English, but we would learn and practice languages we’d always wanted to with new friends, deepening understanding of our continental brethren. I know someone in every European capital city who I could count on, visit and stay with.
International sports do promote European integration but they also foster competitiveness – whereas a pan-European orchestra works as a single team, the players united in their aim to transcend their differences and become a single, great organism. Is there any other institution in the EU with the same power?
It is easy, on our island, to feel disconnected and isolated from Europe. It is this feeling, coupled with a sense of having a pan-European identity forced upon the nation from elsewhere, that has fed the anti-EU sentiment which will put the outcome of next month’s Brexit referendum on a knife-edge.
But when I played with other musicians from the EUYO, I felt my European-ness in a more profound way than I ever have elsewhere.
Which European traditions have truly united us across national boundaries for centuries? Our classical and folk traditions in music and the arts. Our band performed the English pomp and dignity of Elgar with the same gusto and commitment as the great Germanic giants of Brahms and Beethoven. The European anthem is not, strangely enough, by Katrina and the Waves, Abba or Lordi, but the magnificent ‘Ode to Joy’, from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. I remember performing it in one of my last concerts with the orchestra, struggling to hold back tears, as the cultural power of this great European music to unite us – better than anything else – overwhelmed me.
EUYO may be a fantastic and privileged experience but everyone accepted as a member has worked incredibly hard to be there.
Most of us did not have a normal, carefree adolescence, because every day after school we were practising for hours a day, or schlepping to a local regional orchestra in the pouring rain on a dark, wintry night, every week (not to mention all the financial hardship and sacrifice involved). There has to be something at the end of it. Every trainee classical musician with hopes of becoming a professional orchestral player regards EUYO as the ultimate prize, and the competition is fierce as a result.
Boris Johnson recently championed his Mayor’s Fund for Young Musicians, which gives children from lower-income families and less-privileged backgrounds, the chance to study an instrument, free of cost. I have taught children on this scheme. What is the point in championing such schemes, which encourage and allow children to follow their dreams of becoming a professional musician, if we can simply allow great orchestras like EUYO which exist to inspire these children, to disappear? As a teacher in London, I can no longer excite and inspire children with stories and recordings of the EUYO.
Will Boris be in uproar about the death of this great cultural institution?
I was one of the lucky ones, and in the past year I have also been involved in tutoring young players in several countries thanks to EUYO-funded projects.
I have already resigned myself to the belief that funding cuts, mismanagement and apathy have allowed much of the British educational musical establishment to fall apart.
I reflect, painfully, on the deterioration of the local authority provision in my native Scotland. But I never imagined that an institution as great, as sacred, as EUYO, could be allowed to fail.
The British are said in some quarters to be hell-bent on destroying the European project, but EUYO was founded in Britain by Lionel and Joy Bryer, chairman and secretary general of the International Youth Foundation of Great Britain. They won support from Prime Minister Edward Heath, who was its first president and who conducted the orchestra in its early days.
Jean-Claude Juncker, Martin Schulz and Tibor Navracsics, EU functionaries, have all described the orchestra as embodying what the EU stands for. And yet, apparently due to bureaucratic budget decisions two years ago, the money has suddenly vanished. So much for the EU being about the future of young people.
The orchestra has been built up, by many dedicated people, for 40 years. It is so much easier to destroy something than it is to painstakingly build it up, and the destruction of this European cultural icon will be a lasting memorial to the folly of bungling bureaucrats.
Join the campaign #saveEUYO