It all started in a pub in Switzerland. A couple of musicians bouncing ideas back and forth between each other about how great it would be to pull together performers from different orchestras to perform in a small festival of sorts.
And so the Aberdeen International Youth Festival was born. Or at least that’s how artistic director Stewart Aitken likes to imagine it.
To be fair, it’s not that far from the truth.
“Back in the early 1970s, two or three people from Aberdeen were working in youth orchestras and there wasn’t an opportunity for them to showcase past their own region. They persuaded some like-minded people to bring some national youth orchestras together with up and coming conductors and had a little festival in Switzerland,” said Stewart.
“It was very small, but after one of the concerts a few of them had a chat in the pub and had a lightbulb moment. From there, they built connections with the music community to attract other up and coming orchestras and conductors who were interested in music education, and pulled favours, to put together the first Aberdeen International Youth Festival in 1972.
“Initially, it was about orchestras coming together and showcasing their work, and it was a massive highlight of the calendar. Other performances and competitions started to grow around it, and there was a realisation that there weren’t many opportunities for young people to showcase any form of artistic talents, and to share a cultural experience with other performers from across the world. I think it’s safe to say that we’ve grown to become a huge event that celebrates and promotes the talent of young people on a huge platform, and I’m very proud of that.”
Now, 40 years after that first event, the youth festival is celebrating its anniversary in style with a packed programme of events that kicks off next Wednesday.
Stewart said that the festival’s strength lay in bringing together a variety of performances to create a cultural experience.
“Hosting the Scottish Jazz Musician of the Year night is a real coup for us; it’s recognition of the work we’ve been doing with young jazz musicians. It’s a real minority genre that deserves to be shouted about. It should be a sellout night,” he said.
“We’ve also made great use of the Beach Ballroom, and a great event for families is a performance group from Slovakia. They’re very free spirited and love to get the audience involved in their shows, which cover storytelling, music and dance.
“One that I am particularly excited about is the University of The Philippines Concert Chorus, who are visiting the festival as part of their 50th anniversary tour. This is their sixth visit; they are one of longest-standing friends of the festival. So many friends of the festival rave about them, tickets are selling very quickly, and I’m looking forward to seeing them for the first time.
“One particularly fun group is the Rock’n’Roll American Youth Circus. It has everything – dance, music, a band, gymnastics, stories. It’s a variety gala in itself. It’s modern, and accessible, which is great for us. They take a bit more risk and have fun.”
It certainly is a coup that the festival can attract such high-quality performers from across the globe, but one of the event’s most basic aims and, indeed, one of its biggest successes has been promoting and encouraging homegrown talent.
As well as showcasing numerous national and local companies during the festival, there are also a few initiatives which are encouraging those who wouldn’t normally have access to the arts or creative courses to get involved, starting with an Olympic Torch-style Pass the Baton tour.
“We’re aware of the fact that the festival has a great history in the area, but we need to go out and shout about it, so we’ve given people the chance to take the AIYF baton and run with it and raise awareness of the fantastic work we do,” said Stewart.
“We’ve had people from nursery groups, the Guides, and Portsoy Boat Festival, to name a few. It has been a great project.
“We also have a project called The Port, which allows young people who may never have had the opportunity to get involved in the arts to take part in the festival. We’re holding a celebratory parade with this year’s international and Scottish participants alongside the young people from the initiative, where they can show off their new pieces of artwork and showcase their recently learned circus and performance skills. It’s a sense of re-investing in our city.
“In Aberdeen, there’s a huge sense of pride in the arts community, but often people don’t know what it is that they’re proud of, so this our chance to show off what a talented group of young people we have.”
Whereas the north-east has a vast number of creative, enthusiastic and talented youths, Stewart admitted a problem in the past was attracting adults to shows during the festival who felt that they didn’t “get” the arts. Of course, the entire purpose of the festival is that it is accessible to all.
“If you have any interest in live performance, then the energy, excitement and performances of these talented young people will draw you in,” he said.
“Whether you think you’ll understand the contemporary dance shows, or the bands from Norway, that’s not the point. We just want you to enjoy the performances.
“Young people can often bring something to a performance that professionals can’t; they have that exuberance and naivety that we lose as we grow.
“You don’t have to be into the arts to get something from the festival. It’s just there to be enjoyed.”
The Aberdeen International Youth Festival runs from Wednesday, August 1 to Saturday, August 11. For more information on the full programme of events, visit www.aiyf.org