The first thing you notice isn’t the grandeur of the arena, it’s the sound. A noise quite unlike anything else, really. The Royal Albert Hall – a space synonymous with everything from boisterous Prom singsongs to delicate sonatas or rumbling rock music – is positively alive with the uproar of 2000 over-excited young north Londoners. Unlike the usual murmurs and guffaws of adults, the kids resonate at a pitch akin to shingle being pulled back out to sea by a persistent tide.
Up in the gallery, where the noise seems loudest, Kate Frood, headteacher of Eleanor Palmer School agrees. “It’s an amazing sound,” she says, “but there’s also about to be an amazing silence, too.”
And right on cue, there is. All the jumping around, the waving of school name placards and the desperate signalling to binocular-clutching parents subsides into a hush. The importance of this evening, here in this prestigious hall, not lost on a single person of any age.
Camden is unique in the country for this vast jamboree. The Music Trust, council, Arts Council and other key sponsors support all the borough’s kids equally, offering the most comprehensive opportunity to learn music to be found anywhere. The daily work of music tutors, conductors and teachers is then celebrated every two years in some style, as all 22 of our local state schools come together here, collaborating seamlessly on pieces that have often never been performed as a whole before, quite simply because there isn’t a rehearsal space big enough.
And it’s a beautiful thing. We’re treated to Beethoven, Daft Punk and evocative waves of traditional South African chanting within the first few minutes. Show-stopping soloists prove every bit as compelling as the world premiere of a specially commissioned London Symphony Orchestra love-in, or the whirling, crowd-pleasing feet (and brooms) of Irish dancing to mark St Patrick’s Day.
Deaf children enthusiastically sign along while row-upon-row of choirs reveal much about different teaching styles by how animated or regimented their sections appear when performing. And of course, Camden’s famously diverse mix means there’s a multicultural rainbow of beaming faces for all the photos, like an effortless Benetton advert somehow got made on the last night of the Proms.
It’s all a massive brush-off to the national dialogue of underperformance and delinquency that the UK’s schools and their pupils have to endure hearing daily. It’s also a truly communal event, at a time when we’re told that kind of spirit has been lost to a self-obsessed, X-Factorised, digitally-fixated culture.
And what pours from the balconies and sloshes up from the assembled brass bands, ukulele troupes and jazz ensembles, is pride. A massive, collective, infectious grin, brimming with it. Not just for the enthusiastic work of the kids, but for where we live, what it stands for and does best. Something to remember when bemoaning parking restrictions or other minor annoyances that come with living in this part of the world.
Trust patron David Walliams does his turn as a hugely useful local figurehead, while newscaster hero Jon Snow, who we last saw belting out his rendition of Blur’s Parklife (here’s the video), steers the proceedings expertly, as he’s always done at this event. There’s plenty of high profile support behind the scenes too, but who wouldn’t want to lend time to something so joyous?
As balloons drop to the strains of 2000 voices doing Katrina and the Waves’ Walking on Sunshine, I was suddenly reminded of assemblies spent signing The Beatles and reggae or big band classics at Gospel Oak School in the early ’80s.
It all felt rather progressive, knowing that we’d swerved the dull hymns our parents had to learn in favour of the livelier choruses of “oh island, in de sun”. The rest of the world has caught up, in many respects, with the kind of diversity and less rigid ideas the area excelled at back then. Meanwhile Camden hasn’t needed to shift much. That kind of thinking is now deep in the borough’s DNA.
And once every 2 years – as long as central government’s current savage funding cuts can be replaced from other sources – the whole thing explodes in this noisy, glorious pride-bomb at the Albert Hall.