Monday, 27 September 2021

What an incredible journey

What an incredible journey

HUNDREDS of children showcased their creativity through dance, music, writing and art during the second half of this year’s Henley Youth Festival.

The 24th annual festival, which celebrated the theme of “Journeys” ended on Sunday with a series of performing arts shows at the Kenton Theatre and an art exhibition at the River & Rowing Museum.

The shows at the New Street theatre began on Wednesday last week with a Proms concert.

Organisers Eithne Rosenmeier and Janette Mooney Nyangiti put together a diverse programme, including solo pianists, group ensembles, string instruments, a school choir and a brass quintet.

A total of 76 secondary school musicians took part, more than double the number that participated last year.

The young people played to a full house, demonstrating their technical virtuosity and a taste for both classical and popular music.

The Gillotts Voices choir, comprising 20 children, rounded off the first half of the evening by performing Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen and the pop song Video Killed the Radio Star by The Buggles.

In the second half, the Gillotts Chamber Group, featuring nine children, performed Viva la Vida by Coldplay.

Thomas Harding, 11, from Abingdon School, played Spanish Love Song (Anon) and later performed A Stormy Coast by Walter Carroll on the piano.

He said: “When I finished playing, it was just the best feeling. I think Proms is really good. There’s no one judging you and it’s a really nice place to show off your talent.”

Cellist Mae Reineke, 16, a music scholar at Cranford House School in Moulsford, performed her own composition, Tears of a Cello, while her younger sister, Ava, played Ladies in Lavender by Nigel Hess on the violin.

Both girls are from Henley and have been involved with the festival for nearly 10 years.

Other highlights of the evening included 15-year-old Raphael Conte, who earned “whoops” from the audience after playing from memory Danse Espagnole by Manuel de Falla on the violin.

“I think it’s good that Henley is such a musical town and that it promotes its young players,” said Raphael, who is a pupil at Sir William Borlase’s Grammar School in Marlow.

Some of the young instrumentalists were accompanied by pianist Darius Halpern, who works as a counter assistant at Henley library.

Mr Halpern called the event “excellent”, adding: “It gives the children a chance to see what a microphone is like and it’s a really good training for them.

“I also learn so much about music myself, modern popular music… classical music is really my thing.”

Mrs Rosenmeier said: “We’re so glad to have the Gillotts Voices choir and the Gillotts Chamber Group. Also, our grand piano, funded by Henley Royal Regatta, has been really well used by our pianists this year.”

Gill Dodds, a trustee of Thamesfield Youth Association, which sponsored the event, said: “We like to support any good cause for young people and the youth festival ticks all the boxes. This is exactly what we should be doing with our money.”

Amanda Heath, a trustee of the festival, said: “It was a delightfully varied programme, which displayed the talents of Henley’s young musicians.

“It was particularly good to see Gillotts School pupils showing off their musical abilities with both a choir and a chamber group after a few years’ absence.”

The festival’s Entertain event followed on Thursday night last week when children put on a variety show that encompassed 22 different acts. The performers, who ranged in age from six to 17, included gymnasts, boy bands, a magician, an Irish dancer and a group of pupils from Chiltern Edge School in Sonning Common who performed musical theatre.

Poppy Barker, a familiar face from last year’s show, opened the evening with an Irish reel by Dan Crouch.

This was followed by Goldilocks with a Twist, a sketch written by eight-year-old Martha Peach and performed by the girls in her class at St Mary’s School in Henley.

The twist was Goldilocks and her siblings make friends with the three bears in the woods at the end of the act.

Martha, the daughter of BBC Radio Berkshire presenter Andrew Peach, said: “Everyone can be friends even if they are different. I was pleased with the performance but the best bit was throwing sweets out at the end.”

Her mother Colleen said: “We had nothing to do with it as parents. It was a fabulous thing to do and lovely to see the year four girls working together so well.”

Magician Vibhu Vadhoolan, a year five pupil at Valley Road Primary School in Henley, incorporated his father and brother — who were sitting in the audience — into his act.

Boy band B3, comprising three boys from St Mary’s, made their debut with Sunshine of Your Life by Cream.

Ben Rainboth, Harrison Blumfield, both from year six, and Harrison’s younger brother, George Blumfield from year four, formed the band in January and rehearsed the song for over a month.

Ben said: “The best experience was playing in front of people.”

His mother Laryssa said: “It was an inspiring night — there is just so much talent in Henley.

“It was a really special opportunity for them to play on a proper stage at the Kenton Theatre.”

In the second half, 17-year-old Rachael Rajah delivered a spoken-word performance about the relative value of arts and humanities versus the sciences.

Rachael was also a winner in the senior writing competition and the film competition.

Pupils in year seven at Chiltern Edge closed the show with a routine that grew out of a school workshop, run by the festival, with West End performer Jonny Vickers. After rehearsing for several hours, 22 children performed Any Dream Will Do from the musical Joseph and the Amazing Techicolor Dreamcoat.

They also acted out a mime about Gulliver’s Travels, where Gulliver was played as a woman.

At the end of the night, Lucie Henwood, a trustee of the festival, presented the 2017 Elizabeth Griffin Award to Holly Harrison, 17, who is a pupil at Sir William Borlase’s Grammar School.

The award, donated by the Griffin family, is given every year to someone who epitomises the ethos of the festival.

Mrs Henwood said: “Holly was a standout candidate for the accolade — for more than 12 years, she has shown commitment and enthusiasm for all that the Henley Youth Festival has to offer.

“She has been a young reporter, produced creative and innovative artwork, sung beautifully, both on her own and with her brothers accompanying her, and performed with the Acorn Music Theatre Company.”

Holly, who began participating in the festival with the Trinity Primary School orchestra, performed at Sing this year with All I Want by James Flannigan, Stephen Garrigan and Mark Prendergast.

“I was really shocked when I got the award,” she said. “They got a friend to present it to me and I was crying.”

She also worked backstage, supporting some of the younger children and helping the technical team with the preparation of artwork slides. The festival’s Sing concert opened on Friday night with three songs performed by the junior Henley Youth Choir, including On the Banks of Allan Water, a traditional Scottish song, You Raise Me Up by Josh Groban and The Bare Necessities by Phil Harris and Bruce Reitherman.

Organisers Fi Harding and Jo Dickson orchestrated a full programme of singers, ranging in age from seven to 17.

About 90 children took part in the Kenton show, which was sold out, with double the amount of soloists compared with last year.

Mrs Harding said: “I was so impressed that everybody had learnt their words off by heart.

“There was definitely a large increase in the younger-age entries — such a credit to them to be brave enough to stand up on that stage with a sold-out audience looking at them and the lights beaming down on them. They did incredibly well.”

The song Titanium by David Guetta and Sia proved a popular choice — it was sung by Matilda Macartney, a year six girl from Rupert House School in Henley, in the first half of the show and then later by Eleanor Whittle and Ria Nyangiti, who are both in year nine at Gillotts School.

Other acts included Lucy Beesley, a year five girl from St Helen & St Katharine School in Abingdon, who performed Quiet by Tim Minchin, earning enthusiastic applause from the audience.

One of the younger performers, 10-year-old Emma Francis, sang in a band called The Geeks along with her friends from Valley Road Primary School, Eddie Pratt and Jesse Brener.

“I was really nervous but I was fine once we got going,” she said.

The friends said they not only shared a passion for music but also for maths, which provided inspiration for the name of the band.

“It was fun to be on stage,” said Eddie, who won a special award at the festival in 2015 for the most original composition.

The children have been playing together as a band for four months and chose to perform Lean On Me by Bill Withers.

Duo Riley Butcher and Emilia Fulford-Dobson, who are both in year nine at Gillotts School, excelled with their performance of Good Enough by Little Mix. The show closed with an original composition, Back to England, by Chloe Cormack from year six at Stoke Row Primary School, performed by both the junior and senior Henley Youth Choirs.

Inspired by the festival’s theme, Chloe wrote the lyrics and composed the melody, while Alfie Hay, one of the founders of the festival, added an accompaniment. During the performance, Chloe and her best friend Connie Jones sang some of the verses as a duet.

The shows at the Kenton culminated in two dance events on Saturday for different age groups.

Julie Green, a teacher from Valley Road Primary School, organised the programme for Young Dancer, involving school years one to four, and Dance, a show for school years five to 13.

Both performances included soloists, groups of friends dancing together and showcases by local dance schools, such as Divas & Dudes Academy, Berkshire and Henley Dance group and the StageWorks Performing Arts School. Students from Gillotts School presented a showcase, developed out of an after-school club and a festival workshop with Victoria Porter, of DanceDesign Choreography.

Eleven dancers from year seven at Gillotts took part in their showcase, entitled Run.

The dancers collaborated with two GCSE dance students, Megan Powell and Helena Porter, to produce the routine. Rehearsals took place in the after-school club set up specially for the festival in January.

Mrs Green said: “The Run project is a perfect example of what the festival is about — older students sharing their knowledge and creative passion to give younger students new opportunities with guidance from a professional choreographer.”

Anna McLoughlin, 10, from Valley Road Primary School, decided to enter a solo routine for the Dance show after taking part with her friends in previous years.

She danced to the song Summer Love by One Direction and designed her own routine after watching online videos of dancers on YouTube. “I make up my own routines in the living room at home,” said Anna. “YouTube gives me lots of ideas.”

Mrs Green said: “This year, we had the most showcase dancers ever, about 100 in all. It was great to see how well children can work together in large groups, given great choreography and a theme.

“This is down to the input of the festival workshops and the help from teachers, guiding pupils to choreograph their own dances and to express themselves in a meaningful way.”

During the Kenton shows, a team of volunteers worked backstage, handling props and technical support, as well as chaperoning the performers.

At the back of the auditorium, organiser Chris Braclik led a team of young sound technicians.

He said: “Everybody sends in their backing tracks and then every act has to be put on to our software for sound cues. Of course everything changes at the rehearsals and we are making adjustments, sometimes right up until the performance.”

Each night, several young people helped Mr Braclik by bringing out the microphones or linking up the electronic instruments.

Sound assistant Callum Brady, 16, from Shiplake College, said: “I liked the day when I got to learn where everything plugs in and all about the setting up — I was taught by the grandmaster, Chris!”

Anya Fox, who designed the lighting for the Kenton shows, collected images online to enhance each act on the stage, such as the cartoon jungle backdrop used for the Henley Youth Choir’s performance of Bare Necessities in Sing.

Student Kitty Horne, who was part of the lighting team, said: “At Entertain, I got the opportunity to light the whole show — Anya helped me. It was a really good experience.”

The festival also hosted a free public event in the Market Place on Saturday afternoon, called Art in the Square.

Artist Dr Brian Squabbles and his assistant Pamela Ribwhiskers encouraged passing shoppers and their children to create new, imaginary objects from pieces of junk and modelling clay.

Dr Squabbles, who described himself as a “daydream harvester”, was dressed in a trilby and a white space suit while pushing an eccentric-looking bike around the square with children running alongside. The bike was created in a school workshop.

He said: “It hasn’t been just children — some of the grown-ups have found their inner youth and have been creating art. We are artists who make art in collaboration with people through play.”

Conor Quinn, 10, from Sacred Heart Primary School in Henley, used the objects from Dr Squabbles’s red van to make a “torch-car”. He said his favourite subjects at school were art and maths and that he had an interest in design.

“Different parts in the box gave me inspiration,” said Conor. “My torch-car goes faster than a rocket and lights up as it goes.”

The bulk of the school workshops took place last week, including steel drumming, singing, dancing, squash, Explorer Dome science workshops and the Blunderbus children’s theatre company.

For the first time this year, sports coach Michal Rosiak provided a session on Parkour, or freedom-of-movement gymnastics.

The Blunderbus workshop took children from reception to year two on a journey back in time to Ancient Greece.

Festival co-chair Mrs Dickson, who was present, said: “The children had a wonderful workshop letting their imagination and creativity take over, while having lots of fun at the same time.

“We are very grateful to the Henley Educational Trust for their donation, which covers a significant proportion of the costs of the school workshops.

“The Henley Decorative and Fine Arts Society pays for all of the art workshops, meaning that schools can take part with no financial pressure at all.”

The youth festival writing competition, which involved writing a piece based on the “Journeys” theme, had a record number of entries this year from a variety of local schools as well as independent submissions. The youngsters were invited to write in any style, such as a short story, poem, song lyrics, script or report.

Author Amanda Jennings, from Binfield Heath, helped to judge the competition for the fourth year running and presented prizes at the Bell Bookshop on Saturday.

She said: “There was a very high standard of entries, especially in the juniors section and I’m pleased that we also had a high number with lots of individuals taking part.

“It’s always lovely to see people using their imagination and heartening to see schools getting behind the idea and encouraging their pupils to enter. It’s a wonderful initiative that I’m proud to be a part of and I will continue to do so for as long I’m invited.

“There are very few creative writing competitions so writing runs the risk of being kept within the school environment and curriculum.

“It’s very beneficial for children to be able to demonstrate their creativity, whether that’s in writing, singing, dancing or anything else.”

The winner in the senior category was Rachael Rajah, 17, who wrote a poem entitled The Greenest Death.

Rachael, who is currently on a gap year between her GCSEs and A-levels, said the poem explained her view of life: “Life is finite, death gives it definition, and in a way, life is the greenest death.”

Sarah Bell, who organised the writing competition, thanked the Bell Bookshop for providing the prizes and Mrs Jennings for judging.

“I am very grateful for their support,” she said. “I am also aware that without the effort of the schools and teachers, encouraging the children to enter, there would not be such a huge and diverse competition.”

The festival’s theme continued into the art and film competitions, with nearly 250 pieces of art and 40 films entered by the young people of Henley. Most of the local schools were represented.

The entries were shown at an art and film exhibition at the River & Rowing Museum at the weekend.

The art competition was judged by artist and teacher Josie Stewart while film director Paul Greengrass adjudicated the film competition.

The judging criteria included use of imagination, creativity and innovation as well as interpretation of the theme.

Ms Stewart, who lives in Henley, said: “I was blown away and couldn’t have asked for anything more. The entries were brilliant and everyone who took part made such a huge effort.

“I’ve never come across anything like this festival before — Henley is very lucky to have this small organisation with so many volunteers supporting it.”

Mr Greengrass, who also lives in Henley, said: “I was very impressed with the quality of the entries.

“They were highly imaginative and demonstrated the film-makers’ gift for thinking and telling a story in pictures, which is a great skill and will be highly sought after in many jobs in tomorrow’s economy.

“I was really delighted to see such a high number of entries as well — please keep them coming.”

Organiser Kirsten Hesketh, who ran the competitions along with Charlene Brown, said: “The judges were very impressed by the standard of work and the wonderful and varied interpretation of the ‘Journeys’ theme.

“The pride and delight on the winners’ faces made all the hard work worthwhile.

“We’ve had twice the number of entries compared with last year but what has been really great is that almost every school in the catchment area has taken part.

“The children have been so excited to see their works on display and we’ve had loads of comments from parents to say how much they enjoyed creating them.

“It’s a huge boost for them to get so much praise and recognition for their efforts.”

Some 250 people packed into the museum for the prize-giving ceremony on Sunday.

Mrs Dickson said: “We are so pleased that more and more young people every year are getting involved in the festival. It is a celebration of the talent of the young people of Henley and the surrounding areas and they deliver such wonderful performances every year.”

For more information, visit the festival website,

l Additional reporting by James Burton

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