The BBC’s biennial Young Musician competition reached its thrilling climax in an absorbing, nail-biting and inspirational final concert at London’s Barbican on Sunday 15th May and I was privileged to be a member of the audience for this wonderful celebration of shared music making.
In the nearly 40 years since it was founded, the prestigious competition to find the nation’s top young classical talent has become something of a national treasure. It has “discovered” many fine musicians, including Nicholas Daniel (oboe), Emma Johnson (clarinet), Freddy Kempf (piano), Guy Johnston (cello), Jennifer Pike (violin) and Benjamin Grosvenor (piano), to name but a very few, and continues to inspire and support aspiring young musicians. The programme also regularly poses important questions about child prodigies, the hot-housing of talented children, private education, specialist music schools and music education in the UK, but fundamentally the competition emphasises the joy and pleasure that music brings to those who play it, engage with it and listen to it. This was particularly evident at the Barbican on the afternoon of the final where there were activities for eager young musicians of all ages and abilities ahead of the final concert and during the intervals.
In the old days, when I watched the programme avidly as a teenage piano student (frustrated that I was never quite good enough to enter the competition), it was all rather wooden, cringeworthy, and geeky. In recent years, the programme has had a glitzy makeover and now bears more than a passing resemblance to shows like Britain’s Got Talent and The Voice, though the format remains the same with talented young people competing in instrumental categories (keyboard, woodwind, brass, strings and percussion) to be selected for the semi-final and then the grand final. In a neat piece of continuity, Clemency Burton-Hill, daughter of the competition’s co-creator Humphrey Burton, was presenter of this year’s television coverage and final concert.
This year’s finalists were French horn player Ben Goldscheider (18), saxophonist Jess Gillam (17) and cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason (17). All the category finals revealed some incredibly talented and dedicated young musicians, and what I found most reassuring was that all the young people involved in the competition expressed a real passion for their music. I am a firm believer that if one does not love it – whether one is a professional or amateur musician – there is little point in doing it! The range of instruments played and repertoire performed begs the question of how one chooses between one young musician and another because each instrument and its repertories presents its own unique technical, artistic and emotional challenges. In the final stages of the competition, technical mastery of one’s instrument is a given, and in the end the judgement comes down to aspects such as communication, stage presence and musicality. All three young finalists displayed these qualities in spades in their individual and very distinctive performances.
It is very hard to go first, and I felt Ben Goldscheider was quite nervous. The French horn does not lend itself to much physical movement or gestures on stage., but his performance of Richard Strauss’s Horn Concerto no. 2 displayed concentration, fine intonation and a clear purpose.
Jess Gillam, a finalist in the 2014 competition, bounded onto the stage and mesmerized us in silver sequined leggings and Michael Nyman’s Where the Bee Dances. Her stage presence is charismatic, infectiously extrovert, and highly expressive – as is her sound which ranged from vibrant and imaginative to haunting and delicate. She was assured and very comfortable on stage, interacting enthusiastically with the orchestra and lifting the sound out of her instrument and into the audience. At just 17 she has already had a good deal of performing experience and this came across very clearly in her confident, colourful and technically assured playing
From his first notes of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto no. 1 Sheku Kanneh-Mason was authoritative, thoughtful and totally committed. This music is a sophisticated choice for a teenager and Sheku rose to the technical and emotional challenges presented by Shostakovich’s music with an impressive maturity and musical insight. His modesty, evident throughout the competition, allowed him to stand back from the music and the resulting performance was intense and highly-charged.
While the jury were deliberating we were treated to a lively and witty performance of the first movement of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 3 by the 2014 winner, pianist Martin James Bartlett.
Sheku Kanneh-Mason was awarded the top prize, but ultimately all three finalists are winners: to have reached the final of this competition is a credit to their dedication, passion and commitment to their music, and through this experience they all have the potential to be huge role models for a younger generation. Ben, Jess and Sheku are enormously talented, down-to-earth and likeable (all three attend state schools), and one hopes that they are given the opportunity to inspire young people from all walks of life to engage with and explore the wonders of classical music.
(This is a longer version of an article first published on Bachtrack.com. I am grateful to my friend and piano teaching colleague Rebecca Singerman-Knight for her input, and her company at the final).