Lauren Zhang (16) has won the 2018 edition of BBC Young Musician with a coruscating performance of Prokofiev’s 2nd Piano Concerto. A pianist of quiet poise, the Prokofiev was a bold choice, but Lauren owned it from the very first bars, revealing not only exceptional technically mastery but also acute musical intelligence and insight in a work of striking contrasts, substance and depth. At only 16, Lauren already seems fully formed as a musician, and throughout the competition she has displayed a level of artistry and musical maturity commensurate with a professional performer at least twice her age. Even viewed on television, it was clear Lauren has a special presence, displaying phenomenal power and control but with no loss of clarity or quality of sound. At times it was almost as if she was playing the music for herself only, free of unnecessary gestures or pianistic histrionics, and with an exceptional economy of movement, given the muscularity of Prokofiev’s writing. Thus the music could fully speak, communicate, and  touch us. I can only imagine the electric intensity of that presence in Symphony Hall during her live performance.

Lauren was joined in the competition final by two other exceptional young musicians. Cellist Maxim Calver’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations was rich in witty interplay between him and the orchestra, elegant intonation, and an infectious sense that he was thoroughly enjoying this music. The third finalist was Rob Burton, the second consecutive saxophonist to reach the final of the competition (Jess Gillam, a wonderfully positive ambassador for the instrument and music making in general, was a finalist in 2016). His performance of Paul Creston’s Saxophone Concerto was vibrant, colourful and expressive. All three finalists were worthy winners in a contest where, ultimately, music triumphs.

Maxim Calver, Rob Burton and Lauren Zhang

On the day when previous BBCYM winners, including oboist Nicholas Daniel and violinist Nicola Benedetti, published an impassioned plea in a national newspaper to give all schoolchildren the opportunity to engage with music and learn a musical instrument, it is worth noting that this year’s BBCYM finalists all attend independent or specialist music schools. I know I’m not alone in fearing that with erosion of music provision in UK state schools, music is in serious danger of becoming the preserve of the privileged – either in fee-paying schools or via families who can afford private music lessons for their children.

Whatever one may feel about music competitions (and I tend to agree with Bartok’s view), BBCYM is a wonderful celebration of young people’s music making and should be an inspiration to all.

(Header photo by Greg Milner)