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)

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Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and make it your career?

Music was an inseparable part of my life from the very beginning. I heard it from the day I was born, beginning with Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. Just as most people don’t remember when they learned to speak, I don’t remember when I learned to make music. The act of performing music came entirely naturally to me. My first interest is music, then comes the piano. I always enjoyed music more than anything else, so I always wanted to make it my career.

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?

Most important were probably my piano teachers: Lea Agmon and Yuval Cohen. My recent musical thinking has been heavily influenced by several workshops I attended with Leon Fleischer.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

The greatest challenge has always been keeping up with my ever increasing standards. Today I’m highly critical of recordings that once seemed to me stellar artistic achievements.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of? 

In general, the performance I’m most proud of is my last one. But this ties in with the previous question. As my expectations of myself increase every day, performances I used to be proud of a few years ago strike me differently today.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

The composer to whom I feel closest at the moment is Beethoven. I played his works extensively, including solo works for the piano (like the cycle of the last three sonatas), chamber works, and concertos. I don’t want to create the impression that I’m specialising. In the next two recitals I’ll be playing in London are works by Bach, Mozart, Schubert, Chopin, Brahms, Debussy, and Ravel – and not a piece by Beethoven.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I don’t have any guidelines for making repertoire choices, and I tend to avoid programming pieces with some common factor – a recital of “last sonatas” for example (I realise these clever extra-musical organising principles are quite fashionable today…) My programs consist of selections of compositions I’m working on at the moment. My only guideline is that the programs be balanced and make sense in musical terms.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

I haven’t performed at enough venues to say which one is my favourite. Generally, I like venues with an intimate atmosphere, where there is an easy and sympathetic give and take between performer and audience. This is why, among others, I don’t do competitions, where the mood in the hall is judgemental and potentially negative.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

I find myself nowadays listening more and more to music that is not for the piano. I very much enjoy opera, chamber music and symphonic works. My favourite pieces to perform change all the time. Right now they probably include the works of Beethoven, among many others…

Who are your favourite musicians?

I cannot say. I don’t rank and I don’t think in ranking terms. Moreover, they are simply too many to list…

What is your most memorable concert experience?

The one that is yet to come.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

I don’t have a set of aphorisms at hand. My advice is to be curious and open to new ideas, both musical and cultural, and to question generic advice. (I don’t think the next Richter will come from reading my blog.)

 

What is your most treasured possession?

A wonderful coffee machine. My mother got it as a New Year’s present, but I’m its primary employer.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Writing blogs?.. (Not really, although it is a form of relaxation and it forces me to clarify issues I haven’t given enough thought to.)

 

Ariel Lanyi, born in 1997, began piano lessons with Lea Agmon just before his fifth birthday and made his orchestral debut at the age of 7. Since then, he has given numerous recitals in London, Paris (including Radio France), Rome, Prague, Belfast, and regularly in concerts broadcast live on Israeli radio and television. He has appeared as a soloist with a variety of orchestras in Israel, and has participated in the Israel Festival, Prague Music Performance, Tempietto Festival in Rome, the Ravello Festival, and the Young Prague Festival. As a chamber musician, he has appeared with members (including leading members) of the Prague Philharmonia, the Czech Philharmonic, and the Israel Philharmonic, among others.

In 2012, Ariel released Romantic Profiles on LYTE records, a recital album featuring Schumann’s Carnival Scenes from Vienna, Liszt’s Fantasy and Fugue on the theme B-A-C-H, Brahms’ Fantasies Op. 116, and Janacek’s Piano Sonata I.X.1905.

Ariel has recently participated in three workshops with Leon Fleisher: the Beethoven and Schubert Institute in Prague (2013), the Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival in Lübeck (2014), and the Menuhin Festival and Academy in Gstaad (2014). He played in masterclasses for renowned artists such as Richard Goode, András Schiff, Emanuel Ax, Murray Perahia, Thomas Adès, Andrei Gavrilov, Yefim Bronfman, Paul Badura-Skoda, Ivan Moravec, Imogen Cooper, Pascal Devoyon, Angela Hewitt, Dénes Várjon, Mitsuko Uchida, Jonathan Biss, and others.

Ariel studied at the High School and Conservatory of the Jerusalem Academy of Music, in the piano class of Yuval Cohen. He also studied violin and composition, and was concertmaster of the High School and Conservatory Orchestra. Currently, he studies as a full scholarship student at the Royal Academy of Music in London with Hamish Milne.