BBC Young Musician of the Year 2014, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews
BBC Young Musician of the Year 2014, BBC Four
BBC Young Musician of the Year 2014, BBC Four
Musical talent comes up against elements of television personality show
No quibble about the result. Pianist Martin James Bartlett deservedly became BBC Young Musician of the Year 2014 at Usher Hall in Edinburgh last night. The 17-year-old, a student at the specialist Purcell School in Hertfordshire, and at the Junior Department of the Royal College of Music took the title with a very strong performance of Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. He was watchful, alert to every nuance, playing idiomatically, and with a very convincing sense of the shape of the piece right through to the final pay-off. He also established a lively partnership with the excellent BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, and with the Ukrainian-born conductor Kirill Karabits.
Bartlett had advantages: he'd been in the competition before. He was older than the other two finalists. He also had a far stronger work to play. The Rachmaninov is certainly the only one of the three with a remotely singable theme; the other two finalists must have wished they could have had pieces of similar communicative power.
Percussionist Elliot Gaston Ross from Lancashire, 15, a student at the Junior Department of the Royal Northern College in Manchester, opened the final with African Sunrise/Manhattan Rave by Dave Heath, written for Evelyn Glennie in 1995. The backstory footage shown before he took the stage showed him on an outing to source dustbins and a wheelbarrow from B&Q. The whole enterprise was fine as a vehicle for Ross to show he is a natural entertainer, but sub-Copland orchestral sunrises only go so far to hold the listener's and viewer's attention.
It's a work of fey pastoral Englishness in the lineage of Ralph Vaughan Williams
The other finalist, recorder player Sophie Westbrooke, was playing a new arrangement for small orchestra of the 1957 Suite for Recorder and Strings by Gordon Jacob. It's a work of fey pastoral Englishness in the lineage of Ralph Vaughan Williams. The performance was not without its flaws, the tricky tuning of the sopranino recorder in the final tarantella cruelly exposed. But Westbrooke has the capacity to win over an audience with charm and musicality, and her semi-final performance had been one of the most convincing performances of the competition. This is also the second time in succession that one of the berths in the final has gone to a recorder player, showing the impact a particularly inspiring teacher can make: Westbrooke this year and Charlotte Barbour-Condini from the final of the 2012 competition are pupils of Barbara Law at the Royal Academy of Music Junior Department.
The competition is a major undertaking, the three finalists last night being whittled down from an original field of over 450 applicants. The competition organizers do, rightly, ensure that a couple of names that have fallen by the wayside during the competition are given recognition via Walter Todds Bursaries. These were awarded to the young saxophonist Jess Gillam and pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason, the latter contestant a member of a remarkable family of seven musical siblings who all head down from Nottingham once a week to attend the Royal Academy of Music Junior Department in London. I was also impressed in the preliminary rounds by Russian-born violinist Elizaveta Tyun.
If the result was fair and right, close observation of the frequent explanations by judges of their selection criteria were starting to make the competition look like a quicksand. In the preliminary rounds the judges were given a sheet – it's on the show's website – giving equal weight to three criteria: technique, musicality and performance. The judges in the semi-final round, on the other hand, were asked what they would be looking for and talked about candidates who were “flamboyant” and “sophisticated”, or who showed “showmanship” and “communication, personality and maturity”. One of the judges in the final round stated that what she was looking for was a musician who had potential for a career over 10 to 20 years. Whereas the only adjudicator who was present throughout the category finals and the semi-finals, a festival director, praised one contestant whom he said he could imagine booking straight away for the festival he runs. Arguably these statements by judges are not supposed to be taken verbatim: the convention for TV contests from Strictly Come Dancing to Masterchef is for the judges to entertain the TV audience with their verdicts, and the 36-year-old BBC Young Musician is obliged to befriend that incontrovertible trend.
For a breath of fresh air, try the brand-new jazz competition, to be screened next Friday
There were also frequent reminders that classical music – even in the context of a competition for teenagers in which parents (pictured above, Martin James Bartlett with his parents) and teachers are ever-present – is also an industry looking for marketable stars and quick returns. The presence of the heavily hyped Montenegran guitarist Milos throughout the competition, addressing the contestants backstage after their performances with variations on a theme of “you were amazing, how did that feel?”, served as a reminder that cachet on television comes from visibility and celebrity. He did sometimes seem to have strayed in from another show. The interventions of violinist Nicola Benedetti, a former winner of the competition, did capture the tone far better in the newly invented role of "Ambassador" for the event.
The main anchor presenter for the presentation of the final, Clemency Burton-Hill, was far more articulate and professional. She also clearly sees part of the competition's value as an advocacy opportunity for classical music, and cheer-leads from the front. It's understandable: just last week RAJAR statistics showed that – even without an outlet via FM radio – BBC 6 Music now has 92 percent of the listeners and 124 percent of the listening hours of Radio 3.
The BBC has been running its Young Musician competition since 1978, and faces a challenge to present its particular legacy while making it obey current TV conventions. For a breath of fresh air, try the brand-new jazz competition, to be screened next Friday, 23 May, as part of BBC Four's jazz weekend. Jazz is the ultimate collaborative art, and from all the reports which were emanating from it in Cardiff in March, the new competition, not saddled with the need constantly to promote and valorise its own heritage, has found a succcessful, less pressurized format.
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