mon 18/10/2021

BBC Young Musician 2020 Finale, BBC Four review - poise versus extraterrestrial ecstasy | reviews, news & interviews

BBC Young Musician 2020 Finale, BBC Four review - poise versus extraterrestrial ecstasy

BBC Young Musician 2020 Finale, BBC Four review - poise versus extraterrestrial ecstasy

After a year's wait, three finalists serve up first-rate professionalism - and something more

Fang Zhang, six sticks poised above the marimbaBBC

“You have to be careful you’re not judging the piece,” cautioned a pearl-necklaced Nicholas Daniel, great oboist and winner of the 1980 BBC Young Musician (of the Year, as it then was).

Yet while the work, Japanese composer and marimba virtuoso Keiko Abe’s Prism Concerto for the instrument she's done so much to pioneer, was infinitely the most fascinating of the evening’s three, so too was the performance by 17-year-old Fang Zhang. Sometimes flash can win over more interior qualities, but this unpredictable tour de force had everything.

What a long time it took, though, to get to the musical heart of the matter: if ever there was a case of over-presentation, this was it. Not that any of the contributors – mostly young women, many of them practising musicians and/or composers, with a conspicuous absence of pale, male and stale – served up the irritant factor. 2016 finalist, saxophonist Jess Gillam, and presenter Josie d'Arby have eased into their roles. Anna Lapwood knows what she’s talking about, and the judges were to the point, too. Unquestionably it was nurturing conductor Mark Wigglesworth who had the most interesting things to say about his protégés, and what wonderful support they had from him and the BBC Philharmonic, the brass especially sounding glorious in an otherwise nearly empty Bridgewater Hall (I’m puzzled, though, why the BBC couldn't have waited a couple of weeks to admit a distanced spectatorship). Annemarie Federle in BBC Young Musician final18-year-old Annemarie Federle (pictured above), the first to play, chose the Horn Concerto by the gifted Ruth Gipps (1921-1999), a work recorded by David Pyatt, Federle's teacher (and winner of the 1988 competition at the tender age of 14). If at times there is a sub-Vaughan-Williams pastoralism about Gipps's writing, it flows easily, with woodwind solos winsomely taken, and for her relaxed cornucopia of sounds from ringing top to secure low register in the understated first movement alone, Federle deserved the palm (let’s point out that as in other finales as diverse as those of RuPaul’s Drag Race and BBC Cardiff Singer of the World, the performers are all destined for success; and in one sense you can’t compare incomparables).

Winner of the woodwind final, 19-year-old oboist Ewan Millar (pictured below), has the kind of meaty tone I prefer in the instrument (even if I can’t make it myself). His choice of work, though, was the weakest – Oscar Navarro’s Legacy Concerto, which after a beguiling start becomes a lurid film score with virtuoso soloistic writing attached. Millar carried all that off with unflappable perfection, while wind and brass went radiant full-pelt at their obvious material, but compared to the other works Navarro’s was way too verbose, and could have been whittled down by a third. Annemarie Federle in BBC Young Musician finalAny anticipatory scepticism about Zhang – he’s a Chinese citizen studying at Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester, though admittedly this isn’t "BBC National Young Musician"’, and aren’t most percussion concertos mainly about showing off? – evaporated within seconds; an opening gambit with three sticks in each hand took us somewhere else immediately. Keiko Abe’s work – three cheers, a first-rate one from another woman composer – is mercurial, totally unpredictable, emerging from spellbinding nebulae into tonal exuberance, making sure there’s enough lyricism coming from the orchestra: a horn solo seems to embark upon an almost soupy slow movement, but very shortly the marimba is giving a mysterious commentary upon it. There's rarely much about the actual music in the commentary, and I'd like to know what brilliant arranger Iain Farrington did with Abe's score – everything sounded so well. In the final dash to the winning-line, Zhang even gave a delighted glance sideways at Wigglesworth before a final flourish of astonishing precision.

Oddly, it was previous winner Lauren Zhang’s slightly restrained role in the delectable finale of Mozart’s earlier E flat Piano Concerto masterpiece, No. 9, with its embedded minuet, that made one realise how in comparison there had been no reservations at all about this year’s finalists. All must have prizes and distinguished careers, but as always the X-Factor was what clinched it. As for the prevailing virtue, Wigglesworth nailed it early on: this is “a celebration of the future, and we need that now more than ever”.

Keiko Abe’s work is mercurial, emerging from spellbinding nebulae into tonal exuberance

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