Young musicians

Last night I was one of presumably millions who watched 16-year-old pianist Lara Ömeroğlu win the title of BBC Young Musician of the Year 2010, on BBC2. I’d seen her in the keyboard final but failed to pick her as the eventual winner. Among other things she played Chopin’s beautiful Etude, op. 25 no. 7 (which if I recall correctly I can cope with for about a page before falling apart) in a performance I thought too forceful. Now I wonder if there was a problem with my television speakers, such was the grace of her Saint-Saëns in the concerto final.

It’s been a competition full of highlights. I didn’t see all of the heats, but from what I can discern the television coverage has been a great improvement on that of the 2008 competition. The keyboard final was a joy to watch. One pianist played Messiaen’s prelude La Colombe with such tenderness he won me over entirely (and the director managed to resist the temptation to cut away before the end of the piece, thank goodness – it may be only a couple of minutes long, but I didn’t feel safe until it was over); another, the mercurial Yuanfan Yang from Manchester, whom I was delighted to see presented with a special prize last night, played his own off-the-wall vision of Scarborough Fair with tremendous style. Another positive innovation is that the presenters, Clemency Burton-Hill and, for the final, Howard Goodall, are fine musicians in their own right.

And yet, anxious though I am not to grumble unduly and conscious though I am of the need to be thankful that such a competition exists at all, I am a little uneasy about the BBC’s attitude to it. This year’s concerto final featured only three performers rather than the customary five, the category winners having slugged it out before the final to narrow down the field. I suppose the motivation for this may have been monetary, but I can’t help feeling it a harsh judgement on the brass and percussion winners who didn’t make it. I hope the 2012 competition will see the reinstatement of the previous format.

I gather Miss Ömeroğlu appeared on BBC Breakfast this morning, but at the time of writing there has been no mention on the BBC News website or even on the devoted website of the competition of her victory in the (BBC-run) contest. Last night immediately after the final, the leading item on the BBC homepage asked whether we had been inspired to make music by Over the Rainbow, Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s TV talent show. The main items of “entertainment” news were that Keane had topped the album chart and that “The winners of a TV talent show have beaten the Pope to the album of the year at the Classical Brit Awards”.

The only prominent news item I can find related to the competition anywhere is a flippant Guardian review of the string final, calling for Young Musician of the Year to recruit a Simon Cowell figure to get the rubbish kids off stage. Clearly tongue-in-cheek, but a bit too close to home for me. One of the great virtues of this competition (and to a degree of the Lloyd-Webber shows – credit where credit’s due) is that criticism is always constructive and never cruel. When competitors are eliminated, far from breaking down in melodramatic floods of tears, they seem sanguine, determined to persevere, and grateful for the opportunity they have been afforded by the competition. I have seen exactly the same attitude from the children taking part in the BBC’s wonderful Junior Masterchef over the past week. The Cowell-led culture of dismissing performers – or people – as without value is a cancer that the BBC shows worrying signs of endorsing. The outlook for arts broadcasting appears bleak at the moment and likely to get bleaker, but there are jewels among the dross, and the need to hold on to things like Young Musician of the Year is more vital now than ever.

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9 Responses to “Young musicians”

  1. Evie Says:

    Excellent piece, Gareth. I missed all the heats of this, due to ongoing problems with BBC4 reception, and didn’t realise the concerto final was on last night until after the violinist had performed, but did see the flautist and the pianist, both of whom I thought were wonderful, but the pianist really was fabulous – a wonderful talent.

    I agree entirely about reinstating the full final to include all five categories; and while I am glad that they seem to have dropped the element of showing the lives of the contestants, like some kind of reality TV show, I still miss the excellent coverage we used to get, when it was an annual and much-anticipated event, with nightly coverage on BBC2, and quite a lot of buzz about it.

    I too noticed that the BBC website preferred to stick with Over the Rainbow as its musical publicity. The irony that on ITV we have Britain’s Got Talent, while these extraordinary teenage musicians are simply getting on with the hard work of building up the talent that performing dogs, etc, can only dream of, was not lost on me either. I love Over the Rainbow (but loathe BGT and X Factor), but it’s still very sad that the BBC don’t, as you say, make more of their own sponsored competition that involves such serious musicianship.

    On the BBC POV thread, even one fan of Young Musician is calling for it to be revamped so that it is more ‘accessible’ (the word of the moment) by bringing in a Simon Cowell-type figure…she says she would stop short of phone voting (!!!!!!!), but it is still irksome to see one of the few POV messageboarders who responded to this programme treating it in this way.

    However – so glad I caught most of this final in time – wish I had been able to see more of it, and wish it were an annual event, but given the way BBC TV has gone, and given the way music teaching has been decimated in schools in recent times, it is wonderful still to have it. We shouldn’t be grateful for such things – we should be able to take them for granted – but we can’t!

  2. Gareth Says:

    The violinist was quite quite wonderful too. By the time one reaches the final stages of the competition everyone’s of such a high standard it seems almost ungenerous to choose a winner. There were glimpses of home life etc. in the heats (which I confess for the most part I fast-forwarded through), but not so much that the music was neglected, as by some accounts was the case in 2008.

    Being a trombonist I suppose I would say this, but my favourite bit was seeing Peter Moore playing the Frank Martin Ballade before the results were announced. Such an exciting piece, and already such a mature musician at only 14.

    I like to imagine that performing dogs dream of being able to play concertos, but I suspect their thoughts are more mundane – where can I get some food, what’s the best way to attack Simon Cowell, etc.

  3. argumentativeoldgit Says:

    Thanks for this post, Gareth. I get the very strong impression that while the BBC keeps this event going (presumably because it would be a politically unwise decision to drop it), they are embarrassed about it. As you noted, it’s barely mentioned on their website.

    I didn’t see the heats this year, but I’m pleased to hear that they were an improvement from what we had two years ago: the coverage of the 2008 heats was a disgrace, and prompted the only official complaint I ever made. However, even with this improvement, I’d be very pleasantly surprised if the coverage were of the standard we used to have in past years, when the BBC weren’t embarrassed by the very concept of culture.

    I did see the final last night, and it is wonderful to see that, despite the odds, we are still producing talent of this quality. If only we could celebrate this loudly!

  4. Evie Says:

    Don’t get me wrong, there is a place in the world for performing dogs! And also for Andrew Lloyd Webber. Though maybe not for Simon Cowell.

    I liked Howard Goodall’s comment that it was nice to see that Peter Moore was now bigger than his trombone!

    Some have said that the violinist was not the best in his category, and that they felt he has great potential but was not as good as the other two on the night. I might try to catch him on iplayer.

  5. Gareth Says:

    I really don’t know what good reason the BBC might have for not promoting this, as there is clearly a market for all the things that it is comprised of – young people, the competition aspect, classical music (as they are aware from the annual success of the Proms). We can only hope that any people within the corporation who think misguidedly that the whole idea is objectionable (presumably on grounds of elitism, and on the further assumption that elitism is inherently bad) don’t find themselves in positions of real power.

    I thought Callum Smart was excellent. His tone was beautiful and he coped very well with the pressure of being first. A couple of moments where he wasn’t quite with the ensemble in the third movement, but it must be exceptionally difficult to play. All credit to him.

  6. Evie Says:

    It’s because the BBC chase ratings rather than quality these days, as much as anything to do with elitism, I think. I wish they were braver.

  7. Frances Wilson Says:

    Bartok said “Competitions are for horses, not musicians”. While I can appreciate the talents of the performers in Young Musician, I do also think it is a dreadful example of the hot-housing of children, and I fear for the finalists and the winner, for these are young, naive people poised on (possibly) international careers. “Burn out” is a phrase which comes immediately to mind…..

    I should also add that I detest Young Musician for a more personal, deep-seated reason: I wanted to be on it as a kid!

  8. Gareth Says:

    There’s undoubtedly a great need for children to be protected from the kind of hot-housing you talk about, and I have no doubt there are young music competition entrants who are treated more as projects than as people by their parents, but I look carefully for evidence of this and don’t see it in the case of BBC Young Musician (though who am I to say what goes on behind the scenes?). The majority of those reaching the latter stages tend to come across as alarmingly level-headed, none more so than Mark Simpson, the clarinettist who won in 2006. It would be interesting to trace the career paths of the past winners and see what has happened to them. There is quite a high yield of world-class performers (Nick Daniel, Emma Johnson and the like) and as far as I know no Terence Judds so far, but it’s a fine line. All the finalists in this case attend specialist music schools, so they at least will have other people looking out for them and nurturing their talents.

    I entered local music competitions as a child (not solely as a result of parental inducements, I should stress) and found the experience on the whole fun if nerve-wracking. How I’d have coped if I had been vastly more talented and competing at a higher level, I shudder to think. An interesting reference point may be the Oscar-nominated 2002 documentary Spellbound, which follows eight American children as they compete in the National Spelling Bee. The variation in parenting styles is frightening, but the children on the whole enjoy the contest because it gives them the opportunity to shine at what they are good at, whereas at school they feel isolated because of being different.

  9. Cambridge Summer Music Festival 2010 « Somewhere Boy Says:

    […] Musician of the Year four years ago, where, I recall, she played the Saint-Saëns second concerto, as this year’s winner did. (I suppose it’s a good piece for a young pianist to play, but I do wish the fifth was […]

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