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.