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I Know That Face

A fellow Researcher recently reappeared in h2g2 after a few months absence. That reappearance kindled the memory of meeting this particular person in real life (it's always a pleasure to meet one of our virtual friends). Our meeting took place at a concert at the Barbican Centre in London. I had posted in my journal that I would be there, and the Researcher concerned posted back that they hoped to be going as well. Although not knowing what the person looked like, it wasn't too hard to make contact immediately after the concert finished. We discussed what we had just heard; I had found it a rather disappointing performance, but the brass section had been outstanding in a performance of a symphony that highlights the players in such a way that the least slip is mercilessly exposed. After our chat we said goodbye and went our separate ways.

A day or so later, my new friend posted a message in my Personal Space saying how impressed they had been with the playing of the young lady trombonist, and did I know who she was? Well it so happened that I did indeed know who she was; the young lady concerned was Helen Vollam, then and now, the principal trombone of the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

My first encounter with Helen Vollam was in 1992 when she was a finalist in the Brass section of the BBC Young Musician of the Year Competition, when her playing (almost literally) blew my socks off. At that time she was a member of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, and was undoubtedly the finest trombone player (outside of jazz) that I had ever encountered.

For the benefit of those not familiar with this competition, the BBC Young Musician of the Year Competition is held every two years and is open to ANY player under 18 years of age who has reached grade 8 on their instrument. Conceived by BBC producers Humphrey Burton and Walter Todds, the first competition took place 30 years ago. Originally with four sections: Brass, Strings, Piano and Woodwind, there are regional heats, the best players from which compete against each other in section finals; the section winners then compete in the Grand Final for the ultimate title of Young Musician of the Year. In the final, each instrumentalist plays a concerto of their choice under true concert conditions. The format of the competition has changed very little over the 30 years – a fifth section, Percussion, was introduced in 1994 and ten years later, the Piano section was expanded into a Keyboard section, allowing organists to be included.

The very first winner of the competition was a young man by the name of Michael Hext, whose instrument was... the trombone. And what a purple year 1978 was; apart from Michael in the Brass section, the Piano section was won by Stephen Hough, who had to compete against Barry Douglas in the section final. Both Stephen and Barry have subsequently had very successful solo concert and recording careers. Both now also hold academic posts: Stephen is visiting Professor of Piano at the Royal Academy of Music in London and occupies the International Chair of Piano Studies at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester; Barry Douglas is presently Prince Consort Professor of Piano at the Royal College of Music in London.

Winning either one of the sections or the overall crown of Young Musician of the Year is no guarantee of a solo career, even supposing the winner wants one, but it certainly does no harm either. YMY winners who have gone on to glittering solo careers include flautist Emma Johnson, the 1984 Woodwind winner, Freddy Kempf, who lifted the Piano title in 1992, Natalie Clein, the cellist who took the 1994 Strings prize and the 2004 Violin supremo Nicola Benedetti.

What goes around comes around they say...the tormented becomes the tormentor, or more kindly, the student becomes the master. Among the judges for the 2008 competition were former competition and section winners Emma Johnson and Andrew Nicholson (1988 Woodwind finalist, now principal flute with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales) in the Woodwind section; Julian Plummer (horn – 1986 Brass section finalist), Alison Balsam (1998 Piano section winner, now visiting professor of trumpet at the Guildhall School of Music) and Lucy Parham (1984 Piano section winner).

Like policemen, the winners seem to be getting younger. For the first 10 years of the competition, the winners were aged 17 or 18 years of age, then for the next eight years, the average age was 14 or 15. In recent years we have had two YMY winners at the age of only 12: violinist Jennifer Pike in 2002 and in 2008, trombonist Peter Moore.

There's that instrument again – the trombone – which brings me neatly back to Helen Vollam. Although (to my astonishment) Helen did not win her Brass section, and therefore did not compete in the Grand Final, she has gone on to a hugely successful career doing what she loves – playing the trombone. Appointed in 2004, Helen is only the fifth person to hold the position of Principal Trombone with the BBC Symphony Orchestra since its inception in 1930, and the first female to hold the position with any London-based orchestra. Apart from her time spent with the BBC SO, Helen guests with other orchestras and is also a member of an all-female trombone quartet, Bones Apart – an ensemble committed to raising the profile of the instrument.

Listen out for the sound of a trombone on the soundtrack the next time you are watching a film in the cinema, it could be Helen playing – it was in two of the Harry Potter films.

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06.11.08 Front Page

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