Musical Notes: Young Musician 2010

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BBC Young Musician of the Year 2010: Brass Section

In early February, the five category finals of the BBC's biennial Young Musician of the Year competition took place; the five categories are brass, strings, keyboard, woodwind and percussion. The winners of each category go on to the semi-final to compete for the three available places in the Grand Final, which will take place on 16 May. This year, the category and semi-final stages of the competition were held in the BBC Hoddinott Hall in Cardiff; the semi-final stage is a new addition this year to the format of the competition. The Final will take place in Cardiff's Wales Millennium Centre.

First held in 1978, the Young Musician of the Year competition is now one of the most highly regarded in the field, and to gain a place in the final and especially to win the competition is the ultimate aim of the country's top young performers. It is certainly influential in opening doors for new talent.

Over the next five weeks, the BBC are broadcasting the category competitions on television, as a prelude to the Final itself. For each section, the jury comprises two specialists for the category, together with the chair of the adjudicators, Hilary Boulding, Principal of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. The competitors are required to present a programme of about 20 minutes duration.

This week we were given the opportunity to see and hear the last five young players left in the Brass category. The specialist adjudicators were Tim Thorpe, Principal Horn of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and Dean Wright, Principal Trumpet of Orchestra of Welsh National Opera.

Four boys and a girl – three French horn players, a trombonist and a trumpeter – represented the brass section. All five players know each other as fellow musicians in the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain (NYOGB), and three of them are students at the famous Chetham's Music School in Manchester, from where so many previous winners of this competition have come.

First up was 18-year-old French horn player, Finlay Bain, who presented the first movement of Hindemith's Horn Sonata, Franz Strauss's1Nocturno and Gilbert Vinter's Hunter's Moon. While competent, this performance was well down on the very high standard that this competition demands.

Next it was the turn of 18-year-old trombonist Tom Berry, who played Fanfare by John Kenny, the first movement of Schumann's Fantasie-Stücke and Milhaud's Concertino d'Hiver. Tom's performance throughout was very assured. Fanfare is a fascinating piece. The trombone is played with the bell of the instrument directed into the open lid of a piano. The 'accompanist's' role is to hold down the pedal that releases the piano's strings from their damping pads. This enables the sound of the trombone to activate the natural sympathetic vibrations of the strings, producing a wonderful, long-sustained echo effect. The composer's idea behind this is to emulate the sound of the bells of Edinburgh Cathedral echoing across the city.

The third competitor was 18-year-old French horn player, Anna Douglass, the Principal Horn of the NYOGB. Anna, one of the three Chetham's students in this competition, started her programme with a modern work, Laudatio by Bernhard Krol. This is a melancholic yet expressive work for the instrument, played without accompaniment. Her other offerings were Saint-Saëns's Romance in E and the Rondo finale of Richard Strauss's second Horn Concerto, arranged for horn with piano accompaniment. Her performance and stage presence all through were very confident. If you play the French horn, occasional missed notes are a fact of life, no matter how experienced you are. Anna's didn't faze her at all; only once did a look of annoyance (with herself) appear on her face.

Sam Moffitt, a 17-year-old trumpet player, comes from Portsmouth, where he is also a chorister in the Cathedral choir. Sam offered four very different pieces, ranging from Baroque to Brazilian: the first movement of the Fasch Trumpet Concerto in D (played on a piccolo trumpet) Légende by George Enesco, Lezghinka by Adam Swayne and finally the bouncy choro 2piece, Tico tico by Zequinha de Abreu (think Carmen Miranda). Sam really pulled out the stops in his performance and even with a few rough edges it was impressive stuff.

The final competitor was 17-year-old Alex Hamilton, the third French horn player of the evening. The four pieces he offered were: Jeffrey Agrell's Romp, the Strauss Nocturno (as played previously in this competition by Finlay Bain), the third movement of the Hindemith sonata (the first movement of this same work having been played earlier, again by Finlay Bain) and Jan Koetsier's Scherzo Brillante. The unaccompanied Agrell Romp may have had some appeal to aficionados of the instrument and it probably demonstrated Alex's technical abilities, but I found it frankly boring. The lyrical Strauss piece on the other hand is exactly the kind of music that can demonstrate why the French horn is such a key instrument (no pun intended) in the modern orchestra. We were able to make a comparison between Alex's playing of the piece and the earlier performance by Finlay Bain. In my view neither player emerged as a clear winner; both had their merits. I did however find the playing of Alex's accompanist more in sympathy with the lyrical quality of the music. To me, Alex never appeared to be at ease on the platform and this detracted from his communication with the audience, and thus also with the jury.

At this level of competition, it is fine differences that distinguish one player from another, but there has to be a winner, and for the brass category the decision of the jury (which happily coincided with my vote) went in favour of Anna Douglass, who therefore progresses to the semi-final stage.

Next week we listen to the string category, when we shall hear two harpists, two violinists and a viola player. I look forward to it.

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1Horn-playing father of Richard Strauss.2A style much used in the popular music of Brazil.

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