Musical Notes: Young Musician 2010 Strings

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BBC Young Musician of the Year 2010: String Section

After the brass players seven days ago, this week it was the turn of the string players to show their musical skills. We heard and saw two harpists (both from Wales, one of the spiritual homes of that instrument), two violinists and a viola player. With the exception of one of the violinists who is aged only 13, all of the string category finalists were aged either 17 or 18. Being low on the age scale is no barrier to this competition; the overall winner last time was 12-year-old trombonist Peter Moore.

Joining last week's chair of the adjudicators Hilary Boulding (Principal of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama) this week were specialist jurors Gabriella Dall'Olio – international artist and Head of Harp Studies at Trinity College of Music, London – and recital/concerto violinist, Matthew Trusler. Aside from the introduction of a semi-final stage to the competition, another change is the expansion of the category finals to include five players, whereas previously it was only four.

The strings category final began with harpist Glain Dafydd from Bangor, North Wales. She has twice previously entered this competition, but this was her first appearance in a category final. Her first two pieces, both entitled Impromptu, one by Gabriel Fauré, the other by Albert Roussel, though well played, were rather muzak for the harp. Her third piece however –   Sun Dance, the third movement of the Santa Fe Suite from 1988 by Welsh composer William Mathias – was by far the most attractive of the three, and rounded off a solid performance.

Glain was followed by viola player John Hewitt-Jones from Dulwich, South London. He started his presentation with the first movement of Sir William Walton's Viola Concerto. Chance gave me the opportunity to compare his rendition with the wonderful 1944 recording of the work by one of the few landmark players of the instrument, William Primrose, in a performance conducted by the composer, which I have recently been study-listening to. Obviously this competitor could not be expected to achieve anywhere near that elevated standard, but his was definitely an involving performance. After the second movement of Schumann's Märchenbilder, John offered another superb piece, Morpheus, by a much, and unjustly neglected composer, Rebecca Clarke. The piece requires close co-operation between the soloist and his accompanist, and John brought it off beautifully.

Third up was violinist Katy Smith. After the Tchaikovsky Melody that everybody knows, but nobody can put a name to, Katy performed the first movement of Fauré's Sonata No.1, for me the best of her pieces. Her final offering was a solo piece: Belgian composer Eugène Ysaÿe's Sonata Op.27 No.6. This example of violinistic wizardry was clearly selected to show off the Katy's virtuoso technique, but as a piece to listen to, I found it uninspiring; however having played it, there could be no be any doubt (if any existed beforehand) about her skill with the instrument.

The second harpist from Wales, Anne Denholm, offered four pieces: Impromptu-Caprice, the only solo-harp composition by 19th Century French composer Gabriel Pierné; the first movement of the Sonata No.3 by the blind 18th Century Welsh harpist/composer John Parry; and two 20th Century pieces: Awuya, by Scottish-based composer Sally Beamish; and Duke, by Frenchman Bernard Andrès. Anna's programme presented the widest possible range: the lyrical Pierné piece, the decorated baroque sonata by Parry, the Africa-inspired Awuya and Andrès's jazzy tribute to Duke Ellington. Right from the start, here was a star performer, on a concert platform, playing to her audience; her stage presence was wonderful. I loved every second we were shown of her 20-minute opportunity, which she grasped, literally with both hands.

Finally we saw and heard the youngest competitor in this final, Callam Smart, who presented just two pieces: the first movement of Brahms's Sonata No.3 and Maurice Ravel's Tzigane. Callam is a pupil at Chetham's School of Music in Manchester. The Brahms sonata is relatively standard recital fare, but the Tzigane is about as challenging as it gets for a young performer. The contrast in presentation between Callam and his immediate previous competitor, Anne was marked: Anne's performance was all about the audience whereas Callam's was directed specifically at the jury. Perhaps in a competition this is the right approach, but as a viewer I felt sidelined.

Tough though it was to separate these young players, it was a fair bet that the winner would be one of the last two competitors to appear: harpist Anne Denholm or the 13-year-old violinist, Callum Smart. Would the jury prioritise stage presence and audience communication over technical brilliance or vice versa?

After their deliberations, the adjudicators' vote, and a place in the semi-final, went to Callum Smart. Last week I was in agreement with the jury's verdict, but this week we differed. I'd be the first to acknowledge that Callum's playing was just amazing, but I just felt that I'd been given a demonstration of 'Look what else I can do', whereas with Anne, I felt I'd shared an experience. This is after all the Young Musician of the Year competition.

Next week we move on to the keyboard category, in which all the competitors this year are pianists. I shall report again after that final.

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