BBC Young Musician of the Year 2010: Keyboard Section
Three boys and two girls, together ranging in age from 13 to 18 were the last five players through to the final of the keyboard category of this competition. All are pianists, so no room this year for an organist.
Joining Hilary Boulding – Principal of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama – this week were two previous winners in this category of the competition: Anna Markland in the 1982 contest, who went on to win the overall title of Young Musician of the Year, and Lucy Parham in the 1984 contest.
First competitor was 18-year-old Frederic Bager, originally from Switzerland, but now resident in London. He offered the first movement of Beethoven's 'Appassionata' sonata, a Messiaen Prélude, and the first movement of Chopin's Second Piano Sonata. Despite the fact that the sound emanates from taut strings, the piano is classed as a percussion instrument, and that is exactly how this competitor used it. The opening of the Beethoven sonata should be softly serene; then when the big chords come in, they alternate with soft echo-like phrases. Here the contrast was lost. Oh, how I missed the feminine caress that the piano also deserves, especially in the Chopin. The Messiaen fared better, but even here, notes were starkly articulated; there was no rounding. Altogether a rather disappointing experience.
Next onto the platform was 16-year-old Sophie Dee from Faversham. Her programme was a complete Haydn sonata and Chopin's Scherzo No.1. After the previous contestant, it was a pleasure to hear the piano being gently coaxed once again. The Haydn demonstrated very clean and precise fingering, especially in the decorative passage work. The Chopin scherzo has the typical A—B—A structure, with a very lyrical centre section — which is where we, the viewers, joined it — followed by a virtuoso presto conclusion. A lovely performance from Sophie.
The youngest finalist in the whole competition, 13-year-old Yuanfan Yang from Manchester, offered the Schumann Abegg Variations, his own composition based on the traditional song Scarborough Fair and Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No.15. The Abegg Variations makes use of a musical signature, similar to the B—A—C—H note sequence, in this instance A—B (flat)—E—G—G, as its first five notes. The work, published as the composer's opus 1 (though not his first composition), is dedicated to Countess von Abegg. The piece doesn't offer any great challenges to a pianist of this standard, and as such is a good choice as an opener with which to settle any nerves. Not that I think Yuanfan suffers from nerves; he is a supremely confident young man. That confidence extended into his second choice, which was a composition of his own, based — rather tenuously I thought — on the very well-known tune Scarborough Fair. Personally I disliked this; it uses a number of effects such as plucking the piano strings by hand and using closed fists to thunder great clusters of notes, not that these were particularly the reasons for my disliking it. Judge Anna Markland however was very impressed and suggested that she might be keen to take it into her own repertoire. Yuanfan finished with what I thought was his best piece — the Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody — concluding a brilliant and polished performance.
16-year-old Lara Ömeroglu offered a varied programme from the Classical via the Romantic to the Modern: Beethoven's B flat Sonata Op.22, a Chopin Etude and a set of Creole dances — Suite de Danzas Criollas — by the Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera. Lara, who also plays the viola, comes from a Turkish family and attends the music specialist Purcell School near Watford, Hertfordshire. Like Anna Denholm in last week's string category final, here was a performer who truly communicated with her audience; it was spellbinding.
Last of the five category finalists to play was 16-year-old Sean Rooney from Northern Ireland. Like most of the competitors, he offered three pieces: a Prokofiev Sonata, a Rachmaninoff Prelude and Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No.6. As well as the piano, Sean plays the viola and is an organist at his local church. Like the first competitor of the evening, Sean's approach in his first piece was percussive, but here that is exactly how it is supposed to be. The Rachmaninoff prelude is a lyrical but sombre piece, beautifully played I thought, while the Hungarian Rhapsody was ideal material with which to finish. After a quiet melodic start, the music becomes increasingly complex, first in the right hand, then in the left, and finally in both. Sean's hands were more than up to the challenge.
As in last week's final, the winner would likely be one of two players: Yuangfan Yang or Lara Ömeroglu. Again like last week, the major distinction between them was stage presence and audience communication versus technical brilliance. Last week, technical brilliance triumphed. Would the same happen this week? My preference would always be for the musical presentation, all else being equal, and happily the jury were of the same mind, so the winner was Lara Ömeroglu. We shall see her again in the semi-final.
Next week it's the fourth of the category finals — the woodwind — represented by two oboes, two clarinets and a flute. We await with bated breath.