Musical Notes: YM 2010 woodwind

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BBC Young Musician of the Year 2010: Woodwind Section

This week we moved on to the fourth of the five category finals of the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition — the woodwind section — with two oboists, two clarinettists and a flautist.

Together with Hilary Boulding — Principal of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama — on the jury this week were clarinet maestro Michael Collins and Principal bassoon of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Polish-born Jaroslaw Augustyniak. Michael Collins is no stranger to the competition, he was the winner of this woodwind category final in 1978.

All the competitors this week were aged 17, except the first onto the platform, 15-year-old oboist Lavinia Redman. Having previously attempted first violin then classical guitar, she was won over to the reedy sound of the oboe at school, and now attends the Purcell School, Britain's oldest specialist music school, located just outside London. She began her programme with a movement from a Concerto in A minor by Antonio Vivaldi. I was surprised to see her clearly sight-reading the music. At this level of competition, a 20-minute programme should really be committed to memory. Nevertheless, the playing was confident, as it was in her second item, Schumann's Stille Tränen (Quiet Tears), a beautiful melancholic piece arranged from the composer's original song for voice and piano. Her third piece, Le ballet espangnol by Gilles Silvestrini, an unaccompanied depiction of a painting by Edouard Manet, was in my view the least successful of her set of four, which she rounded off with a fine decorative coda, Solo de Concours by Charles Colin.

Scottish clarinettist Joe Norris offered an interesting programme: Three Miniatures by Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki; the concluding Lullaby movement of a sonata by Italian-born American immigrant Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco; and the second of three works entitled Solo of Concours to be played during the evening — each by a different composer, in this instance the one by Frenchman Henri Rabaud. In common with many clarinettists, Joe doubles on saxophone, playing both instruments in a variety of ensembles, including other members of his musical family, at his home in Perth. Composed in 1956, before Penderecki was able to follow or indeed to help forge the subsequent Europe-wide cult of avant-gardism, the Three Miniatures each last only about a minute or so. Unlike the uncompromisingly modernist second set of pieces with this title that Penderecki would compose three years later — for violin and piano — these are highly attractive little masterpieces. Joe's tone control in the ultra-slow second miniature was spot-on. His second offering, the Castelnuovo-Tedesco sonata movement, is a lovely work, beautifully played, and his concluding show-piece demonstrated admirably Joe's skill with the instrument. All in all, a well-received musical presentation.

The last flautist through to this stage of the competition was Emma Halnan, another pupil at the Purcell School. Right from the start, we knew we were listening to something rather special. Emma began with Sir Hamilton Harty's Irish-flavoured fantasy for flute and piano In Ireland, and followed it with the central Largo movement from Bach's Concerto for Flute, Strings and Basso Continuo in G minor, arranged obviously for flute and piano. In both works, Emma's flute tone was just liquid silk — I was instantly reminded that James Galway was dubbed in 'The Man with the Golden Flute' for good reason. Most competition players opt for either solo pieces or pieces with piano accompaniment. For the third piece in her programme, Emma chose Spiral Lament by professor of flute at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, Ian Clarke, a work inspired by the shell of giant African Snails. Although written for flute and piano, Emma chose to be accompanied on the marimba by a fellow student at the Purcell School, where she was put into a flute and percussion ensemble. Although sceptical about the combination at first, she says it is a grouping she now enjoys. Like all her fellow competitors, Emma chose a big virtuoso finish, in her case the final Valse movement of Frenchman Benjamin Godard's Suite de trois morceaux. Godard is an almost-forgotten composer now, aside from this suite of music from la belle époque, but it is a tour de force and swept Emma along to a glorious finish. With this performance, she had definitely raised the competition bar; would the remaining two contestants be up to matching her?

First to try was oboist Chloe Greenwood, a pupil at Chetham's School of Music in Manchester and a member of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. Chloe presented an all-20th Century programme: two extracts from a set of Five Pieces by Hungarian-born Antal Doráti, better known perhaps as a conductor rather than as a composer, although another of those who might be in danger of slipping below the horizon; and the Oboe Sonata from 1947 by Frenchman Henri Dutilleux. Like her fellow oboist in the competition, Chloe had the music in front of her rather than playing from memory. The two Doráti extracts are unaccompanied pieces and sounded to me frankly like warm-up exercises. The second extract, Légerdemain, which depicts a magician performing a card trick in a night club, had the added novelty of spoken interjections — at the beginning Messieurs and Mesdames, and towards the end, Voilà. Most unfortunately, during the Dutilleux Sonata, Chloe's throat began to dry and although the BBC were kind enough not to show them, apparently there were some moments when she was unable to complete a phrase. Chloe fought on bravely and managed to complete the work in good style.

The last competitor onto the platform was clarinettist Ben Westlake from Milton Keynes. This was Ben's third entry into this competition. He offered three pieces: the first movement of a Brahms F minor sonata, Aria by Eugene Bozza and yet another Solo de Concours, this time by Andre-Charles Messager. The first and most noticeable thing about Ben is his playing style: a great deal of the time he holds the clarinet almost vertically, as a result he plays to his knee-caps and shoes rather than to the audience! Not surprisingly, this horrified his teacher when he first saw him and has been working on getting him to open out — he still has a long way to go. Poor playing position or not, it is the sound produced and the interaction with the audience that counts, and here I felt that Ben let himself down. In the theatre they talk about the invisible 'fourth wall', the interface between the stage and the audience. Ben failed to breach that wall and communicate with his audience. Musically it was fine, the Bozza Aria showed his control at slow tempi and the Messager Solo was, as Ben described it in his interview, an obstacle course for the clarinet, which he negotiated with relative ease. So the sound was no problem, but Ben simply played for himself and ignored his audience; since winning this competition is a significant step along the path to a concert-platform career, an important element was missing.

For me there was only one possible winner and that would be flautist Emma Halnan. I am happy to report that the jury were of the same opinion and so she takes the fourth place in the semi-final. I know we haven't yet seen all the competitors — it is the percussion category final next week — but without prejudice I am going to stick my neck out and say I think we may have seen the overall competition winner this week, such was the quality of her music-making.

So next week it's those percussion category finals, when three girls and two boys will be tapping, banging, shaking and scraping a wide variety of instruments in a range of music including a Texan hoedown and a piece by Frank Zappa, after which we shall know which five competitors have made it to the semi-finals. Roll on the next seven days.

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