Musical Notes: Percussion Finale

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BBC Young Musician of the Year 2010: Percussion Section

So we come to the last of the category finals: the percussion section. This is the category about which both musically and technically I know the least: only one of the pieces and three of the composers were familiar. Five competitors presented programmes as usual, three girls and two boys aged 15 to 18. Three of them are members of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain.

Hilary Boulding – Principal of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama – was joined on the jury this week by specialists Steven Barnard, Principal Timpanist with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, and Ralph Salmins, a very well-respected session musician, much in demand from stars of the like of Madonna, Macca and Celine Dion.

Like the pianists, the percussionists don't have to bring their own instruments with them, just their sticks, but more on these later. Apart from a full set of drums etc, the principal instruments in use were marimba and vibraphone. In previous category finals I have criticised players who do not play their pieces from memory. For this category however, I feel – although for no really solid reason I confess – that having the music in front of them is justified.

First on the platform was James Larter, the youngest competitor and a pupil at Stowe School. He started with a piece by a Serbian composer who would figure in the programmes of four of the five candidates: Nebosja Zivkovic. This first one was entitled To the Gods of Rhythm. James made a dramatic entrance, starting his piece from the wings of the stage, coming on playing a drum suspended from a belt around his waist. This piece involves not only drumming, but also singing and shouting, possibly in Serbian but I couldn't tell – certainly an attention-grabbing start. His next piece was the one already-familiar one: Johann Froberger's Toccata No.2. A Baroque piece originally for organ, here it was realised on the vibraphone, an instrument with which I have long had an affinity. We were not shown James's third piece, Tango en skaï, by classical guitarist Roland Dyens but he concluded with a multi-instrumental piece, Construction, by American composer Andrew Bleckner. In common with two previous young people in this competition, while there was no doubting James's technical ability, apart from the Froberger toccata, I didn't feel I'd experienced a musical performance. Perhaps James needs to age a couple of years yet to really shine, because he is certainly a talent.

The next competitor, Lucy Landymore also started her programme with a piece by Zivkovic – Ilijas – which we would hear again later from the fourth percussionist of the evening. This marimba piece with its compulsive, almost hypnotic folk melody was an absolute joy. It concludes with a quiet tremolo in the right-hand that maintains a constant tempo and dynamic, while the left plays the melody, varying both the tempo and the dynamic – a very difficult thing to pull off to complete satisfaction, but Lucy did just that. I loved this piece and must keep the recording of it. Her second piece was Frank Zappa's wickedly-difficult drum-kit piece The Black Page. One of the judges was astonished that she should have taken this piece on, but confirmed what we, the non-specialist listeners, already suspected: that she had mastered it completely. Whereas many would want a big finish to their programme, having shown her ability to handle the technically-difficult, Lucy went for the opening track from the album Children's Songs by American jazz pianist Chick Corea. This slow, atmospheric piece, arranged here for vibraphone, made a lovely coda to her programme. She also played Texas Hoedown by David Friedman, which we were not shown. Interviewed by show host Clemency Burton-Hill as she came off stage, Lucy felt it was not her best-possible performance, in part because she had forgotten to turn off the snares1 on the drum kit.

The mid-point of the heat was reached with Oliver Pooley. Oliver, a pupil at Chetham's School in Manchester, presented, like almost everyone in this category, four pieces: the fourth movement of Guy Gauthreaux's American Suite; Chris Stock's Jasmin on the Breeze for vibraphone; Jan Bradley's Dance for 5 Drums; and the fourth movement of the Marimba Concerto No.1 by Ney Rosauro. The Latin-rhythm American Suite movement was played on a single snare drum, in fact all over the drum: top, bottom and sides all provided playing surfaces. The gentle vibes piece, Jasmin on the Breeze, was followed by what I thought was the most exciting of Oliver's four pieces, the Dance for 5 Drums, with its progressive 2-, then 3-, then 4- and 5-drum rhythms. After a slow solo start, Oliver's final piece, the movement from the marimba concerto, brings in a piano accompanist for a quick, highly-rhythmic section with a tight, flourishing finish.

Fourth to perform was 18-year-old Delia Stevens, who had also made it through to the category final in the 2008 competition. She presented three pieces: the Zivkovic Ilijas that we had heard earlier; Cold Pressed by David Hollinden; and the third movement of a Concertino for Marimba by Paul Creston. She was the one competitor in this category final who eschewed having the music in front of her and played from memory. Comparison of her performance of the Zivkovic Ilijas with that given earlier by Lucy Landymore should have shown subtle differences, but it wasn't like that. Apart from having that insistent melody in common, the two performances sounded like different pieces. Even the physical side of the performance was markedly different. Whereas Lucy was able to reach both the high and low registers of the instrument with ease simply by leaning slightly to one side or the other, in Delia's hands the instrument seemed longer as she kept leaping around instead of staying put. As for that right-hand versus left-hand contrast I mentioned previously, here it was almost entirely lost. The middle of her three pieces was the major element in her programme, a technical, 7-minute long, multi-instrument piece, played as I said from memory. Not long after the start, disaster struck when Delia lost the grip on one of her sticks; it flew out and landed on the floor in front of the kit. To her credit she didn't panic; she fairly calmly (at least in appearance) walked round to retrieve the errant stick, returned to her place and continued with the piece. It must raise the question as to why she only had the one pair of sticks available; sticks do fly out of the hand, sticks also break, and the pair she was playing with looked like they'd already seen some service. Like Oliver before her, Delia's last piece, the marimba concertino movement, was with piano accompaniment and provided a similar flourish to round off her programme. Did dropping the stick adversely affect her performance? I think not, but did it influence the jury?

The last potential young musician to appear in this year's competition was Hui Wai Nok, who comes from Hong Kong but is living in England and studying at the Chetham School. She started with the last of the three pieces by Zivkovic, Pezzo da Concerto No.1, a technical piece for solo snare drum. This was followed by Land by Takatsugu Muramatsu, a beautiful raindrop-like piece from which the main theme slowly emerges. Wai Nok's multi-instrument piece was Sous L'aile Du Vent [Under the Wind's Wing], by Thierry Pécou, a ballsy solo featuring the wooden blocks quite extensively in addition to the drum kit and other percussion items. Like the two competitors before her, Wai Nok finished with an accompanied piece: Scherzo, written by the female Polish composer, Marta Ptaszynska, for xylophone and piano. It provided a sparkling coda to an impressive performance that demonstrated both power and finesse.

So while the jury got on with their deliberations, my thoughts revisited the performances we'd seen and heard. With first two, and then with more difficulty, three of the competitors eliminated in my mind, I was left with Lucy Landymore and Oliver Pooley. At first it was difficult to choose between them, so I decided to leave the rest of the TV broadcast to record, go back and replay both of their performances, before watching the judges' verdict. Having done so, suddenly it was easier and I had no problem opting for Lucy Landymore. Thankfully the real decision is not mine, but I was pleased that this week once again I was in accord with the jury.

Lucy now goes through to the semi-final stage, where she and the four other category winners must play their winning programme again, this time in front of a different jury. Due to the timing of the TV broadcasts, my next report on this competition will contain the results of both the semi-final and the final, when we learn who has been crowned BBC Young Musician of the Year 2010.

I can't wait.

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1Snares are gut, wire-wound silk or coiled wire loops that when tensioned, rattle against the vibrating drum skin.

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