Musical Notes: BBC Young Musician: The Results

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BBC Young Musician of the Year 2010: The Results

With the winners of all five category finals now decided, it was time for the last two stages of this year's competition — the semi-final and the final. In the semi-final, two of them would be eliminated, leaving just three to go forward to the concerto final. Two of the young people are pupils at Chetham's Music School in Manchester, the source of a number of past competition winners, and two are pupils at the specialist Purcell School near Watford.

The Semi-final

For the semi-final round, the five winners had to reprise the pieces that won them their respective categories, but this time in front of a more general musical jury, rather than one including specialists for their particular instruments. Common to all the juries has been Hilary Boulding, Principal of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. For the semi-final, she was joined by composer/conductor/producer Tolga Kashif, cellist and broadcaster Zoë Martlew, and composer Anna Meredith.

I have discussed the individual pieces in my previous reports in Musical Notes so I won't repeat them here, but instead concentrate on the performances.

First to play was French horn player Anna Douglass, winner of the brass category and the principal horn of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. Anna had won her place in the semi- by virtue of the quality of her playing, allied with her ability to communicate with the audience. Last time it worked beautifully, but this time it was all so flat. Yes there were fluffed notes, but with the French horn they do happen, and did not detract from her performance. Whether the extra pressure of being just one round away from a place in the final got to her I don't know, but on the night, the flame never quite kindled.

Next it was the turn of flautist Emma Halnan. In her woodwind category round, Emma's performance had been glorious — liquid silk was how I described it. Here it was every bit as good if not even better, a solid presentation which ought to have almost guaranteed her a free passage to the final.

Violinist Callum Smart, at 13 the youngest competitor left, was the third to perform. In his category final, I'd had doubts about Callum's ability to relate musically to his audience, but here a lot of those doubts evaporated. Most marked was his performance of the Brahms sonata, which had made big strides forward communication-wise since the last time I heard him play it. Sufficient doubts remained, though, to leave open the question, in my mind at least, as to whether he would make it through to the last three.

The fourth semi-finalist was percussionist Lucy Landymore, whose category-final performance of the Zivkovic piece, 'Ilijas', had been so compelling, backed up by the notoriously difficult Frank Zappa composition 'The Black Page'. As with the first semi-finalist, this time around something was missing; it didn't have quite the same magic.

Last to play was pianist Lara Ömeroglu. The television broadcast focused mainly on the Chopin C sharp minor 'Etude Op.25 No.7', and for good reason — a quite wonderful performance it was.

We had now heard all five musicians and the jury retired to their deliberations. For me, I felt that flautist Emma Halnan and pianist Lara Ömeroglu easily deserved to go through by right. On the other hand, horn player Anna Douglass had not on the night been able to match the standard achieved by her fellow competitors, so she should be one of those eliminated. But who would join her, violinist Callum Smart or percussionist Lucy Landymore? Had young Callum done enough to earn his place? My heart was against it but my head said that Lucy should be the other person to be eliminated, leaving Callum to go through.

Once again I am pleased and indeed proud to say that the jury and I were in agreement, so our three finalists would be Emma Halnan (flute), Callum Smart (violin) and Lara Ömeroglu (piano).

The Final

The final itself takes place in the Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff. The three competitors each play a complete concerto of their choice with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Vasily Petrenko — since 2009 principal conductor of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain.

The jury for the final included a specialist for each of the solo instruments, plus two other general musical experts: violinist Baiba Skride; pianist Noriko Ogawa; and principal flute of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Emily Beynon; together with composer and musicologist Colin Matthews, and conductor Alexander Shelley.

As with the category finals and the semi-final, the television coverage of the competition was hosted by Clemency Burton-Hill, daughter of one of its co-founders Humphrey Burton.

14-year-old1 violinist Callum Smart was the first finalist to face the jury. He played the hugely-popular 'E minor Concerto' by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, one of the comparatively few well-known concertos that has retained its popularity without becoming a clichéd war-horse. In his Strings category final, I had been less than impressed with Callum's ability to relate to an audience, despite his obvious technical skills. In the semi-final I warmed to him much more; here in the final his playing was exquisite. It could have been an artefact of the BBC's broadcast sound balance, but I kept thinking wouldn't it be nice to hear him playing a violin with a bit more power. At times the instrument sounded a little thin, despite the efforts of a very supportive orchestra and of their conductor, Vasily Petrenko. A fine performance by Callum, one in which he was really only taken close to his limit in the latter part of the last movement.

Next up was the bubbly flautist Emma Halnan. The flute does not have the huge range of concerto repertoire available to the violin and the piano, so her choice of a concerto little known to the general listener — the 'Concerto in D major' by Carl Reinecke — was perhaps a shade more necessity than selection. That said, it is a fine concerto and shows off the flautist very well. Although written late in the composer's lifetime — the concerto dates from 1908, just two years before he died — it could easily have been written at almost any time in the 60 years prior to that. All three movements are light, airy and tuneful, the centre movement being especially lyrical. Emma's flute tone was always clear, and well-balanced against the orchestra. She appeared quite relaxed on stage and in her post-performance backstage interview said she was satisfied with what she had done. Would it be enough? At this stage, I felt that Callum was just ahead, but there was one more finalist still to come.

If the flautist has an impoverished concerto repertoire, then the pianist faces an embarrassment of riches. However rather than opting for one of the big concertos — say the Tchaikovsky No.1, the Beethoven No.5 ('Emperor'), the Grieg or the Schumann — Lara Ömeroglu offered instead the very challenging, but less well-known Saint-Saëns 'Concerto No.2 in G minor' (I bet you've whistled the main theme of the second movement before, though). After her winning performance of the Chopin 'Etude' in the semi-final, one wonders if the same composer's 'Concerto No.2' might have been a possibility. Perhaps on the basis that fortune favours the brave, Lara took on a formidable challenge. Was she up to meeting the challenge on the night? Unusually, this concerto does not begin with the customary orchestral tutti before the soloist enters with the main theme. Instead, the piano has the first say, with an unaccompanied toccata-like passage. Right from these first notes, Lara had total control of the concerto and in the second movement was clearly having a whale of a time playing it. It was hard to believe she was in a competition attempting to win probably the most prestigious title available to a player of her age. Her playing was impeccable right through to the breath-taking end.

Despite two performances that on another night in a different company could both have been winners, such was the sheer quality of the third competitor that the other two paled by comparison. It was a very easy decision, the jury did not need to deliberate too long, and so the winner of the BBC Young Musician of the Year 2010 competition was the person who at the start had said that their dream was to one day record a CD of her own. That day will now become a reality after this final for 16-year-old pianist Lara Ömeroglu. Congratulations to Lara!

The official prize for winning this competition is the trophy and a cheque for £2,000, but the real value is the prestige attached to having Winner, BBC Young Musician of the Year on your musical CV. The Walter Todds Bursary2, worth £1,000 is presented to the competitor who showed the greatest promise in the competition, but who did not make it through to the final. This year the winner of that bursary was the keyboard category finalist Yuanfan Yang.

This has been a memorable competition, and I'm sure that more will be heard in the future, not only from Lara, but from at least some of the other category winners as well. It is hard to believe that early next year the search begins again, looking for the next competition winner, in Olympic year, 2012.

I hope you've enjoyed reading these little reviews. If possible I'll try and keep you posted on the progress of these very talented young people.

Till the next Musical Notes, keep listening.

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1Just 14. In the category finals he was still only 13.2Named after the late co-founder of the competition, BBC producer Walter Dodds.

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