Musical Notes: BBC Young Musician 2012 - Keyboard

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BBC Young Musician of the Year 2012: Keyboard Section

It scarcely seems possible that two years have passed since I sat and watched 16-year-old Lara Ömeroglu win the 2010 BBC Young Musician of the Year competition. But they have passed and now a new set of young competitors are ready to take up the challenge. Lara, now using the name Lara Melda, is continuing her studies and is in demand internationally as a performer, showing once again that this is a truly prestigious competition that can open doors to those with the talent to make it through to the section finals.

For those not familiar with the competition, it is open to all young UK residents, aged 18 or under on January 1 of the year of the competition, who have achieved at least Grade 8 on their instrument. It has been held every two years since its inauguration in 1978. Famous previous winners include Emma Johnson (1984, clarinet), Freddy Kempf (1992, piano), Natalie Clein (1996, cello) and Nicola Benedetti (2004, violin). Regional and then Category Auditions reduce the pool of competitors to 25, five in each of the five sections: keyboard, brass, woodwind, strings and percussion. The winners of the five sections go on to compete in a semi-final, when two more are eliminated. The remaining three compete in the Grand Final for the title BBC Young Musician of the Year.

In the final the competitors have the opportunity to play a concerto of their choice, or a work for solo instrument and orchestra, of up 30 minutes duration. Highlights of the section finals are broadcast on BBC Television, one each week, followed by the complete semi-final and Grand Final.

The panel of judges includes both general and specialist music experts. For the keyboard category this year they are Richard McMohan, Head of the Keyboard Department of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama; Ronan O'Hora, Head of Keyboard Studies at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama; and General Adjudicator Gareth Jones, conductor and founder of Sinfonia Cymru.

And so to our young competitors who are required to prepare a programme of about 20 minutes duration. All males, three are 15 years old, one is 16 and the fifth is 18. They include a familiar face; Yuanfang Yang, then aged 13, was a competitor in 2010, reaching the semi-final, but winning the Walter Todds Busary1, a £1,000 prize awarded "at the discretion of the BBC to the performer or performers who show great promise but do not reach the Final."

All this year's keyboard section finalists study at one of England's prestigious specialist music schools: the Chetham School in Manchester, the Purcell School near Watford in Hertfordshire, and the Wells Cathedral School.

Dominic Degavino, age 16, at Chetham's was the first to play. In the television introduction to him personally, we saw a young man who was completely at home in any style and with a seeming effortless ability to learn his pieces – an illusion doubtless as all these young people put in many, many hours of practice to achieve what they do. He began his programme with Scarlatti's Sonata in E major Kp20. Sadly this piece sounded totally out of place on the modern piano – it cried out for a baroque instrument. He followed this with Chopin's Nocturne in C-sharp minor Op27 No1. Normally a lovely piece here, to my ears, it just sounded bland. The last piece presented was Dutilleux's Choral et Variations, an extract from his Piano Sonata. This was by far his best piece and clearly showed his great technical skill.

Next on the platform was 18-year-old Victor Lim from Korea, who studies at the Wells Cathedral School. He immediately raised the competition bar by several notches. He began with the 1st movement of Haydn's Sonata in B minor. This piece made the transition from the fortepiano to the concert grand much better than the Scarlatti sonata did. His second piece was Alban Berg's Sonata Op1; a very fine interpretation it was indeed. His programme was completed by an arrangement of JS Bach's chorale Ertöt' uns durch dein' Güte. Such is the consummate skill of Bach's writing that this could have been arranged for egg cups, spoons and saucers and it would probably have sounded quite natural. Overall an excellent programme delivered to a very high standard indeed.

Our third competitor was Yuanfang Yang, the returnee from two years ago, and a classmate of Dominic's at Chetham's. What a difference those two years have made. Looking back at my notes from 2010, I described him as "a supremely confident young man...a brilliant and polished performance." My criticism of him then was that I didn't feel he was communicating well with his audience. Two years later and that has been rectified, but remember he is still only 15. He kicked off with the 1st movement of Beethoven's Sonata in E flat Op7, followed by a Debussy Prelude, La terasse des audiences du claire de lune, a really evocative piece. Next, as in 2010, he offered a (different) composition of his own called The Haunted Bell, which recently won first prize in the Golden Key International Piano Composition Competition. This was a crazy extravaganza designed to show the jury that he had more to offer in terms of his musical toolbox. His final selection was the 4th movement of Chopin's Sonata in B minor Op58, an exhilarating Presto. Would it be sufficient to better Victor Lim's performance?

Canadian Adam Boeker was the fourth competitor. Aged 15, Adam is the third student from the Chetham School in this section final. He began his programme with the Rondeau from JS Bach's Partita No2 in C minor, then nicely contrasted this with the 2nd movement of Prokofiev's Sonata No 4 in C minor. I really liked this piece which to my knowledge I had not heard previously, something which I must soon rectify. He completed a varied and well-chosen programme with one of Franz Liszt's many notoriously difficult Paraphrases, this one an 'orchestration for the piano' (my description) of the Act 3 quartet from Verdi's Rigoletto. Good though this was as a presentation, I didn't feel that Adam could match the very high standard set on the day by Victor Lim and Yuanfang Yang.

Last to show us his stuff was 15-year-old Martin Bartlett from the Purcell School. Like Dominic Degavino at the beginning of this final, Martin kicked off with a Scarlatti Sonata2, this time the one in F-sharp major Kp318. Interestingly, this one fitted the piano much better than the one Dominic selected. Martin also presented another Scarlatti sonata (Kp141) which we were not shown. His next piece was Chopin's Nocturne in D flat major Op27 No2. This musically-challenging piece was negotiated very skilfully. The final piece of both his programme and this section final was by François Morel, his Étude de Sonorité No2. Frankly I found this a very uninteresting piece, but maybe that was just me.

So now we had heard all five keyboard section finalists. Who would the judges pick? For me it was a straight choice between Victor Lim and Yuanfang Yang and I couldn't separate them. Fortunately I didn't have to; the judges decided on Yuanfang Yang, who now goes on the semi-final stage. Can he win this competition at the second attempt?

Next week is the Brass Section final with three boys, two girls and five different members of the brass family: tenor horn, tuba, bass trombone, French horn and trumpet.

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23.04.12 Front Page

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1In memory of Walter Todds, a founder of the BBC Young Musician competition.2If you fancy keyboard sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757), an almost exact contemporary of GF Handel's, there are 555 from which to choose!

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