Musical Notes: BBC Young Musician - Brass

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BBC Young Musician of the Year 2012: Brass Section

After last week's keyboard players, this week it was the turn of five young brass players, with, it was nice to see, five different instruments from that family: tenor horn, trumpet, tuba, French horn and bass trombone. Joining Gareth Jones on the jury panel this week were two former category winners in this competition: Naomi Atherton, the 1984 winner and Principal Horn of Manchester Camerata; and euphonium player David Childs, brass category winner in 2000.

Once again this week, nearly all our competitors are students at one or other of Britain's prestigious music schools. The exception was the first onto the platform, 16-year-old Jonathan Bates who plays the E-flat tenor horn1. Not normally considered an orchestral instrument2, its natural home is the brass band, so it could well be argued that this young man also studies at a prestigious 'school' – the world famous Black Dyke Band, in which he plays. Hailing from Huddersfield, in northern England, Jonathan is steeped in the tradition of brass bands – both his parents are band players, his mother also playing horn. Jonathan opened his programme with the first movement of Martin Ellerby's Concerto for Tenor Horn. This is a fast virtuoso piece showing the player's skill. I have made the point before, but I was disappointed to see Jonathan and most of the other players in this category final playing from their sheet music. In a competition at this standard, a 20-minute programme should be from memory. If nothing else, it tends to put a glass wall between the players and the audience, and something of the musicality is lost. Both Jonathan's other pieces were just the kind of music in which the tenor horn reigns supreme: September Fantasy by Eric Ball and Philip Sparke's Capricorno. Both these are warm lyrical pieces with the Capricorno having a seat-of-the-pants flying finish, culminating in the high E-flat at the very top of the instrument. Exciting stuff, but overall not enough to be a winner I felt, even at this stage of the final.

The next competitor was 16-year-old trumpet player Elzbieta Young. From Blackburn, Lancashire, she studies at Chetham's School of Music in Manchester. She was another who chose to play from sheet music. In her first piece, Halsey Stevens's Sonata for Trumpet and Piano, she displayed a lovely tone, clear and rock-steady. Her second choice, two extracts from Michael Short's Five Inventions for Trumpet, I'm afraid left me completely cold. George Enesco's Légende on the other hand was a joy and includes a beautiful section for the muted instrument. A fine performance overall, but perhaps still not up to the very best.

Third onto the platform was 18-year-old Chris Dunn, a tuba player from London. The offspring of professional musicians – father plays violin with English National Opera and mother plays harp with English National Ballet – he studies on Saturday mornings at the Guildhall School. We were only shown two of his four pieces, but what a tour de force they were...and played without music sheet – hurray! He 'began' with the second movement from the Vaughan Williams Concerto for Bass Tuba, commissioned to mark the Golden Jubilee in 1954 of the London Symphony Orchestra. This was followed by probably the most unusual piece we shall hear in this whole competition, a piece entitled Fnugg, by Norwegian composer Øystein Baadsvik. The word Fnugg apparently means something small and light, like a snowflake. The player is required to coax the most extraordinary sounds from the instrument, including 'bends', a didgeridoo and beat box!! Amazing, try it for yourself in this YouTube clip. At last we had found a performer with the 'right stuff'.

Given the unenviable task of following that was 18-year-old French horn player Elizabeth Tocknell, a student at the Wells Cathedral School. Her three pieces were unknown to me, as were their composers: Koetsier, Kirchner and Nelhybel. Once again we had a player using a music stand. Of greatest interest (to me) was her second piece, Lamento d'Orfeo. This makes use in places of the technique of playing with the bell of the horn pointing directly into the body of the accompanying piano. When the pianist releases the damping pads, the strings are free to vibrate in resonance with the sound produced by the horn. We saw this same technique being used previously in the brass section final of the 2010 competition by that year's trombonist Tom Berry. Aside from this effect, it was a piece that drew you into her performance. A great effort.

Finally we saw and heard 16-year-old bass trombone player Alexander Kelly, a student at Chetham's and a Principal with the National Youth Orchestra. He was the fourth player in this final to have his music in front of him. With an instrument of this power, Alexander was determined not to be forgotten, but it was not all sheer volume. He showed just how tender and lyrical it could be as well. His three pieces were Guilmant's Morceau Symphonique, the Semler-Collery Barcarolle et Chanson Bachique, and Lebedev's Concerto in One Movement. All three were beautifully executed and fully engaged the audience. A performance in the fullest sense of the word.

So it was over to the judges to decide and I'm glad I wasn't one of them. For me it was a straight choice between tuba player Chris Dunn and bass-trombonist Alexander Kelly, but I simply couldn't separate them. However they managed it, the judges went for Alexander Kelly, who now goes on to the semi-final - congratulations to him and commiserations to the other four.

Next week it'll be the Strings section final, but there are exciting things to look forward to in the last category final – the Percussion section – were we will have a first, with two brothers competing against each other.

Till next week...

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23.04.12 Front Page

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1Known in the US as the alto horn and in German-speaking countries as the Althorn.2However Gustav Mahler used it to great effect at the beginning of his Seventh Symphony.

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