BBC Young Musician of the Year 2012: Strings Section
So we move on to the third category final, that for the strings section. Joining general Adjudicator Gareth Jones on the judging panel this week were technical specialists Josie Biss, Principal Cello with Welsh National Opera, and Lesley Hatfield, Leader of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.
Just two instruments have made it through to the strings section final, the violin and the cello. Now I have to declare a personal prejudice here, one that I have mentioned before in Musical Notes: I am not a great fan of the solo violin and only slightly less so when it has piano accompaniment, however I must and shall try to see through that in the observations that follow.
Our five competitors comprise three girls and two boys and range in age from 14 to 18 years. I was pleased to note that all of them played their programmes from memory. In one camera shot, a music stand could be seen but I don't think the music was even open.
Opening the final was 16-year-old Julia Hwang, a young lady with something of a budding professional career behind her already – she was asked to take part in a recent BBC television documentary on the Vaughan Williams Lark Ascending. She already has her own website and has recorded a couple of CDs and a DVD, an extract from which I am listening to as I write this. Julia studies at Clifton College in Bristol. A very fortunate lady, she plays (on loan of course) a superb c.1698 violin by the great maker Peter Guarnerius. She began her 20-minute programme with a piece by Polish composer Lutoslawski: Subito. The title of this piece is commonly seen on musical scores and means suddenly, usually indicating that a change of tempo occurs in a single step, without any lead-in accelerando. It is a technically demanding piece which Julia described as "a bit like a cat chasing a mouse." Her second offering was entitled Písen Lásky, by Czech composer/violinist Joseph Suk. Meaning 'Love Song', it is a lyrical piece with a very wide range of tone colour for the instrument. She completed her programme with Tedesco's Figaro Variations from Rossini's 'The Barber of Seville'. Once again a technically demanding piece, in my view she really nailed it. The judges said that they would have liked to see more contrast in her programme, which may have been a valid criticism, but what she did play she pulled off extremely well.
Following Julia was 17-year-old cellist Joel Sandelson. A student at St Paul's School in London, he has been playing the cello since the age of five. He eased into his programme by playing the 1st movement of the Brahms Cello Sonata in E minor. While not technically demanding, it did show the cello in its warm, expressive mood. The second piece we were shown (a third one was not) was Krzysztof Penderecki's Per Slava, a melancholic unaccompanied composition, quite typical of the style of this Polish composer. This was a very disappointing performance. Clearly he has the technical skills but there was negligible, if any communication with his audience. I gained the impression that he was just sat at home, enjoying a regular session of practice. Similarly the judges were unimpressed with him.
Next up was 16-year-old violinist Juliette Roos, a student at the Yehudi Menuhin School. Diving straight in at the deep end, she opened her programme with a 21st Century piece, the first movement of a Partita for Solo Violin, by Huw Watkins, originally from South Wales and now a Professor of Composition at the Royal College of Music in Kensington, opposite London's Royal Albert Hall. She followed this with the first movement of Beethoven's Sonata Op30 No3. It is always a challenge to present a very familiar work and try to make it say something other than "me too", but its juxtaposition with the modern Watkins piece worked for me. She concluded her programme with Ravel's Tzigane. This piece I have always felt offered little musically other than being a display vehicle for the technical skills of a virtuoso player. In that sense I felt it took her to about the limits of what she could handle at this age, but she hung on and emerged as the victor by a short head. Well done. This was a REAL performance and she clearly enjoyed every minute of it. A potential category winner.
Our fourth competitor was 14-year-old Laura van der Heijden, the youngest person still remaining in the competition. A very busy cello student, Laura attends a state school in Sussex during the week, travels to London early on Saturday morning for a full day of lessons at the Royal College of Music in London, and regularly to Hannover in Germany for one-to-one lessons with her cello teacher, with whom she started to study before his move to Hannover. Laura's first piece was the first movement of the lovely Cello Sonata in D by the 18th Century baroque composer Pietro Locatelli. This was followed by the slow second movement of the Brahms Cello Sonata in F. It was nice to hear someone offer something other than the first movement of a sonata for a change. Her final piece was the Fantasy from Rimsky-Korsakov's Le Coq D'Or, a choice that the judges were not so sure about. What came over in spades from this performance was not only the superb communication between Laura and her accompanist, but also the rapport between player and audience. Bravo, enjoyed every minute of this, but was it better than that by the previous competitor?
Last to face the judges was 16-year-old violinist Cristian Grajner-De Sa, a student at the Purcell School. Up until aged about nine or ten, his principal instrument was the piano before he swapped to violin, although of course he still plays both instruments. Cristian began with the 1st movement of Beethoven's Violin Sonata in D Op12 No1, and followed it with Spanish composer Pablo Sarasate's Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs). He told us he had chosen the latter piece because it shows everything that the violin (and by implication) the violinist could do. By chance this young man lives only a few miles from me, so it would be nice to provide him some local support. Unfortunately I felt his performance was not up to the benchmark that had been set earlier. The judges commented that they were less happy with the Beethoven and were disappointed that he produced the same type of sound in the Sarasate piece.
It wasn't too difficult to realise that this category final was going to be a head-to-head between violinist Juliette Roos and cellist Laura van der Heijden. How to separate them? As so often in this competition, it is sheer musicianship that is the differentiator and here I felt that Laura van der Heijden had the edge, but only by the smallest margin.
The judges had that difficult decision to make but I'm glad to say that Laura won on the day and so goes forward to the semi-final stage.
Next week, it's the turn of the woodwind players, on five different members of the family. Unfortunately dear readers I'm going to have to disappoint you, as RL will prevent me from reporting on this section final before The Post's copy deadline, so it will have to be held over until the week after.
Till then, happy listening.