Musical Notes: BBc Young Musician 2012 - Semi Final and Final

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BBC Young Musician of the Year 2012

Now the pressure really begins to build. Over 450 young hopefuls started out on the path to win the BBC Young Musician of the Year 2012 title. Just five remain. As category winners they have shown that they are the best in their respective sections, but now they must compete against each other for a place in the Grand Final; just three will go through. In many respects also, their need to demonstrate technical ability is behind them. From now on it is about musicianship and the ability to win over an audience, as well as the judges, from the platform. The three lucky finalists will face a different challenge – playing a concerto with a professional orchestra and conductor.

The Semi-final

The judging panel for the semi-final comprised musicians of general experience, rather than the instrumental specialists of the category finals. Expanded to four members, the panel comprised General Adjudicator Gareth Jones, founder and conductor of Sinfonia Cymru; pianist, composer and teacher Huw Watkins; Marshall Marcus who has 25 years experience as a player, administrator and teacher, and is director of Espíritu Barroco Venezolano in Caracas and the Southbank Centre's Sistema Programme in London; and finally internationally commissioned and performed composer Tansy Davies.

The rules of the competition require the semi-final competitors to repeat their category final programme, although they may change one piece to something that they offered previously in an earlier round of the competition. None of our five players elected to make any change, so for details of their programmes you will need to refer back to my previous Musical Notes postings on the category finals.

First onto the platform was the winner of last week's percussion category final, Hyun-gi Lee, known as Gina. She gave an energetic performance with quite animated movement behind the marimba. My overall impression was that this was a much looser, free-flowing performance. With no signs of nerves Gina was clearly enjoying her time on stage. Just as ducks naturally float on the top of the water whatever its depth, as the bar was raised she moved up easily with it – once again a great performance from her.

Next we heard from the strings category winner, cellist Laura van der Heijden. I have to acknowledge that this young lady has a maturity which I know I didn't possess at her age. Quite aside from a solid musical performance, what stood out for me here was the real communication between her and her accompanist. Riveting stuff.

Our third competitor was bass trombone player Alexander Kelly. In his first piece he seemed very nervous. Was the pressure getting to him? The second piece was much better, but he was still not as relaxed as the previous two semi-finalists, and in the Lebedev concerto there was no discernible communication between Alex and his accompanist. I'm sorry to say that on this showing he was not going to make it to the final. This is a tough competition that has a way of sorting the magnificent from the merely excellent.

Last but one onto the platform was our woodwind category winner, recorder player Charlotte Barbour-Condini. She gave a faultless performance. If you had been listening in sound only, you would have been convinced you were hearing a professional early music performer. We were given the opportunity to see her play a piece that was omitted from her edited-for-broadcast category final programme: Andrzej Panufnik's Remember for tenor recorder. Another must-go-through surely?

Last opportunity to convince the judges was given to pianist Yuanfan Yang. As previously, his playing was electric and I warmed rather more this time round to his own composition, The Haunted Bell. Overall however, I wasn't as enthusiastic about his performance as I had been with three of the others.

There it was, all over the bar results. For me, I had to eliminate trombonist Alex; on the night he was simply out-classed. But with four left and only three to go through, I was in that uncomfortable position of being between a rock and a hard place. I don't envy the judges the choice they had to make, but in the end they eliminated trombonist Alex Kelly (as expected) and percussionist Hyun-gi Lee, which must have been a hard decision.

Thus we say goodbye to the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama's new concert hall in Cardiff, which has hosted the category finals and semi-finals, and move to the Sage Gateshead in the north-east of England for the Grand Final. Here the three young musicians will between them perform Edvard Grieg's Piano Concerto, Sir William Walton's Cello Concerto and Antonio Vivaldi's Recorder Concerto in C minor, RV 441.

The Final

It is not often that one can put a date to a positive life-changing event, but after this BBC Young Musician 2012 final, one young person will be able do just that. One of them will leave the Stage tonight and their life will be changed forever. Our three finalists – recorder player Charlotte Barbour-Condini, pianist Yuanfan Yang and cellist Laura van der Heijden – must now play a concerto of their choice with a professional orchestra – the Northern Sinfonia – under a professional conductor – Kirill Karabits – in front of an audience and, more importantly, a panel of judges. They elected to play concertos from the 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries respectively.

For the first time in this competition, the judges now out-numbered the competitors. There were five of them in the tailored jury, including three instrumental specialists: star recorder player Piers Adams, cellist Guy Johnson – winner of BBC Young Musician in 2000, and international concert pianist Paul Lewis. Joining them were composer Charlotte Bray and conductor Jessica Cottis.

Going into the final, my personal favourite was cellist Laura van der Heijden, simply on the basis of her innate musicianship and confidence, but she was up against some heavyweight opposition, especially from pianist Yuanfan Yang.

First onto the platform to make her bid for glory was recorder player Charlotte Barbour-Condini, performing on her 16th birthday. What a birthday present that would be to win this competition! In discussion with conductor Kirill Karabits it was decided to use only a very small chamber ensemble to accompany her, comprising two violins, viola, harpsichord, bassoon, cello and double bass. Charlotte's choice of concerto was Antonio Vivaldi's Recorder Concerto in C minor, which her teacher described as one of the most difficult of the Vivaldi concerti. She opened the first movement with a cadenza of her own composition before being joined by the chamber ensemble for the remainder of the movement and its two succeeding movements. This was a lovely introduction, with a beautiful cantilena melody. It was only in the slow (Largo) second movement that I felt that her tone was not quite as silky smooth as it could have been. Enchanting playing, though, from this young lady.

The second contender was pianist Yuanfan Yang. This young man, on his second attempt to win this title, just exudes confidence. Choosing such a familiar concerto as the Grieg Concerto in A minor can be a two-edged sword. How do you make your performance stand out? Well Yang certainly did that. There was absolutely nothing tentative in his playing, right from the opening bars. Also he had great communication with the conductor, always a sign of good musicianship. At the end of a stunning performance I was left in no doubt that here was our winner. He had seized the baton and was away; even catching him, let alone passing him would be a massive challenge.

That challenge fell to the youngest of the three competitors, 15-year-old cellist Laura van der Heijden. She chose to play the William Walton concerto, a work not played that often and hence not as familiar in the way that the Grieg piano concerto is. Commissioned by the Russian cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, it was first performed in 1957. It is a more introspective piece than any of the big Romantic concertos like the Dvorak or the Elgar. I had some nervousness about her choice. She said the concerto deserved to be better known. Agreed, but is the final of a competition of this stature the place to do it? Whatever my fears about the concerto, her playing was superb and totally captivated the audience. She was in full flow and gradually Yang's grip on the title was no longer as secure as it seemed 30 mins earlier. The opening of the third and final movement was glorious and she held your attention right through to the whispered Adagio ending. It was difficult to believe that this young lady is just 15 and has been playing the cello for only nine years.

To have been a fly on the wall of the room in which the judges made their decision would have been an education, but their deliberations remain confidential. What we do know is that they came (somehow) to a decision and it fell to composer Charlotte Bray to announce, without any unnecessary tension building (as if there wasn't enough already), that the title BBC Young Musician of the Year 2012 was awarded to the cellist Laura van der Heijden.

Many, many, many congratulations to the winner. They are well deserved.

But what of those that didn't quite make it to the final? In memory of Walter Todds, one of the founders of the BBC Young Musician competition, a bursary of £1,000 may be awarded at the discretion of the BBC to the performer (or performers) who showed great potential but did not make it through to the final. This year the bursary was awarded to two young musicians: violinist Juliette Roos, who you'll remember lost in the strings category final to the eventual champion Laura; and percussionist Hyun-gi Lee who had done so much to impress us in the semi-final.

So there we are, all over for another two years, but for those of a mind to follow in the footsteps of the brilliant young people we have enjoyed so much this year, the process to find the BBC Young Musician 2014 starts in the New Year. Do you know someone who might qualify to carry the crown forward? If you do, be sure to encourage them.

Thank you for reading these little notes of mine. Until next time, happy listening.

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