Eurovision Young Musicians 2018: Final

Six young classical music performers from countries across Europe graced the Usher Hall stage in Edinburgh, competing to win a trophy, a bit of cash, and pose awkwardly for a photograph. Was it any good? And where does Eurovision need to go with it now?

Compared to the last Eurovision Young Musicians final, tonight’s competition was a much more watchable affair.

Here’s a list of reasons why:

  • It was indoors
  • The talent on stage was pretty good
  • The presentation had gravitas
  • The winner made sense to me as a viewer
  • The programme was mercifully short on hyperbole
  • There was sufficient deference
  • The competition didn’t look schlocky
  • References to EYM’s brasher sibling – the Song Contest – were mercifully kept to a minimum

In fact, in some respects even though the event was low on atmosphere, the coverage was so pleasingly straight-down-the-line that one wonders why the BBC’s Young Musician competition coverage can’t adopt the same unfussy strategy in future iterations of its coverage.

If it’s got Eurovision in the title they watch it, won’t they?

It wasn’t all a bed of roses for me, particularly in the competition’s digital marketing.

One email I received sought to persuade email subscribers to watch EYM by appealing to those viewers who still mourn the passing of live orchestral accompaniment in the Song Contest by referencing the inclusion of a live orchestra in the EYM final.

This combined with the inevitable references to the last time Eurovision was staged in the Usher Hall – the 1972 Song Contest – confirmed a long-held assumption of mine.

The EBU has in recent years been trying to claw back credit for its popular TV formats, reclaiming the ground previously occupied by the heavy lifting independent content creators achieved between 2000-2010.

In reclaiming that marketing ground, the EBU assumes that TV audiences will be sat glued to any of their competitions regardless of the actual content, solely because it has ‘Eurovision’ in the title. So there’s an assumed crossover of audiences. This partly explains why the EBU resolutely clings on to the awkward-looking Junior Eurovision Song Contest when only a precious few take it seriously.

Ignorance or contempt?

The problem this approach has is that it makes plain either an ignorance for the art form EYM seeks to celebrate, or a contempt for the audience.

Eurovision Young Musician was (years ago) a high-brow affair, bringing together the cream of young classical music performance talent from across the Eurovision network. Eurovision Young Musician was the Premiere League to BBC Young Musician’s Division One. Young Musician was a distinct offering compared it the Song Contest.

Nowadays the EBU refers to both competitions are part of the nauseatingly named ‘Eurovision Family’. For me, expecting or even hoping that there would be audience crossover from light entertainment to live performance art form is either well-intentioned or massively ignorant. I’d like to think the former. Experience of TV people makes me conclude the latter.

Of course, there’s no reason there can’t be crossover. I’m living proof. I love both competitions. But I don’t love them both because they’re Eurovision products. I love one in the same way that I love picking at a scab on my knee. I love the other because it makes me feel good. You work out which is which.

The quality of the programme is dependent on the quality of the performance

he musicians who took part displayed potential. There wasn’t anything rip-roaring – not like I’ve seen in some other competitions over the past 18 months – but their talent has to a certain extent helped reinvigorate the brand.

But its the quality of the musicians and their grand final appearance which needs to be built upon if Eurovision’s reinvestment in its classical music format is to pay off. Evidence of why that development is necessary was seen in some of the performances during last night’s final. 

All of the performances were of the standard I implicitly expected them to be from this kind of televised competition (especially where the criteria and selection process is understandably a little vague).

They need more time on stage

But where I think the performers would have had more of an opportunity to demonstrate their musicianship convincingly was by having enough time to perform an entire concerto.

Eurovision has built its competition brand to a certain extent on this idea of limiting everyone to a specific amount of time in the spirit of ‘fairness’. What that means really is managing a TV running order.

What EYM’s ‘no longer than 12 minutes’ rule means for performers is that they’ll always need to pick the last movement of a concerto – not only the (usually) most technically demanding, but the point in the musical narrative ideas are tied up in the score.

Full concertos means more opportunity for a range of musical expression

Performers are then being expected (to a certain extent) to manufacture their musical statement at the beginning of their performance just where music is reaching the denouement when they’ve not had the benefit of playing it from the beginning.

This makes for an unnatural expectation in terms of expression and, that combined with the technical demands of a final movement ramp up the pressure, increase the likelihood of errors and in some cases makes for a sometimes dissatisfying performance.

The six finalists

For me, this is partly why Norway’s Birgitta performance of the final movement of Elgar’s Cello Concerto didn’t land right for me. An ambitious choice of work for any cellist, made even more demanding by starting a televised competition with the concluding movement of an already epic work. She rose to the challenge with a stunning tone, though there were some hurried untidy sections, some slips in intonation and some striking moments when she dropped out of character. 

Slovenian violinist Nikola Pajanovic fared much better with the final of the Tchaikovksy Violin Concerto – a far more convincing performance full of attack and verve. Musically the movement is more self-contained than the Elgar Cello Concerto 4th meaning it made for a more plausible one-movement performance too. Good as he clearly was, I wanted to hear him play the entire work. 

Having the opportunity to play two contrasting movements benefited bassist Indi Stivin demonstrate a range of musical expression – still the same amount of time but having contrast provided a fuller experience. What didn’t work for me was hearing relatively immature musical material which unwittingly clouded Indi’s considerable musical talent. His skill at creating such a sweet soloistic voice from a double bass is remarkable. But I would have liked to hear him push himself with more established repertoire.

German violinst Mira Foron plays Sibelius

German violinst Mira Foron‘s performance of the last movement of the Sibelius violin concerto had a flabby feel between soloist and orchestra. But like the Slovenian violinst, Mira displayed great confidence and attack. As the movement progressed so more of her fierce attitude and magnetism emerged. 

Hungarian saxophonist Máté Bencze

Choosing a complete work by Ibert was a deft move on the part of Hungarian saxophonist Máté Bencze. Ibert’s Concertino de camera provided a complete over-arching narrative, the opportunity to demonstrate a range of technical skills, and make for a satisfying watch not least the arresting solo at the beginning of the middle section. Here Máté Bencze demonstrated why giving a performer the time to present an entire work (in Máté’s case it just happened to run just under 12 minutes), benefits both musician and audience. The most satisfying performance of the entire evening.

Russian pianist Ivan Bessonov

Certainly where winner Russian pianist Ivan Bessonov was concerned there was never any doubt he had the stamina and the technical ability to perform all of the Tchaikovsky piano concerto. In fact, so good as he was it seems slightly incredible to me watching the performance back on YouTube now and reading my tweet from last night’s broadcast. 

On reflection it was the most accomplished performance of the evening, free of flaws, most assured and compelling. 

Do the musicians a favour: put EYM in its rightful context

For Eurovision to capitalise on the competition, the performers need to be on stage for longer amounts of time (even if that means cutting out one or two finalists).

They also need to rehearse with the orchestra for longer too. And perhaps most difficult for them, they need to capitalise on the future successes the talent who appeared in this competition goes on to experience.

And to do that, the EBU needs to establish a narrative online about these performers future professional lives in the context of their chosen field, rather than trying to shoe-horn it into the Eurovision’s idea of classical music and its range of broadcasting activities. That means stopping being slavish about gaining credit for your broadcast formats, and positioning EYM in the context of other international music competitions.

It’s not quite there yet, but as of last night EYM is definitely set on the right path.

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