BBC Young Musician 2018: Semi final

Five instrumentalists (one from each of the previous category finals) participated in the Young Musician Semi Final broadcast on Friday night. Three were selected to compete for the top prize on Sunday 13 May. 

This was a much harder heat in the competition to gauge. Comparing like for like instruments makes judgement (even in its most appreciative guise) a lot easier. When differing instruments are to compared the assessment becomes far more difficult. This combined with the TV medium’s tendency to dis-associate viewer from performer, makes even more of a challenge.

That’s why I’m an armchair pundit, and there are professional judges employed to do the decision-making. 

Percussionist Matthew Brett’s maturity, technical agility, and innate musicality really shone in the semi-final. The opening Famin 2 is an engaging showpiece, but it was in the reprise of the specially commissioned Crossover that he really came alive. I loved it – a piece I’m keen to watch performed again.

Trombonist Isobel Daws appeared more confident on stage – marked by the way she concluded each piece with more self-assurance. A pleasure to see and, unexpectedly, revealed how the competition does develop individuals as it progresses.

In a similar way, pianist Lauren Zhang seemed to open up a little more at the keyboard, reprising her stunning category final performance of the Scarlatti. The Kapustin lost my attention slightly, although concluding with the Rachmaninov was a good move, finishing on something she appeared to feel at more at ease with in terms of outward expressive emotion.

Both cellist Maxim Calver and saxophonist Robert Burton sparkled in this semi-final. Maxim, in particular, has an accomplished style that defies his age – evident in a gripping performance of Lutoslawski’s Sacher Variations. Both instrumentalists possess a self-assurance that makes their playing utterly captivating and, inevitably, very difficult to decide between them.

As a woodwind native, I’m veering on Robert’s performance of Fitkin’s Braemar on soprano saxophone during which I felt an unexpected connection that reached beyond the TV. There’s an energy to Fitkin’s writing when combined with the energy Robert Burton brings to his performance that makes it a compelling watch.

My predicted qualifiers from this heat of the competition were Robert Burton (saxophone), Matthew Brett (percussion), and Maxim Calver (cello).

I was only one person out when the final announcement was made. Pianist Lauren Zhang’s inclusion provides a valuable differing perspective on musicianship, highlighting the complexities of music-making especially amongst those who are less visibly demonstrative in their playing.

I have this idea that Lauren might end up winner of the competition final. A hunch at this stage, no more than that.

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BBC Young Musician 2018: Piano Final

This was another category with an unexpected winner, making the viewing experience a whole more engaging that previous editions. Josie D’Arby is definitely in her presenting stride in this one. Former Young Musician competitor, pianist and pundit Lucy Parham is the best contributor in this series alone.

Adam Heron (pictured right) seemed a little stiff in his posture at the keyboard though I was transfixed by the isolated movement in his hands. The Bacarolle by Chopin was ravishing in places with greater fluidity in the right hand towards the end. The inclusion of the second of Schoenberg‘s Six Little Piano Pieces was a great piece of programme, refocusing attention in readiness for the the heft of Rachmaninov’s Etudes Tableaux. Here I really enjoyed watching Adam playing. The voices were indistinct at the beginning of the movement, but this changed soon after. He seemed terribly sweet on camera.

Lauren Zhang (pictured middle) had a beguiling quality on stage I couldn’t quite put my finger on. The contrast between her away from the keyboard (where she seemed slightly bewildered by proceedings – who wouldn’t be), compared to her self-assurance at the piano made her a complex and fascinating study.

The Scarlatti she played was electrifying – amazing control at the keyboard. The Kapustin showed stunning technique though I wasn’t quite as drawn to her playing in this piece – more bombast than I want after the taut Scarlatti. The Rachmaninov Sonata No. 2 Op.36 was the most intriguing performance in her moment on stage. There were moments when I felt the louder sections of the movement – particularly in the right hand – risked derailing her musical statement. But, she held on conjuring up some dramatic dynamic contrasts come the end. A mighty transformation.

Elias Ackerley (pictured far left) didn’t quite nail the opening Scarlatti in the same way Lauren had. The performance hadn’t secured my attention. This continued in the Ravel where Elias’ playing was powerful but oddly private – as though he didn’t really give very much away. The choice of Lizst ‘s Trascendental Etude No. 4 was a bol choice. The performance saw some amazing technique, but the inherent showiness of the piece saw technique dominate over musicianship. 

Jennifer Kanneh-Mason (pictured second from left) left me breathless during the Rachmaninov. I adored her fluidity at the keyboard, her poise, and her flexibility. She displays a great sense of maturity that is compelling. In the Glinka I thought that some of the fortissimo sections lacked a little finesse. The Bartok seemed like the least successful of the pieces she played.

Mariam Loladze-Meredith‘s (pictured second from right) performance was by far the most self-assured of the evening. She exudes an incredible confidence when she’s playing that is both emphatic and potent.  In all three works, I felt as though she was the one able to extrude all of the voices from each piece in a balanced way. This was amazing musicianship which I wondered went beyond BBC Young Musician.

Read notes from the BBC Young Musician Strings, Brass and Woodwind Finals. The semi-final is on Friday 11 May. The Grand Final is on Sunday 13 May. 

The Thoroughly Good Blog is an independent blog celebrating classical music and the arts. Please consider supporting its development in 2018 by giving a donation using this PayPal.


BBC Young Musician 2018 Brass Final

Topline insights from this episode are that I really do quite like Josie D’Arby, and I didn’t pick the winner.

That’s not to say I didn’t agree with the winner. Contrary to some opinion, I’m not a cold-hearted bastard.

What follows are notes, nothing more. It’s been a bit of a demanding few days.

Isobel Dawes. The Malcolm Arnold seemed a little raw – wasn’t convinced she was convinced of her performance when she’d finished. That’s partly do with what is in a way quite an unforgiving camera shot, tight on the face of the performance just as they’ve relaxed their embouchure and, no doubt, every muscle in their body has relaxed too. A similar thing happened at the end of the Bach though this was far more successful – rounder tone, more control. The Jongen entertaining and a solid affair.

Will Thomas – Henze was tight and fascinating. Piazzolla felt thin and vulnerable in places. Cole Porter – gorgeous gorgeous tone. More convinced by Will’s presence on stage. He has a twinkle in his eye.

Michaias Berlouis on trombone. The Semler-Collery – really strong personality comes through in his playing. Were there some intonation issues? Brahms Four Serious Songs No.3 – the long sustained lines gave the impression that this was a significantly more demanding play for Michaias at this point in his performance. I wasn’t hugely engaged in the Lebedev, but I’ll be completely honest, I love the sound of the bass trombone. High-point of the category final so far.

Annemarie Federle. Bissil. Loved this. Fascinating piece which Annemarie seems to own. Moments when I wondered whether her nerves affected the vibrato. Glazunov – gorgeous. Still some nervy shakiness in the vibrato, but I love watching her play. Bozza – that same stillness and poise is evident; she has a riveting elegance about her when she plays.

Sam Dye. Remarkable young man. Great spirit. In the John Kenny, he creates some amazing sounds. Solid. Captivating. Jongen – expansive. Serocki – amazing.

Read notes from the BBC Young Musician Strings, and Woodwind Finals. The semi-final is on Friday 11 May. The grand final is on Sunday 13 May. 

The Thoroughly Good Blog is an independent blog celebrating classical music and the arts. Please consider supporting its development in 2018 by giving a donation using this PayPal.

BBC Young Musician: Woodwind Final

I 'm conscious I haven't posted my thoughts on last week’s Percussion Final yet. I will eventually, but as last night was the woodwind final I thought I’d get that out of the way first. 

Saxophonist Robert Burton opened with a bold unaccompanied new piece by Graeme Fitkin. It is a gorgeous thing to hear on soprano saxophone and Burton's tone is something to behold – smooth, warm and enticing. There’s a solidity to his playing too that is incredibly reassuring – the Fitkin piece is also an engaging piece of storytelling.

That solidity and confidence continued in the first movement of the Paul Creston saxophone sonata with broad romantic sweeps and some beautifully taut articulation. I’m not a big of Piazzolla, but the Tango Escualo is a wild thing which Robert Burton fired off effortlessly at the same time as a seamless demonstration of isolation. Was the final note a bit flat? Not sure. But the last impact of Burton's performance didn't suffer because of it. 

Flautist Marie Sato opened with Faure’s Après un rêve sounded in places as though there wasn’t sufficient control over the sound being produced – sometimes the loud notes ‘split’ or sounded breathy or thin, where the lower registers had the warmer rounder sound I’ve come to expect from this popular piece. Jolivet's Chant di Linos was more successful – the support was there throughout, although some of the faster sequences towards the end felt a little rushed under the fingers.

Francis Bushell on bassoon was a revelation for me. There was spirit, commitment and drive in his performance of the Bordeau that brought personality to the bassoon in a way I’ve not heard often before. There were a few errors, but these didn’t impact what was a hugely engaging performance. X really feels the music – an authenticity that is appealing and works well on TV – and he looks the part too, resolutely occupying the space on stage. Tansman’s Sonatine is a punishing work to conclude an appearance which has already pushed the bassoonist in terms of stamina. He doesn’t let go at any stage – his commitment to the finished product is something to aspire to. In some of the fast phrases, we lose the clarity that we had in Robert Burton’s performance at the top of the programme, but throughout Francis' articulation is remarkable.

Recorder player Eliza Haskins defies her 14 years. She posesses a self-assurance in her playing that is quite remarkable. The Correlli sonata arranged for marimba accompaniment felt like more familiar territory for the audience, but her musicianship shone brightest in the concluding piece in her recital – Maki’s Black Intention. Here she displayed incredible focus and poise. Her place in the category final meant she had the biggest challenge cutting through. 

Tom Myles on clarinet had the biggest job where I was concerned. I'm a clarinettist. I'm bound to be picky (sorry Tom). The Muczynski contained some bold moments, though I was distracted a bit by the right elbow rising and falling (I said I was being picky). There were one or two (unintended) squeaks over the break. Come the Giampieri, Tom was showing how big a blow this was in the rests during the opening. As a complete work its also surprisingly sedate meaning the slower sections demand a lot of support.

In the final work – the last movement of Joseph Horovitz's Sonatine, I think there’s a general tendency for anyone playing it to get a little carried away with the fun conveyed in the music. Tom played with exuberance but sometimes I think the piece needs (counter-intuitively) a straighter approach.

No sign of the full performances from each participant made available via the BBC iPlayer app. Which suggests that either people at the BBC don't read this blog (nor the last one in which I pissed and moaned), or if they do they don't especially care. That's a shame. Still, maybe in time for next week, ey?

The Thoroughly Good Blog is an independent blog celebrating classical music and the arts. Please consider supporting its development in 2018 by giving a donation using this PayPal.

BBC Young Musician 2018: Strings Final

Left to Right: Torrin Williams, Stephanie Childress, Will Duerden, Elodie Chousmer-Howelles, and Maxim Calver


Some thoughts on the Strings Category Final on BBC Four last night.

1. Violinist Elodie Chousmer-Howelles had the toughest gig going on first. I think that was reflected in what at times felt like an overly-considered performance. Technically brilliant with flair and pizzazz – I found it difficult to connect with her performance.

2. Will Duerden on double bass is a heartfelt performer with an infectious self-assurance that helped generate a heartfelt and sometimes heart-wrenching experience.

3. Violinist Stéphanie Childress holds the stage with poise and style. In this way she maintains a more assured presence than Elodie was. Stephanie appears relaxed, enjoying the performance experience the most out of all of the competitors. That’s an engaging thing to watch.

4. Guitarist Torrin Williams was electrifying. This may have something to do with the guitar being a solo instrument and him as a musician having control over all of the voices we’re listening to. His focus when playing is stunning. I’d like to watch his entire performance to get a sense of how he maintained that focus throughout. (see below).

5. Maxim Calver on cello did have the edge in terms of a live performance. He displayed a remarkable maturity on stage, played with a warm generosity, creating a more inclusive experience.

One final down, another four to go

6. Josie D’Arby (presenter) is solid on her own; she’s not purporting to be an expert – I like that; she doesn’t do emoting backstage terribly well (who would – it’s a meaningless TV trope); the chemistry between D’Arby and Alison Balsom is a bit awkward but it got better.

7. It takes 15 minutes from the beginning of the programme before we see any performance. The quality of the programme has improved, but the amount of flummery is infuriating. Cut the first fifteen minutes of introductions and the repeated slow introductions of the judges, and include complete performances instead? In a 90 minute programme there would be sufficient available time.

8. The assessments of each performance work in as much that they just about help a knowledgeable viewer get their assessment confirmed. But, by and large these segments are safe bordering on the meaningless. Commentary needs to have a bit more bite (though I accept the series is probably already edited for broadcast so this point is too late to be implemented).


Playing full performances via the website on a Connected TV doesn't work as well as it might.


9. I’m told by the presenter that I can watch the full performances via the Young Musician website. I can’t play the full performances on my TV because the video is offered as part of the BBC iPlayer app (either Sky or native). The website video is being delivered using Flash ,not HTML 5 video (meaning TV browsers won’t play website videos because they don’t support Flash). That means I can only watch the full performance on a laptop not my mobile. I want to see the full performance as full scale as possible – watching on a laptop or mobile isn’t maximising the quality of the performance.

There’s no technical reason why the full performances can’t be made available via the BBC iPlayer app. For BBC people reading this – the video asset is in the iBroadcast system already (that’s why it appears on the Young Musician website) so the asset can easily be inserted into the iPlayer app. There’s just an unwillingness (an editorial decision made to not include it in iPlayer) to join the dots up and create a seamless experience for the audience. An easy win.

Watch the String Final on BBC iPlayer; the percussion category final is on BBC Four at 7.30pm on Friday 13 April

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