Kris Garfitt at the Royal Overseas League Gold Medal Final

Trombonist Kris Garfitt wins Royal Overseas League Gold Medal Final 2019

ROSL remains a jewel of a competition, generously supported, and featuring a slew of engaging performances. More influencers should keep a closer eye on it.

Guildhall School graduate Kris Garfitt secured the coveted Gold Medal (and a £15K prize) at the Royal Overseas League Final last night at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London with dazzling theatrics, charming modesty, and seemingly effortless musicianship.

His programme includeD pieces by Ropartz, Weber, and an entertaining showpiece by Folke Raba called Basta.

Chief judge (and the only man I know of who looks good in a spotty bow tie) Gavin Henderson led a considerable collection of eminent judges, and made good use of his platform before announcing the winner to draw attention to the ever-increasing demands student musicians face. A bleak future awaits those of us who take for granted the opportunity to peer at new musical talent year after year. The Royal Overseas League competition does much to fill the financial gap for a handful of the most talented.

My money was – no statement on the actual winner – on 22-year-old violinist Roberto Ruisi. Self-assured with a solid tone, out of all of the performers Ruisini took me on a journey throughout his unaccompanied Bartok sonatas. Some slips early on, eclipsed by remarkably focussed playing that come unassuming end left me hanging on a thread.

I enjoyed 24-year-old bass William Thomas thoughtfully put together programme, and in particular the opener, Brahms’ Feldeinsamkeit. Throughout his time on stage Thomas widened eyes and set hearts beating faster with a rich warm sound and precise delicate articulation. Sometimes his voice felt a little under-powered in the QEH acoustic and occasionally vowels sounded like they needed opening out at the top of his range. There warm a gratifying simplicity to his stage presence which made a possible contender for me.

Where Thomas built his programme around his strengths, pianist Joseph Havlat presented a programme which illustrate his personality as an artist. His was an unassuming presence on stage; expectations were subverted by Havlat’s dry humour in Poulenc’s playful Promenades.

The eye-catching performances of the evening were perhaps from those who had already won their categories, those showcasing whilst judges deliberated.

The Miras Trio are super-charged musicians who play with a mature kind of musicianship that belies their age. Electrifying as they were, it was The Hermes Experiment who stole the show. I’ve seen their continued rise on social media – evidence if raw talent, focus and enviable commitment – and assumed that they’ve already secured their position in the industry. I’m hoping that participation in ROSL helps widen their platform. Every performer brings an infectious energy to the stage and, speaking as a lapsed clarinettist, Oliver Pashley’s tone, articulation and all-round Pied Piper-iness is compelling. If you’re at one of their gigs and they’re asking for requests, be sure to ask for Meredith Monk’s Double Fiesta. Vocalist Heloise Werner is a marvel performing the Iberian-infused scat.

Overall this was well-produced event too. Speeches were short and punchy, with all but the most important prize winner left for the post-performance presentation.

ROSL remains a jewel of a competition, generously supported, and featuring a slew of engaging performances. More influencers should keep a closer eye on it.

Royal Overseas League Music Competition 2019: applications now open

Singers, Solo Wind and Brass, Keyboard and Ensemble Prizes available in 2019

Deadline for applications Thursday 3 January 2019

It’s not just Christmas that reminds us how relentless time moves on, but competitions too. The Royal Overseas League annual music competition – the 67th – is underway, with applications now welcome online via GetAcceptd.

There are six main prizes to the competition (below). The winners of the solo prize compete for the Gold Medal and First Prize. 

  • ROSL Singers Prize
  • ROSL Solo Wind and Brass Prize
  • ROSL Solo Strings Prize
  • ROSL Solo Keyboard Prize
  • ROSL String Ensembles Prize
  • ROSL Mixed Ensembles Prize

The solo awards are open to UK and Commonwealth citizens, including former Commonwealth countries, for instrumentalists and singers up to and including the age of 30 as at 30 May 2019.

At least half, or the majority of ensemble members must be UK and Commonwealth citizens up to and including the age of 30 as at 30 May 2019. The remaining ensemble members may be of any nationality.

I have a soft spot for the ROSL competition. I tagged along as a punter for the first time this year and found it rather addictive. After last year’s winner (Jonathan Radford, pictured above) lifted the specially commissioned plate, I reflected on the unique qualities the competition

ROSL is also a rare thing in the classical music world: a well-balanced combination of occasion and spirit. It avoids pomposity by being a warm and inclusive event, at the same time as celebrating excellence. It seems to bring together the component parts of the classical music world (recording companies, orchestras, agents, and education) at the same time as maintaining a sense of neutrality.

Saxophonist Jonathan Radford wins Royal Overseas League Gold Medal 2018 (Thoroughly Good, 5th June 2018)

Listen to previous winner saxophonist Huw Wiggin and Royal Overseas League Director Geoff Parkin talk about the competition in the Thoroughly Good Podcast

Saxophonist Jonathan Radford wins Royal Overseas League Gold Medal 2018

The Royal Overseas League Gold Medal Final was held at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London last night.

Royal College of Music saxophonist Jonathan Radford held the trophy (and the specially commissioned decorative plate) aloft after wowing judges and audience alike with a blistering programme of Turnage, Yoshimatsu, and Karen Khachtaturian.  The Turnage Elegie in particular was special: broad expansive solo melodic lines delivered with an enviable diaphragm and a similarly resolute embouchure. Radford is a musician with considerable stamina, flare, and panache.

Special mention from me to bass-baritone Michael Mofidian whose delectable tone and piercing clarity pinned me to my seat. A man who could sing the instructions to a self-assessment tax return and make it sound like an invitation to a dinner date. 

This year has been my first experience of the Royal Overseas League’s music competition. Hitherto I’ve only really been aware of the name because of the way they fund artists and musicians in the early years of their careers. This was certainly the case at Aldeburgh where, on various masterclass courses pianists who had been through the competition appeared thanks to ROSL money. 

That the prize money totaled a staggering £76,000 (and was awarded across more competitors than just those who appeared in the final) goes some way to highlight the financial challenges musicians face still and emphasises just how important ROSL is in the classical music ecosystem. It seems a shame then there weren’t many (in fact, I’m not convinced there were any) mainstream classical music press in the room. 

Not only does ROSL play a critical part in the ongoing development of new talent, its also playing its part in championing diversity (next year we’re hoping for better representation) and music education in the UK.

ROSL is also a rare thing in the classical music world: a well-balanced combination of occasion and spirit. It avoids pomposity by being a warm and inclusive event, at the same time as celebrating excellence. It seems to bring together the component parts of the classical music (recording companies, orchestras, agents, and education) at the same time as maintaining a neutrality.

More than any of this, its one of only a handful of endeavours where a mature audience mixes effortlessly with the younger one. That’s not only a reflection of the spirit we see on stage, but an illustration of the warm appreciation given out and offered for those in the audience who stump up the money. 

10 observations from the second Royal Over Seas League Ensemble Final

This was a close fought night. I had two of the ensembles vying for the top place with one holding a wildcard for the prize. A4 Brass Quartet secured the winning position and a non-competing slot in the Grand Final at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London on 4 June.

Listed below, ten thoughts which arose from listening to the competing four ensembles last night.

1. Ligeti’s Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet is brilliant

I’ve written before about how competitions are a great way to discover a range of unfamiliar music. Ligeti’s Six Bagatelles, and the third movement in particular is a punishing work demanding made to appear effortless by the members of Ensemble Solaire. Props to bassoonist Justin Sun who remained resilient despite an uncompliant music stand. Solaire created an exquisite voice with some gorgeous legatos and gratifyingly piercing staccatos.

2. A bit of theatre is always appreciated

Wind players are by necessity required to maintain a static pose in order they deliver a consistent tone. Consequently, there’s a risk they’ll appear like mannequins. A little bit of movement, say throwing of a handkerchief into the audience, cod-acting between brass players, or changing positions on stage to seize attention invigorates the listening experience whilst still ensuring the instrumentalists maintain their necessary poise. Two of the four ensembles did this to great effect.

3. Harpists have a raw deal

After gracing the stage with talent and flair, stood to take their deserved applause, I always think its a bit of a shame that a harpist has to remove his or her instrument from the stage. I understand why. The instrument is so fucking expensive that if I had one I don’t think I’d trust anyone else to move it for me. But something of the on-stage mystique is lost when I see an instrumentalist lumber up to the front of the stage again so that the harp can be wheeled off the stage.

This is brought into stark contrast when the harpist is Oliver Wass. Oliver plays with panache – style and grace mixed with an infectious enthusiasm for the instrument he plays. A joy to watch. That’s not to downplay the other members of the Pelleas Ensemble he’s a member of. Flautist Henry Roberts and viola Luba Tunnicliffe match Wass’ confidence and sensitivity with bold consistent mid-range tones and taut reliable articulation. Pelleas didn’t win but that doesn’t really matter. They are an entertaining and hugely satisfying listen. If people don’t rush to buy tickets to one of their events then the arm of the law should be brought to bear.

4. Placing the notes is the way to my heart

There’s a thing about wind quintets and the way they place a chord. If everyone moves as one and pays attention to the beginning and the end of a chord then the effect can be as electrifying as having a macro view of a needle being placed gently on an LP (remember them kids?). Ensemble Solaire have this particular technique licked.

5. Keeping eye contact with the audience is vital

I saw a number of players during the evening snatch looks at the audience in addition to their music and the associates on stage. It’s a natty trick. A simple act. As an audience member it makes me feel totally connected with the performer, perhaps even appreciated by them in the moment. Connection with the audience is vital. It turbo-charges the atmosphere. Props to A4 Brass Quartet’s Chris Robertson on euphonium. Nice work.

6. Don’t let spectacle over-shadow the need for tension

A4 Brass Quartet won the competition (and will go on to perform in the final on 22 June) but, because I’m a picky bugger and I want to be honest, they weren’t my favourites to win. This was partly down to the reason flagged in last point below, but also because as spectacular as their performance was – a breath-taking demonstration of music acrobatics and stamina – I didn’t experience any tension in the performance as a whole. As an audience member I need both spectacle and an air of tension (and ideally resolution too).

7. ROSL isn’t the best acoustic for a well-articulated bunch of brass players

A4 Brass Quartet’s articulation was so fast and so incredibly tight that I wanted to hear more gaps in between the notes.

I know. That sounds incredibly mean-spirited of me but bear with. A dryer acoustic deadens the sound and reveals their considerable skill. Take a look at this video recorded in what looks like a practice room at the RNCM (presumably) and you’ll see what I mean. Listen to more of A4 Brass Quartet here.

8. Brass players are always the cool bunch

I don’t know what it is about brass players but they always appear like the cool groovy bunch. They know how to wow audiences with cheeky irreverence, a sophisticated sense of cool, or an infectious kind of self-deprecation. A4 Brass Quartet have this in spades. They’re the blokes you’d expect to see occupy the back seat of the bus to school.

9. Careful what you communicate when on stage

One ensemble unwittingly communicated a vague sense of fear on stage. This was a shame because the quality of the individual voices was strong and engaging. It reminds me of the more general point about how important body language is in non-verbal communication. Often in stressful situations it is awareness of our body language which is the first to slip. And that is often amplified on stage.

10. Arrangements for wind players can breathe new life into a work blighted by familiarity

Don’t forgive the pun. It’s intended.

Ensemble Mirage’s performance of The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship from Scheherazade revealed the mastery in Rimsky-Korsakov’s writing, giving the work a much-needed immediacy usually lost in full-scale symphonic performances. Similarly, the arrangement of Ravel’s String Quartet by Ensemble Solaire’s horn player Matthew Horn (no really, he’s a horn player with a surname of ‘Horn’ – tidy) had an edge of the original scoring.

The Royal Over-Seas League Final is on Thursday 4 June at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Book tickets via the Southbank Centre website.

10 observations from the first Royal Over-Seas League Ensemble Final

For all my pissing and moaning about list-writing, it actually turns out to be quite a useful format. Who knew? Buzzfeed.

The first ensemble final at the Royal Over-Seas League (last night) was as compelling a listen as the keyboard final last week.

Here are ten thoughts arising.

1. Keep a close eye on the cello and the viola

Obviously, everyone’s important in a string quartet. But if you’re looking for a signpost, the good ones have a strong reliable cello backed up by a spirited hungry viola – the foundations.

2. Ravel’s chamber music is where the composer really excels

Forget Bolero. It’s bollocks. Don’t get me wrong, it’s entertaining. It’s also an exercise. Ravel’s string quartet is the composer at his best. I heard it first during my A-Level studies and have heard it on a handful of times since. God only knows why broadcasters don’t go near it. It’s accessible, delectable, and seductive. The Marmen Quartet’s performance of the first movement had the edge tonight.

3. Where is the mainstream press?

I spent lunchtime listening to some members of the mainstream classical music press decry the ‘collapse’ of classical music criticism. But none of them was present at Royal Overseas League’s competition semi-final. God only knows why. What you see on stage is the next generation of talent committing to punishing criteria, striving to reach their aspirations, stretching beyond. Why wouldn’t you want to use your considerable influence to support, congratulate and elevate the next wave of professional musicians?

On second thoughts, don’t let on. I don’t want everyone writing about this.

4. Quit clarifying what you do and don’t think you know about classical music

Directly after the last quartet played, I had a bit of a chinwag with the lady sat next to me. I asked her if she had a vested interest. She said she didn’t. She asked me who I thought would get the prize. Before I answered she followed up with, “I should explain I don’t know anything about classical music.” I challenged her. “But you have a view on who should win,” I said, “I can tell.” She concurred, explaining that she didn’t think her view was necessarily valid because she didn’t feel she knew enough.

I reassured her that all that was necessary was what she thought in the moment. It turned out we agreed on who should win. It later turned out that who we thought should win didn’t end up winning. Tsk.

5. Quartets can be quite seductive

I’m not being filthy or suggestive or trying to subtly make out that someone on stage was easy on the eye. That would be crass and wholly inappropriate. In our ever-increasingly superficial age fuelled by objectification, it’s rather appealing – perhaps even old-school – to witness four musicians working together to create one collective voice. When you’re sat there listening to people you don’t know play music you’re unfamiliar with and you’re thinking you just want to leap up on stage and hug the lot of them, you know they’ve done something special and touched you emotionally in a way you rarely experience.

The Zelkova Quartet have this licked.

I didn’t get up and hug them all. That would have been weird.

6. Debussy in his early years was massively deceptive

I think of Debussy as all pastel watercolours, willow trees, and running water. His first string quartet in G Minor played by the Zelkova Quartet sounded far more like Beethoven, and maybe even Mozart that a sound I immediately associate with the French impressionist composer.

7. Haydn demands the narrative is made clear

I write that sub-header like it’s a statement of fact. It’s not. Or at least if it is, I haven’t actually read it anywhere. But listening to the Eusebius Quartet’s playing the first movement from Haydn’s String Quartet No. 64 in D Major that clarity is everything.

Let the narrative get lost in technique, or dynamics, or the overall balance and suddenly the focus is lost. Without the necessary clarity, Haydn can sound like he’s rambling a bit.

What’s important for me listening Haydn’s music is being able to hear the mechanics of the musical development because that’s exactly where the joy can be found in the art of the composer – the way they construct musical arguments.

8. ROSL is addictive … it’s also punishing

Royal Over-Seas League events are addictive for the audience. They’re also really efficient ways of being exposed to a range of repertoire. In the first ensemble semi-final, we heard works by Peter Maxwell-Davies, Ravel, Debussy, Haydn, Bartok and Mendelssohn. That is quite some range of repertoire. Where ROSL especially benefits the audience is its intimate setting devoid of pretension. That means you’ll hear it as the composer hears it when writing: as intensely intimate music.

The addictive part of the listening experience is hearing a range of performers who are competing with one another. Competition makes for a more involving experience on the audience’s part. With something to compare against, the listening experience is more active. Time passes quickly.

But it’s also a punishing experience. Last night I discovered that the second round (from which tonight’s four quartets were selected) was held the night before. Each quartet was allowed to carry one work they’d previously performed in the competition through to the semi-final. They were required to complement their work with a work they knew but hadn’t played to the judges before. That puts enormous pressure on the performers. That’s one of the reasons why the competition is so absorbing. But it’s also a necessarily punishing ask on the part of the artist. Good. I like it that way around.

9. Radio 3’s In Tune is no longer a badge of honour

I’ve lost count of the number of biographies I’ve read that reference an artist’s appearance on BBC Radio 3’s drivetime show. Sure, it’s a big deal for them. An invitation to perform is effectively an endorsement by a brand respected by those in the performing world. But when everyone mentions it in their biographies then they are devaluing themselves. And with Classic FM committing their digital resources to showcasing new talent, I’d quite like to see them mentioned in biographies too.

10. Tuesday nights are a good night for a concert

So many concerts I see advertised that I might want to go to are programmed on days when I would prefer to be at home. Tuesday nights are a good night, similarly Wednesday or Thursday. Anything else is home time. Nesting.

The Marmen Quartet won the first of two Royal Over-Seas League ensemble finals on Tuesday evening. The competition continues on Tuesday 20 March at the Royal Over-Seas League in London. 

The Royal Over-Seas League Final is on Thursday 4 June at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Book tickets via the Southbank Centre website.