In praise of the BBC Young Musician scheme

BBC Young Musician 40th Anniversary, Royal Albert Hall

With Brexit threatening to unpick all the things which make life worth living in Britain, it behoves us to count our spoons (as the old saying goes), and not take anything for granted. And with the annual publicity-drive from the BBC it’s all too easy to take the BBC Young Musician competition for granted, when we should really be regarding it as something remarkable.

It was launched forty years ago by Humphrey Burton, then the BBC’s head of music and the arts, as a way of jacking up the quality of young British musicianship to compete with the Russians and Americans who were winning all the international prizes. And over the past four decades it has done just that. It was appropriate that Burton’s daughter Clemency should present the Prom designed to celebrate this cumulative cultural achievement.

It featured more than twenty winners and finalists from the forty-year period, starting with clarinettist Michael Collins – now one of music’s elder statesmen – and coming up to date with the sixteen-year-old pianist Lauren Zhang who won this year. The glittering names studding the intervening years showed why this contest is so valuable, not just in spotting talent, but also in nurturing it. Violinists Nicola Benedetti and Jennifer Pike, cellists Natalie Clein and Sheku Kanneh-Mason, and percussionist Colin Currie, might not have been the household names they are today without that initial boost.

This concert was cleverly conceived to showcase music as well as musicians, with four world premieres of which two were good and two were outstanding. David Bruce’s Sidechaining may have been conceived as a technical exercise in layering and hocketing, but it had the assurance of a new-minted classic. The Protean Iain Farrington scored two outright hits: a deftly-devised jazz fantasia on five Gershwin songs entitled Gershwinicity, in which five different wind instruments took their turn in the spotlight, and a witty arrangement of Saint-Saens’s The Carnival of the Animals for four pianists plus orchestra, which allowed the soloists ample chance to clown. The BBC Concert Orchestra, under Andrew Gourlay’s direction, did the honours throughout. This long concert was both dazzling and hugely entertaining, and I could have wished it even longer.

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