Whilst I’ve always been a fan of the BBC Young Musician Competition (formerly Young Musician of the Year), I hadn’t previously had the opportunity to attend any of it. So when invited to the 2014 final, I took the plunge. The BBC Young Musician has been in existence for over thirty-six years and during this period it has routinely identified the next generation of outstanding players. Amongst its alumni are Freddy Kempf, Emma Johnson, Michael Collins, Alison Balsom, Nicholas Daniel, Natalie Clein and Nicola Benedetti. This year’s competition has provided compelling viewing, and over the past few weeks the BBC has broadcast all the semi-final rounds. More than 450 young musicians applied to participate and auditions were held last Summer all around the UK. Over the past few months, this large number of entrants was reduced to three finalists.
The final stage was held in Edinburgh at The Usher Hall on Sunday and was essentially a celebration of young talent. Presented by writer and broadcaster Clemency Burton-Hill, trumpeter Alison Balsom and guitarist Miloš, the hall was brimming with an enthusiastic, yet attentive audience. I enjoyed observing the whole recording and broadcasting process, organised effortlessly by the BBC, and especially useful were the large screens placed above the stage (really to aid the TV set-up) which afforded plenty of close-up viewing.
The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kirill Karabits accompanied all the finalists. The competition began with 15-year-old percussionist Elliott Gaston-Ross who chose to play African Sunrise/Manhattan Rave by David Heath. A smorgasboard of styles and textures, this work employs a vast range of instruments including a wheelbarrow, marimba and traditional drum kit. Elliott’s natural rhythmic flair shone through and whilst still a young player, he demonstrated complete control and confidence.
The next performer was recorder player Sophie Westbrooke (also 15) who gave a dramatic yet beautiful account of Gordon Jacob’s Suite for Recorder and Strings, arranged for Chamber Orchestra by David Knotts. Her performance was full of colour, careful phrasing, and precise, clean fingerwork. Sophie proved the recorder can project powerfully, and indeed she could be clearly heard whilst playing with the orchestra.
Final competitor, pianist Martin James Bartlett (17 years), presented Rachmaninov’s virtuoso Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini Op. 43, a demanding piece which can stretch seasoned professionals to their limits. However, any technical or musical difficulties were seamlessly brushed aside as Martin powered through the work with tremendous musicianship and maturity.
The jury consisted of pianist Alice Sara Ott, recorder player Michala Petri, percussionist Colin Currie, composer and conductor James MacMillan and conductor Alice Farnham. They had the unenviable job of reaching a decision, and whilst they did this the 2012 winner, ‘cellist Lara van der Heijden gave a committed and moving rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations.
As the competition reached its climax, the atmosphere in the hall was electric. All three performers could have easily won such was the level of playing, but Martin James Bartlett was crowned BBC Young Musician 2014.
Martin studies at the Royal College of Music Junior Department with Emily Jeffrey (who also taught Lara Melda, the winner of BBC Young Musician 2010). He will be continuing his studies at the RCM senior department in September with Professor Vanessa Latarche (who is Head of Keyboard) on a coveted Foundation Scholarship. Many congratulations to Martin, a fantastic young player who will no doubt forge a highly successful career. Watch out for my interview with Martin coming very soon, and you can enjoy listening to his playing here….