Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 13 March 2016 (review held until after BBC4 broadcast on 7 May)
Andrew Woolcock (percussion), Ben Goldscheider (horn), Sheku Kanneh-Mason (cello), Jess Gillam (saxophone), Jackie Campbell (piano)
Three teenagers will compete for the title of BBC Young Musician of the Year 2016 on Sunday May 15 at the Barbican in London. In no significant order, they are saxophonist Jess Gillam, 17, from Cumbria; horn player Ben Goldscheider, 18, from Hertfordshire; and cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, 16, from Nottinghamshire.
They emerged from the Cardiff semi-finals in March following a week of category heats for keyboard, woodwind, percussion, brass, and strings. And emerged unscathed, to judge by their playing in these semis, which once again and perhaps inevitably guaranteed that the victors would be a trio among equals. The two unlucky semi-finalists were percussionist Andrew Woolcock, 16, from Lancashire; and pianist Jackie Campbell, 15, from Salford.
The more one thinks about this event the stronger is the feeling that not only is the standard of playing being taken into account but also, as something that might tip the scales, the musician’s platform manner. For a 15-year-old, Campbell’s confidence was astonishing. Refusing to straddle musical history, he went for contemporary light (Ligeti, Debussy) and shade (Scriabin and Rachmaninov), all of it virtuosic. But though he was undaunted musically, on stage he seemed disengaged and, before an irrepressible audience shouting for its own, that can seem like a fault. Nonsensical, really; but it’s in the nature of these musical jousts. Someone has to win and someone has to lose. Woolcock didn’t deserve to lose. A percussionist’s programme of music by obscure composers can resemble, when their names are enunciated, the sounds being made, in this case Gerassimez and Muramatsu – gerassimezmuramatsu (say it loud and fast). For three works, Woolcock tripped from, respectively, unaccompanied sticks to snare drum to marimba to vibraphone in a bravura display, the more unbelievable for the fact that he began playing percussion less than three years ago. But with percussionists, and again unfairly, it’s the musician not the music that counts; in fact, the music can often count against. His accompanist was Will Bracken.
A distinguished musican in the audience told me at the interval that the two contestants in the second half – Campbell and Gillam – would have to go some if they were to overcome the pre-intermission trio of Woolcock, Goldscheider and Kanneh-Mason. He was almost right. But he hadn’t bargained for the elfin Jess Gillam, a young woman so full of music that her instrument seemed like some talisman belonging nowhere but in her hands. The way she swayed and played was beguiling, her boots and green tights raising the faintly amusing image of a spectre from the arboreal world. On soprano saxophone for Itturalde’s Pequeña Czarda, the image was even more startling when the piece moved into friss tempo as though mischievously trying to get away from her. She was having none of it. Calm descended for Andy Scott’s Fujiko, when she was joined by pianist Steve Lodder, who stayed on keyboards, with bassist Andee Price, for the first movement of Phil Woods’s alto sax Sonata. The last seemed perilously close to jazz, not surprising as Woods was a jazz musician. So is Lodder. Not that the issue worried the ever-smiling daughter of Sylvanus, whose platform personality was the positive of Campbell’s negative. Should it count? Probably not, but in her case it was related to musicianship, so it will always be an advantage, a plus. Maybe the combination will win her the title.
For imperial command of instrument, it was difficult to better Goldscheider. So catch-as-catch-can is conductor-composer Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Concert Étude for French horn that it’s really music posing as artful obstacle course, which Goldscheider negotiated with little difficulty. The Romance of Saint-Saens was more leisurely and lengthily-phrased, perhaps essential after the scurrying and exploratory opener but not a great piece in its own right. For the instrument in hunting mode, Goldscheider chose the third movement of York Bowen’s Sonata – lyrical, too, though in the faster sections scampering accompanist Daniel King Smith was a possibly reluctant thunder-stealer. What do horn players of Goldscheider’s calibre do? He’s already performed as a member of the Philharmonia Orchestra but the cut of his jib marks him out as a soloist, and a spectacular one at that. He’ll take some beating.
So will the cellist Kanneh-Mason. He was good, if allowing a little coarseness to mar his dexterity and feeling in the third movement of Cassadó’s Suite for Cello. The ‘Élegie’ from Rachmaninov’s Morceaux de Fantaisie was equally passionate and more disciplined, the second movement of Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata an excuse for angry, slashing vigour. Maybe he and his advisers will be looking for finals night music that also shows his instrument in more elegant guise and allows him to express a cooler temperament. His accompanist was Isata Kanneh-Mason.
In fairness to the competition, every sort of instrument gets a fair hearing but since it started in 1978 (winner Michael Hext, trombone), the winners’ top three tally has been violin (five), piano (four) and cello (three). There’ve been two trombone winners, two clarinet (one of them Emma Johnson in 1984), one oboe, one percussion and one horn. Whither trumpet, double-bass, harp, tuba, viola, bassoon and, especially, flute? Who knows? Percussionists, for example, who pop out first from a mixed bag, as Woolcock did here with such authority, seem to make a noisy claim for attention and – not to make too fine a point – a thunderous comment on the injustice of comparing one instrument with another in unseemly gladiatorial combat. The winner, of course, in the judges’ opinion, will be better at performing on his or her instrument than the losers were on theirs. Well, that’s the theory.
The BBC Young Musician 2016 Final will be broadcast on Sunday 15 May at 7pm on BBC Four and 7:30pm on BBC Radio 3.
Header photo: BBC 4 Young Musician 2016 presenters Clemency Burton-Hill and Alison Balsom: all images credit BBC.