The BBC’s biennial Young Musician competition reached its thrilling climax in an absorbing, nail-biting and inspirational final concert at London’s Barbican yesterday afternoon. In the nearly 40 years since it was founded, the prestigious competition to find the nation’s top young classical talent has become something of a national treasure. The programme regularly provokes debate about child prodigies, hot-housing of talented children, private education and specialist music schools, but fundamentally the competition emphasises the joy and pleasure that music brings to those who play it, engage in it and listen to it. The final was very much a celebration of shared music making, the Barbican Hall abuzz with a lovely positive atmosphere.

In the old days, when I watched the programme avidly as a teenage piano student, it was all rather wooden, cringeworthy and geeky. In recent years, the programme has had a glitzy makeover and now bears more than a passing resemblance to shows like Britian’s Got Talent and The Voice, though the format remains the same. And in a neat piece of continuity, Clemency Burton-Hill, daughter of the competition's co-creator Humphrey Burton, is presenter of the current competition’s television coverage and the final concert.

This year’s finalists were French horn player Ben Goldscheider (18), saxophonist Jess Gillam (17) and cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason (17). The range of instruments and repertoire of course begs the question of how one chooses between one young musician and another because each instrument, and the selected repertoire, presents its own unique technical, artistic and emotional challenges. At this stage of the competition, technical mastery of one’s instrument is a given, and in the end, the judgement comes down to aspects such as communication, stage presence and musicality. All three young musicians displayed these qualities in spades in their individual performances.

It is hard to go first, and I felt Ben Goldscheider was slightly disadvantaged by this. He was also clearly quite nervous and the French horn does not lend itself to much movement on stage. Thus, while his playing of Richard Strauss’ Horn Concerto no. 2 in E flat major displayed concentration, fine intonation and a clear tone, at times it felt rather static with less scope for communication. 

Jess Gillam, a 2014 finalist and recipient of the BBC Walter Todds Bursary for showing exceptional promise, bounded onto the stage and mesmerized in silver sequined leggings and Michael Nyman’s Where the Bee Dances. Her stage presence is charismatic, infectiously extrovert, and highly expressive as is her sound which ranged from vibrantly coloured and imaginative to haunting and delicate. She was assured and comfortable on stage, interacting enthusiastically with the orchestra and lifting the sound out of her instrument and into the audience.

Like Jess, cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason opted for less traditional concert attire. He looked smart but relaxed in an open-necked shirt and waistcoat, but from his first notes of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto no. 1 in E flat major he was authoritative, thoughtful and totally committed. This music is a sophisticated choice for a teenager and Sheku rose to the technical and emotional challenges presented by Shostakovich’s music with an impressive maturity and musical insight. His modesty, evident throughout the competition, allowed him to stand back from the music and the resulting performance was intense and highly-charged.

While the jury were deliberating we were treated to a lively and witty performance of the first movement of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 3 by the 2014 winner, pianist Martin James Bartlett.

There can be only one winner in such competitions and this year’s prize was awarded to Sheku Kanneh-Mason. Ultimately, of course, all three finalists are winners, and they all have potential to be huge role models for a younger generation. Ben, Jess and Sheku are enormously talented, down-to-earth and likeable, and one hopes that they are given the opportunity to inspire young people from all walks of life to engage with and explore classical music.


(Thanks to Rebecca Singerman-Knight who accompanied me to the final and who contributed to this review.)