A family, a home, a circle of friends, a community: the BBC tried very, very hard to call its Young Musician of the Year competition anything but that – a competition. There was so much talk of mentoring, of help, of gifting exposure, that you could be forgiven for forgetting that none of the 22 soloists featured in the competition’s 40th anniversary concert Prom – all past young musician finalists or winners – got here by chance, or because they were lucky enough to be recognised to join this back-slapping club of the musical elite.

Colin Currie, Owen Gunnell, Adrian Spillett and Sam Walton © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Colin Currie, Owen Gunnell, Adrian Spillett and Sam Walton
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

They got here by working hard and enduring round after round, both televised and in small regional halls around the country. They displayed the grit and determination to succeed at whatever cost – and, when we’re talking children tackling some of the world’s hardest repertoire, what a cost – and, somehow, coming out unscathed and with a love of music untarnished.

These are not X-Factor style overnight sensations: these are, as is the case with the pianist Lauren Zhang, this year’s phenomenal 16-year-old winner, or violinist Jennifer Pike, who took the title aged just 12 years, prodigious musicians. Winning the competition’s crown is just step one in a cut-throat industry: what is remarkable is how many have gone on to such roaring success, and this is a sign of the strength of the BBC's programme... as the audience was constantly reminded. Nicola Benedetti, quite literally the poster girl for the competition (she has recently been named its ambassador), delighted in Ravel’s Tzigane – a composed, if not dazzling performance – but it was the chamber ensembles of competitors, sometimes spanning across four decades of winners and often playing new commissions or arrangements, that were the most engaging and exciting.

Nicola Benedetti © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Nicola Benedetti
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Iain Farrington’s Gerswinicity, a wonderfully devised fantasia on five Gershwin songs showcasing the dexterity of Emma Johnson (clarinet), Alexander Bone (saxophone), Alexandra Ridout (trumpet), Jess Gillam (saxophone) and David Childs (oboe), was the night's real triumph: the crowds clapped wildly along to Fascinating Rhythm (Bone), then leant forward, hushed, utterly transfixed by Johnson’s mesmerising Embraceable You – before Gillam brought back the funk in Oh, Lady Be Good. Ridout and Bone stood apart as winners of the BBC Young Jazz Musician competition, instead of its classical sister, but were of the same mould: technically polished and utterly captivating.

Farrington’s arrangement of Saint-Saens’s The Carnival of the Animals for four pianists plus orchestra gave the soloists (Zhang, Lara Melda, Freddy Kampf and Martin James Bartlett) plenty of chance to clown around, which some took to less clumsily than others, but all with the same panache and clear enjoyment in music making. Giovanni Sollima’s Violoncelles vibrez! was beautifully played, if slightly underwhelming in the Albert Hall’s vast acoustic. The drumming quartet, headed by Colin Currie, the only ever percussionist ever to win Young Musician, had the opposite problem; Reich’s Drumming – Part 1 needs a much drier sound for the punching cross-rhythms to do the work justice.

Jennifer Pike, Ben Goldscheider, Nicholas Daniel and Michael Collins © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Jennifer Pike, Ben Goldscheider, Nicholas Daniel and Michael Collins
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

David Bruce’s Sidechaining, written for Jennifer Pike, Nicholas Daniel, Michael Collins and Ben Goldscheider, was also less successful: busy and muddy, much of the soloists’ assuredly brilliant playing was lost in the mess, the only real moments of pleasure being those in which the quartet was allowed to play uninterrupted by the BBC Concert Orchestra.

The concert went on far too long: in the self-congratulatory atmosphere that overwhelmed the concert, the orchestra was given its own moment to shine, which felt unnecessary; James MacMillan’s Brittania is an interesting piece, but it was neither needed nor wanted here. Similarly, Mussorgsky’s Great Gate of Kiev from Pictures of an Exhibition – orchestrated by Proms founder Sir Henry Wood – was programmed nominally to show off this years' category finalists, but they were lost in the cacophony.

It was wonderful to see such joy in music-making from young performers, and natural camaraderie between musicians but the event did not need to be as vapidly inflated as it was. 

***11