sat 13/07/2024

BBC Young Musician 2016 | reviews, news & interviews

BBC Young Musician 2016

BBC Young Musician 2016

Cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason triumphs in a final reaching remarkable standards

Sheku Kanneh-Mason, winner of BBC Young Musician 2016, with Mark Wigglesworth and the BBC Symphony OrchestraBBC/Mark Allen

What makes a musical performance? The final of Young Musician 2016 presented five judges with this philosophical teaser to ponder. For the previous 90 minutes three contestants with three radically contrasting styles of delivery cleared every bar in front of them, with the help of Mark Wigglesworth and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Giving the nod to one meant the elbow for the others.

In the end it could hardly be disputed that cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, a young musician of extraordinary charisma, was a deserving winner.

Ben Goldscheider went first with Strauss’s Second Horn Concerto, which Strauss composed in the depths of war 60 years after his first, choosing to ignore the carnage of the present in favour of romantic nostalgia. The horn is at a physical disadvantage as a flashy solo instrument. The curves are gorgeous to look at, but the soloist must remain stock still so as not to endanger the embouchure. Goldscheider, decked in formal tails like the reincarnation of Dennis Brain, produced a lordly swooning tone in a sinuous work of immense difficulty – on Facebook afterwards one top French horn professional referred to it as a fiendish first violin part.

There’s nothing this overwhelming for saxophone, and horn concertos simply don't go on as long

The Barbican’s matt acoustic worked less in his favour than it did for the cut-through sonority of Jess Gillam’s saxophone. Her iris-attack outfit of brightly hued blouson and spangled Bacofoil leggings certainly added to the natural vibrancy of her bubbly, infectious stage presence, but in the first few notes of Michael Nyman’s Where the Bees Dance she established that she could also communicate in the tenderest whisper. This was the performance of a nascent rock star, whose winning kinetic aura will gain a lot of fans for her and for the instrument.

But how to compare Nyman with Shostakovich, whose haunting First Cello Concerto was delivered by Sheku Kanneh-Mason with a searing intensity that barely makes sense in one so young? Something happens to this chilled young man when he walks through a pass door and transforms into a magus able to communicate depths. It could be contended that the fretful and impacted cadenza first performed by Rostropovich conferred an advantage – there’s nothing this overwhelming in the saxophone repertoire, and horn concertos simply don't go on as long.

While the 2014 winner Martin James Bartlett performed a riveting series of Prokofievian pirouettes, the judges retired to work out how to fit Rizla paper between the three contestants. Once they re-emerged, nothing became this competition like the speech given by chairman of the judges, composer Dobrinka Tabakova. She called on the audience – in the hall and at home – to support all three finalists, because they represent standards of attainment that sharply rebuke our prevailing culture’s preference for what she called “crazy mediocrity”. That got a round of applause shot through with real feeling.

Other talent contests are available on other channels: BBC One’s much debated US import The Voice and ITV’s interminable X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent (on which Kanneh-Mason has performed with his siblings). The winners very often vanish without trace. Young Musician’s alumni from its first years include oboeist Nicholas Daniel, clarinettist Emma Johnson, horn player David Pyatt, pianist Freddy Kempf and cellist Natalie Clein, whose subsequent careers validate the competition's existence. And then of course there’s Nicola Benedetti (pictured above with the finalists), one of a welcome wealth of female contributors to this year’s broadcasts. Next time round BBC Young Musician will be 40 years old. This competition still means a lot – to the winners, and to all who value real talent.


I thought it would be a very interesting final because it was a close battle between the cellist and saxophonist. My money was in fact on the saxophonist based on her superb earlier rounds, and she played brilliantly in the finals too, but the piece was difficult to warm to, unlike the Shostakovich which grips you rhythmically and emotionally from the opening bars. It's not fair that the final judgement is based on the concertos, and I do think that for the first time a joint first prize ought to have been awarded, and that this option could be in place, as it is in other renowned competitions, even if it means splitting the prize money and performance opportunities. I really liked the way the head of the jury spoke at the end. Can we have more real thinkers like her actually presenting these programmes please? I feel patronised beyond belief by the BBC for the presenters they choose. I'm sure they are very nice people but I would actually like to be mentally stimulated and stirred.

How sad that the Young Musician competition is only available on the less mainstream BBC 4 . Please BBC lets have it back mainstream.

Last night provided such magnificent performances. The winner was indeed exceptional,but the performance on the saxophone was more than exceptional in its technical skill. More than that it was ecstatic, joyous and life affirming -wonderful. Hers was the performance that will be remembered.

Marvellous talent, wonderful to watch and hear. But I was sad about the 'mediocrity' comment of one of the judges. Talent like that isn't given to all of us. Thousands of young people do their best, will become good amateurs in whatever field or genre of music they relate to. Please don't call all our hard-working, conscientious young people 'mediocrities', just because they can't achieve such brilliance.

For those who try - I think that comment on mediocrity was a general observation about the unwillingness to work hard for something worthwhile and how these days cultural enrichment is often put on the backburner now for more trite entertainment and distraction. For example, I'm a school teacher and none of my classes knew about this competition final when I asked them this week. They did, however, know about the Eurovision and the Queen's birthday celebrations. BBC Young Musician used to be on BBC 1/2 and now it's on BBC 4 and the producers stuff it with crass lighting and sound effects as if the music and musicians and excellent commentary (for the most part) can't speak for themselves.

I entirely agree with the "mediocrity" comments of the chairman of the judging panel - however the commentators above who felt it might refer to other classical musicians (wilfully?) misunderstood her. The comments referred to tripe like Eurovision. Incidentally they could also have referred to the appallingly banal presenters who oohed and aahed and gushed sycophantically about everything. Can we have a more serious approach next year? And put it back onto BBC2 - without those corny smiley presenters!

I agree. Give us better presenters please. Beauty is subtle. A beautiful mind is a beautiful face. 

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