Turn on the television on almost any night and you’ll have a choice: rival boy bands, chefs cooking against the clock or couples quickstepping in too much spandex. Talent shows are the bread and butter of our viewing; it’s a format now so familiar that the voice-overs adopt ever more biblical tones to persuade us that cooking/singing/dancing doesn’t get tougher/better/more thrilling than this. The thing is, we all know that it does, when today’s X Factor winner is tomorrow’s headliner at Butlin’s.
Tune into BBC4 on Sunday 18 May and you’ll see a different kind of competition. BBC Young Musician is a biennial reminder that Britain has got more than just talent. What its young performers have is a craft – talent honed into something substantial, through long hours of practice and repetition.
In 1978, the 17-year-old trombonist Michael Hext became the first BBC Young Musician. Officially, the competition was devised to foster and showcase national talent. Unofficially, Britain was struggling to put forward any decent entrants for the prestigious Leeds International Piano Competition; BBC Young Musician was to be a vital training ground and scouting opportunity.
Public awareness in those early years was huge. Broadcast on radio and on one of only three (later four) television channels, it was a national event, whether or not you were a fan of classical music. Nicola Benedetti, the 2004 winner and this year’s Young Musician ambassador, remembers watching it as a child: “I didn’t come from a culture of live music or concert-going,” she says, “so watching [the then 15-year-old violinist] Nicola Loud win the competition was life-changing for me. I remember her standing up there in front of the orchestra. That image alone kept me going through many hours of practice.”
For my generation, it was Guy Johnston in 2000, breaking a string during his ferocious performance of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No 1 – and starting the movement again with, if anything, more abandon. This wasn’t just about technique or even artistry but courage and an athlete’s endurance.
One wonders whether BBC Young Musician – with hundreds of channels clamouring for our attention and a new home on BBC4 (a station that was recently considered for closure) – still commands the same kind of influence. Within the industry, it certainly does. The careers of the competition’s winners speak for themselves. Freddy Kempf, Nicholas Daniel, Natalie Clein and Nicola Benedetti have gone on to international success, rivalled by the finalists Benjamin Grosvenor, Alison Balsom and Thomas Adès. BBC Young Musician is unique internationally in the development it can offer competitors once the event is over, helping them to transition from prodigy to professional. All finalists work initially with the Young Classical Artists Trust, gaining support and advice in the earliest stages of their careers. Many go on to become BBC New Generation Artists, getting the chance to perform with the major BBC ensembles and countless broadcast opportunities.
But what does the competition mean to the public? With music education in schools and regional music centres suffering from curriculum rethinks and budget cuts (and classical coverage reduced to ever-diminishing columns in the national press), does BBC Young Musician still reach the most important audience of all: children growing up with little or no other access to classical music? Will future finalists consist only of middle-class musicians?
The evidence of this year’s semi-finalists is encouraging. They’re a mixed bunch, ranging from the privileged and privately educated to scholarship winners and at least one girl (the 17-year-old Juliana Myslov) for whom choosing to study the harp meant significant financial sacrifices for her family. On whatever channel or radio station BBC Young Musician is broadcast, a crucial aspect of the competition remains unaffected. Internationally, there are hundreds of violin competitions and piano competitions for young performers but very few with the breadth of BBC Young Musician. Part of the award’s potency lies in its unusual juxtapositions, generating finals in which a harpist, a trumpeter and a pianist, or a percussionist, flautist and cellist, go head to head.
Comparisons at the final stages aren’t about technique or virtuosity. They are about musicianship. This is a competition to find a musician, not just a soloist – a necessary distinction in a hothouse culture of competitions churning out identikit technical prodigies. Previous winners are thoughtful and musically wide-ranging; it is significant that at least two competitors – Thomas Adès and Mark Simpson – have opted to pursue careers as composers.
With only two out of five category finals broadcast at time of writing (strings and percussion), it’s too early to pick a front-runner for 2014. It will take something quite special to beat the car-mad 19-year-old violinist William Dutton (he confesses to oversleeping occasionally while all his fellow pupils at the Yehudi Menuhin School are practising), whose performances combine intensity and risk – or Elliott Gaston-Ross, a 15-year-old Lancashire percussionist of astonishing musical sensitivity. Make a Sunday-night date with your sofa for a final that promises serious competition, without a dancing dog in sight.
The BBC Young Musician finals take place at Usher Hall, Edinburgh, at 4pm on Sunday 18 May and will be broadcast live on BBC4