Seventeen-year-old pianist Martin James Bartlett, the eventual winner of the competition. Photo: BBC
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Pluck and courage: BBC Young Musician 2014

BBC Young Musician is a biennial reminder that Britain has got more than just talent. What its young performers have is a craft.

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

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, India's worst nightmare?

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That's the Way It Crumbles: Matthew Engel explores Americanisms

The author is especially vexed by the barbarous locution “wake-up call”.

Perhaps, with the ascension of Ruth Davidson to political superstardom and the glorification of Sir Walter Scott on current Scottish banknotes (south of the border, we’re going for Jane Austen on our tenners), we will all revisit Ivanhoe. The story, you’ll recall, is set during the reign of the Lionheart King, who is away on crusade business, killing Muslims by the thousand. Like the good Christian monarch he is.

Scott’s narrative has a prelude. A Saxon swineherd, Gurth, is sitting on a decayed Druid stone as his pigs root in the dirt. Along comes his mate Wamba, a jester. The two serfs chat. How is it, Gurth wonders, that “swine” when it reaches the high tables of their masters is “pork” (Fr porc); cow ­becomes “beef” (Fr boeuf); and sheep turns into “mutton” (Fr mouton)?

The reason, Wamba explains (no fool he), is 1066. Four generations have passed but the Normans are still running things. They have normanised English – and they eat high on the hog. How did pig become pork? In the same way as “minced beef sandwich”, in my day, became Big Mac.

Ivanhoe should be the Brexiteers’ bible. Its message is that throwing off the Norman Yoke is necessary before Britain can be Britain again. What’s the difference between Normandy and Europa? Just 900 or so years. Scott makes a larger point. Common language, closely examined, reflects where real power lies. More than that, it enforces that power – softly but subversively, often in ways we don’t notice. That’s what makes it dangerous.

We’ve thrown off the Norman Yoke – but it remains, faintly throbbing, in the archaeology of our language. Why do we call the place “parliament” and not “speak house”? Is Gordon Ramsay a chef or a cook? Do the words evoke different kinds of society?

Matthew Engel is a journalist at the end of four decades of deadline-driven, high-quality writing. He is now at that stage of life when one thinks about it all – in his case, the millions of words he has tapped out. What historical meaning was ingrained in those words? It is, he concludes, not the European Union but America that we should be fearful of.

The first half of his book is a survey of the historical ebbs and flows of national dialect across the Atlantic. In the 18th century the linguistic tide flowed west from the UK to the US. When the 20th century turned, it was the age of “Mid-Atlantic”. Now, it’s all one-way. We talk, think and probably dream American. It’s semantic colonialism. The blurb (manifestly written by Engel himself) makes the point succinctly:

Are we tired of being asked to take the elevator, sick of being offered fries and told about the latest movie? Yeah. Have we noticed the sly interpolation of Americanisms into our everyday speech? It’s a no-brainer.

One of the charms of this book is Engel hunting down his prey like a linguistic witchfinder-general. He is especially vexed by the barbarous locution “wake-up call”. The first use he finds is “in an ice hockey ­report in the New York Times in 1975”. Horribile dictu. “By the first four years of the 21st century the Guardian was reporting wake-up calls – some real, most metaphorical – two and a half times a week.” The Guardian! What more proof were needed that there is something rotten in the state of the English language?

Another bee in Engel’s bonnet is the compound “from the get-go”. He tracks it down to a 1958 Hank Mobley tune called “Git-Go Blues”. And where is that putrid locution now? Michael Gove, then Britain’s education secretary, used it in a 2010 interview on Radio 4. Unclean! Unclean!

Having completed his historical survey, and compiled a voluminous dictionary of Americanisms, Engel gets down to business. What does (Americanism alert!) the takeover mean?

Is it simply that we are scooping up loan words, as the English language always has done? We love Babel; revel in it. Ponder a recent headline in the online Independent: “Has Scandi-noir become too hygge for its own good?” The wonderful thing about the English language is its sponge-like ability to absorb, use and discard un-English verbiage and still be vitally itself. Or is this Americanisation what Orwell describes in Nineteen Eighty-Four as “Newspeak”? Totalitarian powers routinely control independent thinking – and resistance to their power – by programmatic impoverishment of language. Engel has come round to believing the latter. Big time.

In its last pages, the book gets mad as hell on the subject. Forget Europe. Britain, and young Britain in particular, has handed over “control of its culture and vocabulary to Washington, New York and Los Angeles”. It is, Engel argues, “self-imposed serfdom”:

A country that outsources the development of its language – the language it developed over hundreds of years – is a nation that has lost the will to live.

Britain in 2017AD is, to borrow an Americanism, “brainwashed”, and doesn’t know it or, worse, doesn’t care. How was American slavery enforced? Not only with the whip and chain but by taking away the slaves’ native language. It works.

Recall the front-page headlines of 9 June. “Theresa on ropes”, shouted the Daily Mail. She was “hung out to dry”, said the London Evening Standard. “Stormin’ Corbyn”, proclaimed the Metro. These are manifest Americanisms, from the metaphor “hanging out to dry” to the use of “Stormin’” – the epithet applied to Norman Schwarzkopf, the victorious US Gulf War commander of Operation Desert Storm.

These headlines on Theresa May’s failure fit the bill. Her campaign was framed, by others, as American presidential, not English prime ministerial. But the lady herself is pure Jane Austen: a vicar’s daughter whose naughtiest act was to run through a field of wheat. She simply couldn’t do the “hail to the chief” stuff. Boris, the bookies’ odds predict, will show her how that presidential “stuff” should be “strut”. He was, of course, born American.

Engel’s book, short-tempered but consistently witty, does a useful thing. It makes us listen to what is coming out of our mouths and think seriously about it. Have a nice day.

John Sutherland’s “How Good Is Your Grammar?” is published by Short Books

That’s the Way It Crumbles: the American Conquest of English
Matthew Engel
Profile Books, 279pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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