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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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era