BBC Young Musician 2022 reaches its climax tonight when the winners of five categories – strings, wind, brass, percussion and piano – compete to be crowned ‘BBC Young Musician of the Year’. The competition is on BBC4 at 7pm.
I think if it were up to me, I’d stop at the point where I had five winners of different instrumental categories. I’d make sure they all had concerts, mentoring, whatever they felt they needed at that stage. Because there’s always something faintly absurd about trying to find ‘the best’ from such an array of talent. Best at what? Mastering the instrument, communicating with the audience, inventive programming? The most charismatic? The most touching?
It’s a bit like trying to adjudicate between five kinds of fruit: apple, blueberry, watermelon, banana, strawberry. Which is ‘best’? It depends on what you’re after – something with crunch and tang, something tiny and sweet, something filling, something refreshing? What seems best on one occasion may not be best on another.
I have been watching BBC Young Musician for years and, although occasionally there’s a shining star, I’ve often been left feeling that ‘the winner’ could just as well have been one of the others. Yes, so-and-so was brilliant, but what about the others, admirable in different ways, some of which happened to appeal more to me?
Having experience of being on juries, I have some insight into why competitions persevere with the ‘winner takes all’ formula. I can recall several occasions in international competitions where the organiser began by imploring the jury to come up with A Winner. There had been a spate of competitions which reached the end with the dreaded result ‘First Prize not awarded’. The jury didn’t feel that anyone had met the international standards they were looking for. So they withheld the first prize.
But organisers also have their sponsors to think about. Sponsors hate it when a first prize is not awarded. In fact, they may threaten to withdraw their money if there isn’t a winner. Sponsors want to be associated with success. They don’t want to feel they’re wasting money on a competition which ‘falls short of international standards’. So the organisers begged us: whatever the standard that particular year, could we please simply award the first prize to whoever got the highest marks? Obviously this raises lots of questions, to which there are no perfect answers.