Battle of repertoire

16th May 2016 | Concerts, Musings | 5 comments

BBC Young Musician came to a close last night with the wonderful young cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason being declared the winner after his remarkably mature and thoughtful performance of Shostakovich’s first cello concerto.  His charming, modest response on being asked how he felt about winning will have endeared him to many.

Much as I admired his playing, however, I couldn’t but reflect on the fact that these competitions often come down to a battle of repertoire. I sometimes think the public doesn’t sufficiently realise this. When the requirement is to play a concerto with orchestra, the choice for certain instruments is very limited. For others, the sky’s the limit. How (for example) can one compare the trance-like, purposely meandering saxophone piece ‘Where the Bee dances’ by Michael Nyman with the anger, pain and drama of the Shostakovich cello concerto?

When I listen to recordings on YouTube I often scroll down to see the ‘comments’. Many listeners don’t seem to realise that musicians performing notated pieces can only bring out what’s there in the music. I’m continually surprised by how many people seem to attribute the qualities of the music to the player.  This can work for the player or against them. For example, a pianist playing a Chopin nocturne will be complimented as being ‘deep’ or ‘passionate’. On the other hand, the same person playing something spare and reserved might be described as ‘boring’ or ‘unemotional’ even if they are a player of the highest calibre.

Watching BBC Young Musician last night, I had the feeling that nobody could have played Michael Nyman’s saxophone piece better than Jess Gillam played it. She planned it brilliantly and gave it everything. Yet the piece itself has a deliberately crafted palette of effects, building from a quiet and meandering start to a loud and affirmative finish. As you’d expect from the title, it’s a mesmeric nature-inspired piece. It’s not a human drama of suffering, loneliness, and the determination to endure, as the Shostakovich is. In an ideal world the two would not be compared.

And then there was Richard Strauss’s second horn concerto, a very demanding piece excellently played by Ben Goldscheider. The horn is (I’m told) one of the most difficult of instruments from a technical point of view. The relationship of the mouth and lip to the mouthpiece of the horn is crucial, which is one reason why horn players always adopt a stable position and stay put while they play, because they need very fine lip and breath control. You never see a horn player throwing themselves around like some instrumentalists do. They cannot ‘dance’ or shake their heads tempestuously, no matter how stormy the music. Perhaps that makes them seem uninvolved. At any rate the audience often seems to ‘read’ horn players as slightly remote, even if they are merely focusing.

If comparisons have to be made, how could one create a level playing-field for young musicians? Ideally in such a competition one would stop with the declaration of category winners, or after the semi-final stage with the choice of three different instruments. Then all three finalists could be offered equal promotion and concert opportunities. But as we all know, life ain’t like that and the public loves A Winner.

Could you commission a piece which had to be played by all the finalists no matter what instrument they played? Alas, no, because there is no piece – except for a work consisting of a simple melody line – that would be transferable to every instrumental category. But that would be kind of ridiculous, and wouldn’t allow players to show off what they can do. So how to cope with the fact that some instruments (piano, violin, cello) boast a fabulous repertoire of tear-jerking, titanic concertos while others simply don’t? For it will always be impossible for, say, a percussionist (however good) to melt the audience’s heart as a violinist can with the soaring lines of a great Romantic concerto, the orchestra in gorgeous flow beside them. And naturally it is impossible for juries not to be aware of the audience’s reaction.

I woke up thinking about a handicap system like they have in amateur golf, to allow people of different standards to play against one another without the same people always winning. You want to play Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto in the final? That’ll be a handicap of zero.


  1. Rich

    Surely that’s why they have expert and experienced judges? Who between them know the repertoire and the technical demands of the instruments inside out AND can look and listen beyond the repertoire to assess the musician? Do you think that a jury including Alec Frank-Gemmill would dismiss a horn player because he didn’t move enough? (Also didn’t a percussionist win one year?)

  2. Tarkheena

    I completely agree with what you’re saying and I’ve expressed similar views myself over the years. Particularly in the 2014 grand final when there was (if I’m not mistaken) a world premiere of a percussion piece, a recorder soloist playing an ‘arrangement’ with a chamber orchestra, and Rachmaninov. I remember thinking that it was like giving a Transit van, a Ford Fiesta and a Ferrari to 3 different people and then judging who the best driver was. Not that there’s anything wrong with those programme choices, or Ford Fiestas for that matter.

  3. peterv

    The very idea of a competition is so contrary to every value I hold about music and musical performance that I do not watch these or other contests. It is a great shame that competitions seem to be the only way for young performers to launch their careers.

  4. Debashish Sarma

    I was privileged enough to be a member of the audience at the Barbican that Sunday afternoon. Speaking with some other audience members they were very well aware of the difficulties in comparing performers and the fact that the repertoire chosen for the final will always be a confounding factor.

    I would take issue with whether it would always be impossible for a percussionist to make an emotional impact in the same way as a pianist, violinist or cellist. There is a fundamental question as to whether audiences are moved by the intrinsic musical qualities of Romantic concertos or whether it is simply because they are accustomed to them. Pieces such as MacMillan’s Veni, veni Emmanuel have entered the repertory in part because of their spiritual as well as emotional content.

    The successes of recorder players Charlotte Barbour-Condini and Sophie Westbrooke, and, this year, the saxophonist Jess Gillam, presents an opportunity for composers. Is it possible to write a virtuosic, emotionally engaging concerto that does not rely on Romantic ideas? It may be difficult to do but hopefully it is a risk worth taking.

    • Susan Tomes

      Thank you Debashish for these thoughtful and constructive comments. You are right to remind us that any good musician can make an emotional impact on the audience. But let us hope that some composers will rise to the challenge of providing more interesting repertoire for some of the instruments which are relatively neglected.


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