Musical Youth: Rickmansworth Young Musician of the Year

19th June 2009

Jill Glenn meets some of the Rickmansworth Young Musician of the Year 2009 competition finalists

In May, for three unexpectedly lovely evenings, I sat transfixed as a succession of children and teenagers – entrants into the Rickmansworth Young Musician of the Year 2009 competition – demonstrated their skill, musicianship and love of their instrument. From the start (pianist Chloe Ho, with a Schubert Impromptu) to the finish (James Herring, also a pianist, playing a Chopin Waltz), the whole thing was a revelation. It made me very glad to be alive.

I knew of the competition, of course. Organised by the Rotary Club of Rickmansworth and Three Rivers Music Society, it has become very well-established over the last 27 years. I’d not been to the Final, though, let alone the heats, and I had no idea of the pleasure to be had: a dozen or so performers each evening, a brief adjudication with thoughtful, helpful comments, and, on the last night, the selection of the eight finalists.

I raise my hat to the adjudicators, Mark Smith and Greg Mitchell, for their ability to be both positive and critical (always ending on a high note), and for the difficult decisions they had to make. How can you select from such a range of instruments, such a diversity of pieces?

Piano, voice, violin and ‘cello dominated, but double bass, clarinet, flute, trumpet, recorder, horn, sax and alto sax all made an appearance too. And lovely pieces of music, cleverly chosen to showcase each performer's virtuosity, and often by composers whose names I didn’t even know: Berbiguier, Groviez, Heller, Holcombe. Some of the competitors had the score with them; most (including almost all the eventual finalists) played from memory.

Teenagers don’t, in general, get good press – so apart from the sheer pleasure in hearing such beautiful, interesting music so well played, it was delightful to see evidence of youngsters working hard, taking something seriously and finding joy in what they do. My own young flirtation with the clarinet foundered on a fundamental lack of enthusiasm for putting in the hours necessary. Do these youngsters, I wonder, have to be persuaded to practise? No, they say, plainly. No, they don’t need to be told to practise. That’s obvious, really. You couldn’t become this accomplished if your parents had to apply thumbscrews to get you to your instrument.

Most are having a highly musical education, often requiring a level of sacrifice and dedication that many an adult would find hard to endure. Fifteen-year old pianist Han Seul Lee, whose delivery of Liszt’s Transcendental Etude No. 10 won her a place in the final, and was described by the adjudicators as having “great technical command but showing passion and turbulence”, is a pupil at the Purcell School in Bushey. She first left her family behind in South Korea four years ago, having begun to play only four years before that. No-one in her family is musical. It must take, I suggest, great courage to follow that star. She shrugs, a little embarrassed. Music is what she does.

Cellist Indira Grier, 14, is a pupil at Bentley Wood High School – but spends each Saturday at the Junior Department of the Royal Academy of Music, where she has studied since she was eight, along with her elder sister, Savitri, a violinist, who won the Rickmansworth Young Musician of the Year title in 2007. Like Han Seul Lee – indeed, like most of the finalists to whom I spoke – Indira plans a career in music. Only pianist Emma Abell, 14, gave a firm no when I asked if music would feature in her future career plans.

Along with the piano, Emma also plays ‘cello and guitar. Her family isn’t musical (her mother laughed at the very thought), so clearly there’s no real pattern here. Edward Philips, trumpeter, at 18 the oldest finalist and also the only boy, has been steeped in music all his life. His elder brother and two elder sisters both studied at the Royal Academy of Music; Edward is following in their footsteps this autumn when he leaves Harrow School. He plays piano too, but also finds time for sport; he enjoys squash, and played rugby until he dislocated his shoulder and thought it might not help his future musical plans.
It’s good to know that most of these musical youngsters also have room for other hobbies: Indira likes to read and paint, and goes riding. Emma rides too, and enjoys swimming and cross country. Full, busy, creative lives. I envy them.

Along with schoolwork and ordinary teenage habits, though, they all have heart-stopping talent. It was a privilege to hear them play. Some of these competitors betrayed their nerves; some were incredibly composed – but there was, as the adjudicators put it, “not one below a high standard.”

The Young Musician of the Year 2009 Competition Final takes place on Saturday 4 July at 7pm in St Mary’s Church, Rickmansworth.
Tickets (adults £10, students £5) are available on the door from 6.15 pm.

The full list of finalists is:
Emma Abell, pianist; Anny Chen: violinist; Indira Grier, cellist; Katie Kwong: violinist; Cheo Seo Lee: pianist; Han Seul Lee: pianist; Edward Philips: trumpeter; Deni Teo: cellist.

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