In these weird times, there's nothing more inspiring and encouraging than encountering gifted young musicians, because they give us hope for the future. These teenagers, born in the 21st century, possess the same communicative, expressive instinct and passion that has always driven music-making through the centuries, through different vogues, epochs and lands. The thread continues. It's very much with us. And it's not going away.
Over the past few years I've been privileged to be on the jury panel for a biennial international music competition at Whitgift School in Croydon. The Whitgift International Music Competition is open to potential students from all over the world and the winners get a cash prize and/or a full scholarship to the school (perhaps the sole drawback is that it's a school and competition only for boys). Past winners, including some remarkable young violinists from Moldova, have gone on to study at various London music colleges and they are now reaching the stage at which I'm going to start looking out for them in much bigger competitions and concert halls. Until this year, the focus was on strings, but this time we opened it up to wind and brass - with inspiring results.
It's been an intense week. With so many gifted teenagers, how on earth do you "rank" them? Occasionally you do find someone who steps on to a stage and simply belongs there, connects with the listeners and knows how to make music from the heart and gut. Step forward, clarinettist Marian Bozhidarov from Bulgaria, and trumpeter Albert Baciu, from Moldova: two splendid young musicians with incipient star quality whose progress I'm looking forward enormously to following. They won joint first prize in the senior wind and brass category.
Our string players were more difficult to choose from, because each was so superb, yet in a totally individual way. Sometimes a performance is almost note-perfect, yet doesn't entirely connect with the listener on a musical level; other times there are insecurities and slips, yet you can be moved almost to tears by the most beautiful, natural and heartfelt phrasing, and you suspect that with further study and polish that person has extraordinary potential; and in other cases you suspect that the candidate's choice of repertoire doesn't necessarily show their strengths to best effect, yet that's all there is to go on. It's particularly complex when you know your jury's choices will change someone's life, especially if they choose to take up the scholarship they are offered from the other side of Europe or, in some cases, the world.
Our first prize in the senior strings went to the 17-year-old violinist Krystof Kohout from the Czech Republic, second to Chiu Chun John Lui from Hong Kong and third to Joel David Munday from Exeter (also both violinists). In the junior section, the winner was the violist Junyi Li, with splendid performances from Mark Reinski of London (playing the almost impossible Concerto Pathétique by Ernst) taking second prize and Iohan Coman from Romania in third place. But everyone gave performances that were gorgeous in their own ways - for instance, I won't forget in a hurry the Bartók Romanian Dances as played by Arsim Gashi of Kosovo. It was an absolute joy to listen to them.
In the end, I suspect some of these boys will make it no matter what happens, prize or none, because they have the sheer fire in the belly to do so. Technique can be taught; discipline can be taught to some; but there's that something else that has to be present from the start and can't be imparted...
Here's a video from 2012 about Whitgift's first Moldovan scholarship winner, Grig Cuciuc, who five years on is now finishing his stint at the Royal College of Music. It shows some of the challenges, chances and ambitions that scholarships such as Whitgift's and subsequently the one he won from Edelweiss can support.