Schools were closed for Easter and family television shows were in high demand. The equation certainly favoured the first BBC Young Musician of the Year, which came to the small screen in 1978 and instantly hooked an audience of millions. ‘I think you’re going to be startled by the quality of the musical talent that’s revealed,’ suggested the competition’s presenter and co-founder. Humphrey Burton’s prediction hit the bull’s-eye dead centre.

Advertisement

I remember watching each of the instrument category finals and the concerto finale with chums on a schools orchestra course. We gathered round the box, jeered when we felt the jury had picked the wrong winner and suspended green-eyed envy to cheer those outrageous talents who contested the ultimate prize. Here was a first in television history: a programme that inspired instrument-learning school kids to practise their scales and arpeggios.

More than three decades after its launch, BBC Young Musician of the Year stands as a national institution. Much has changed since the first competition, from frocks, suits and hairdos to the style of television presentation. But its core business – that of discovering excellent young artists and encouraging others to follow their lead –has held constant. Everyone will have favourite memories of the programme from the past 30-plus years, so we asked Humphrey Burton for his top ten moments from the competition. What was it about these performances that turned them into the stuff of Young Musician legend?

Find out more about BBC Young Musician here.

Caroline Dale cello, 1978

Caroline Dale is fondly remembered as the competition’s first string category winner. A cellist whose subsequent career included solo cello soundtrack credits for Truly, Madly, Deeply and backing band dates with Oasis, flew the flag for her native Middlesbrough in the 1978 final with an impassioned reading of part of Elgar’s Cello Concerto.

‘She was only 13 at the time of the final,’ recalls Burton. ‘Her teacher thought it would be too arduous for her to play all three movements so she only played two. Had she performed the whole thing, I believe she would have won the title. That said, just consider the quality of the pianists in that opening year. Stephen Hough, Paul Coker and Barry Douglas were the incredible talents to be revealed on one evening!’

2. Michael Hext trombone, 1978

It would be hard to imagine a stronger line-up of finalists for the first BBC Young Musician of the Year. Clarinettist Michael Collins and 17-year-old trombonist Michael Hext joined Stephen Hough and Caroline Dale for the competition’s televised showdown, with piano lion Stephen Hough the favourite. ‘Winning the whole thing was a huge shock!’ Hext remembers. ‘I was happy to win the brass category and thought it was the most I could expect given the quality of the other finalists. I was very pleased to have gone that far.’

After winning that inaugural contest, Hext progressed through college to become principal trombone with the London Philharmonic and Royal Opera House orchestras. ‘Many people who perhaps knew little about classical music watched and enjoyed the programme,’ he notes. ‘It was fantastic to be recognised in the street. I loved the fame while it lasted!’

Read all Stephen Hough reviews

3. Naomi Atherton horn, 1984

A nation held its breath when darkness descended on Naomi Atherton during the 1984 Young Musician brass final.
The horn player, now a member of Sheffield-based Ensemble 360 and specialist chamber musician, remembers that she was in the middle of Paul Dukas’s tricky Villanelle at the time the television lights failed. ‘It suddenly went much darker. But I could see perfectly well by the house lights and just kept going. It didn’t faze me, although when I saw it on telly, it looked as if I’d been plunged into pitch darkness.

‘The adjudicators mentioned it, but I didn’t think it was that dramatic. I could still see my music and that was all I needed!
I noticed recently that my dad still has a video tape of the final. I’d love my kids to see me and I’m sure that my daughter, who’s older now than I was then, would love to see mum with a bad perm!’

4. Emma Johnson clarinet, 1984

Even Bernhard Henrik Crusell’s most fervent admirers would agree that his music had never moved a massive audience, measurable in millions, before Emma Johnson’s Young Musician victory. The 18-year-old from Orpington seized the 1984 crown with a barnstorming performance of the Scandinavian composer’s Clarinet Concerto No. 2 in F minor, the technical command and sheer passion of her performance winning the hearts of viewers throughout the land.

‘It’s no good being able to play wonderfully in your bedroom and not on stage,’ Johnson reflects. ‘BBC Young Musician of the Year gave me so much invaluable performing experience at just the right time. That helped me forge a path as a soloist rather than as an orchestral player, a career virtually unknown to clarinettists when I entered the competition. It was a great boon for a young musician to be offered so many chances to perform concertos and solo works.’

5. David Pyatt horn, 1988

David Pyatt, the London Symphony Orchestra’s co-principal horn, laughs at the idea that he’d ‘made it’ after becoming 1988 BBC Young Musician of the Year. He says he was too busy with GCSE coursework at Watford Grammar School to be spoiled by overnight success. ‘I was young enough for it not to make a big difference,’ he explains. ‘I think my mates were quite impressed, but I still had to get on with normal lessons the day after the final.’

Pyatt’s Young Musician performance of Richard Strauss’s Second Horn Concerto, astonishingly mature and eloquent for a
14 year-old, kickstarted his career and led to his BBC Proms debut only five years later. ‘It certainly provided me with a platform for further work. Those early solo experiences allowed me to put playing first horn into perspective. Performing Mahler Five or Heldenleben today is never quite as terrifying as playing Strauss’s First Horn Concerto at the Last Night of the Proms!’

6. Freddy Kempf piano, 1992

Freddy Kempf entered the 1992 Young Musician final as seasoned soloist and proven competition winner. His concerto career had begun six years earlier when he performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A major K414 with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and gathered momentum in 1987 after he triumphed in the first National Mozart Competition. The 14-year-old became the Young Musician’s youngest winner, which stood until violinist Jennifer Pike’s victory a decade later.

‘Freddy Kempf was unmissable,’ recalls Humphrey Burton. ‘His mercurial performance of Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is still talked about when we Young Musician oldies chew the fat about the good old days.’ The 1992 final is less fondly remembered for the concert clothes created for contestants as part of a parallel Lloyds Bank competition for young fashion designers: Kempf’s pin-striped outfit does
not take pride of place in the Young Musician hall of fame.

7. Natalie Clein cello, 1994

Although Natalie Clein made history as the first Brit to win the Eurovision Competition for Young Musicians in 1994, she says that victory a few months earlier in the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition caused ‘much more fuss’. Her intense interpretation of Elgar’s Cello Concerto certainly left an indelible impression on Young Musician connoisseurs, her performance still ranking among the finest in the competition’s history.

We named the best recordings of Elgar's Cello Concerto here.

‘I knew when I won that I had a lot more work to do,’ she notes. Studies at the Royal College of Music and with Heinrich Schiff helped shape her subsequent artistic development. ‘In 1994, I was just on the cusp of the commercialism that has crept into classical music since. I think it would be much harder now for a 16- or 17-year-old to turn down tempting work offers to continue studying. Ultimately, though, the joy comes from the music and the playing, not from fame or celebrity.’

8. Adrian Spillett percussion, 1998

One reviewer suggested that Adrian Spillett ‘rampaged around the stage like a Tasmanian Devil’ on his way to the 1998 Young Musician title. The metaphor matched the force of the percussionist’s performance but said nothing for its laser-like precision, finesse and expressive range. Spillett navigated his way through Joseph Schwanter’s Percussion Concerto, written a few years earlier for the New York Philharmonic’s 150th anniversary. His supercharged interpretation beat off stiff competition from trumpeter Alison Balsom and flautist Katherine Bryan, who BBC Music Magazine named as one of the best flautists.

Read Alison Balsom recording reviews

‘It was a great moment when Adrian became the first percussionist to win the competition,’ says Jessica Brennan, artistic administrator of BBC Young Musician from 1996 to 2007. ‘I don’t think anybody gave him a chance before the final, but he was absolutely brilliant. The Fast Show was still a big thing on television at the time and, after Adrian blew us away with his performance, I remember Radio 3 controller Roger Wright turning to me and saying “Scorchio!”’

9. Guy Johnston cello, 2000

Appearing naked in public belongs, with luck, to the world of nightmares. Guy Johnston experienced the cellist’s equivalent live on stage during the 2000 BBC Young Musician of the Year final. The 18 year-old was only minutes into Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto when his instrument’s A-string snapped, a disaster magnified by its occurrence right in the thick of an unaccompanied solo passage. A decade later, he recalls little of how he felt at the time. ‘But I do remember having a dream about breaking a string! I’d had a new bridge put on the cello to try to get more sound out of the instrument, and thought something dramatic might happen.’

During rehearsal, Johnston joked with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra’s lead cello about swapping instruments if his
enhanced cello failed the Shostakovich test. ‘I was the only person on stage playing when the string broke, so I couldn’t hide it.’ Jessica Brennan rushed backstage in a state of panic. ‘Guy was the calmest person in the building,’ she remembers. ‘He replaced the string, came back and gave that completely stonking performance.’ The Johnston family home was flooded with letters after the final. ‘Most were addressed to BBC Young Musician of the Year, Harpenden, Herts,’ Guy recalls. ‘Quite a few had coins attached and messages saying here’s £1 towards a new string. The funny thing is that I haven’t broken a string since. Touch wood!’

Read Guy Johnston reviews

We named this as one of the best BBC Young Musician performances of all time.

10. Nicola Benedetti violin, 2004

A solo career was already marked on Nicola Benedetti’s cards when she entered the 2004 BBC Young Musician of the Year competition. The 18-year-old Scot, who had left the Yehudi Menuhin School 18 months earlier, carried Szymanowski’s coruscatingly beautiful First Violin Concerto into the final and treated it to a spellbinding interpretation.

‘Some people have asked why, when I had other high-profile opportunities in the diary, I entered the competition. But many of those things only came to me halfway through the year of the competition. Young Musician, with its five rounds spread over time, was great for me in terms of preparing pieces and developing interpretations. To be able to play a 25-minute concerto live on television, after proper rehearsal time with the orchestra, is something you could never take for granted. It was an incredible experience.’ Her title-winning partnership with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Ilan Volkov served notice of Benedetti’s emotionally charged artistry and powerful musicianship.

Read Nicola Benedetti reviews

11. Benjamin Grosvenor piano, 2004

The tale of Benjamin Grosvenor offers a striking reminder of young talent’s enormous potential. The mop-topped pianist won the 2004 BBC Young Musician of the Year piano category with seductive Scarlatti and a heart-melting reading of Balakirev’s The Lark. But it was his performance in the final that captured international attention. ‘Having an 11-year-old in the final in 2004 was really quite something,’ explains Jessica Brennan. ‘Just seeing that tiny little boy up there on stage balancing on the piano stool beside a huge imperial grand Bösendorfer was amazing in itself. And then hearing him play Ravel’s G major Piano Concerto so beautifully was one of the Young Musician highlights for me.’

The prodigious pianist’s final performance demanded ultra-fine consideration by the competition’s jury. Although Nicola Benedetti emerged as overall winner, Grosvenor’s breathtaking musicianship propelled him to top spot in the BBC Young Musician website’s online audience poll. ‘Looking back over the competition’s 32 years,’ observes Humphrey Burton, ‘we can claim that not just the title-holders but many category finalists and runners-up – Tasmin Little, Tom Adès and Colin Currie among them – have gone on to achieve international careers.’ Recent critical acclaim and significant debut dates suggest that Benjamin Grosvenor is the latest to join their distinguished company.

Read Benjamin Grosvenor reviews

We named this as one of the best BBC Young Musician performances of all time.

Advertisement

Check out our list of all the winners of BBC Young Musician from history.