In 2014, Martin James Bartlett became the 19th winner of the prestigious BBC Young Musician competition. Aged 17 at the time, the Essex-born pianist won the final with a scintillating performance of Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Since then, his many concert engagements have included playing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue at the BBC Proms last year and, alongside the likes of Elton John, Stevie Wonder and trumpeter Alison Balsom, he was also one of the musicians to appear in the BBC’s ‘God Only Knows’ film in October 2014. As the final of this year’s BBC Young Musician approaches, we caught up with him…
It’s been two years since you won BBC Young Musician. What has been the highlight of your career since then?
Definitely performing at the BBC Proms alongside Eric Whitacre and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (below). I’ve always dreamed at playing at the Proms. I stood in the Royal College of Music when I was seven years old, when I first entered their junior department, looked across at the Royal Albert Hall and said to my mum ‘I want to perform there!’ She said I should probably get a few years of practice and education under my belt first.
As well as that I performed at the Last Night of the Proms in Belfast, and I’ve been lucky enough to travel all around the UK performing since I won BBC Young Musician. I feel very lucky!
How important was BBC Young Musician to your career?
It started my career – I didn’t have one before! I absolutely love working as a professional pianist. Fitting that career and busy concert schedule around my full time studies at the Royal College of Music can sometimes be a challenge, though.
What would you say is the most important feature of BBC Young Musician?
The most wonderful thing about the competition is that it doesn’t matter if you don’t win. Along the way you develop so much faster than if you hadn’t entered in the first place: you learn to listen to yourself more critically. Before taking part, it is possible that the contestants haven’t known what nerves felt like. When you get on a stage where there are TV cameras and an exact schedule you have to fit around, you have to really learn to focus on your music. It makes you learn and develop so much faster.
Did you get nervous when you were competing?
I did get nervous, yes. I get nervous for everything I do! You have to deal with the huge amount of adrenaline that comes before every performance. The best way of dealing with it is to just learn your piece so well, and spend so many hours just listening to it, playing through it, just living the music. That allows you to relax – you know you’ll be able to perform it. Then when you get on stage you can just have fun and enjoy the musical experience.
What do you think the judges are looking for in the winner?
It is definitely a combination of panache, virtuosity, but at the heart of it is an individual musician. You have to be someone who portrays a work differently to other people, in an individual manner. You have to have really grounded musicianship but at the same time have the ability to produce really special colours in the music you play. They will be looking for someone who can communicate with the orchestra, and play with them, not just in front of them. You have to interact with the orchestra, and treat it as an equal partner. The bottom line is that you have to be someone who really feels the music.
What have been your favourite moments of the competition for you so far this year?
For me, it has been Jess Gillam’s performances (above). We all think of the saxophone in a jazz context, but when you hear her perform it in a classical sense it is absolutely wonderful. It was such an eye opener for me. I also loved the String category final. There was such a high standard and ability.
Even if you are a die-hard classical music fan, you always hear new pieces and new repertoire in BBC Young Musician. I also think it is really important that the competition focuses on who the players are as individuals. We learn about their everyday lives, which gives such a lovely basis to go on and listen to their performance.
I’ve heard complaints that the full works aren’t always broadcast when the competition is televised, but it is the only competition I’ve ever done where any of it is broadcast! I think it is wonderful that we have the opportunity to watch these young musicians perform at all. The full works are also available online on iPlayer, so anyone who wants to see more can catch up there.
Have you got any tips for this year’s finalists?
Practise. Not incessantly – beware of becoming manic! Listen to your pieces over and over again. Make sure you totally understand everything about the orchestral music as well as your own, so that you can become a part of the whole.
The BBC Young Musician final will be broadcast on BBC 4 on Sunday 15 May at 6.45pm. All other episodes are now on BBC iPlayer.