Sunday, June 22, 2014

Going Gold at the Royal Northern

I can think of few greater privileges in the musical world than having the chance to listen to the crème-de-la-crème of a college's talented youngsters perform all day. Last weekend I was lucky enough to be on the panel for the Royal Northern College of Music's Gold Medal Competition, together with the college's principal Linda Merrick, its artistic director Michelle Castelletti, composer Robert Saxton and general manager of the BBC Philharmonic Simon Webb.

The eclecticism, imagination and programmatic flair that we heard was a joy in itself. The day was arranged into five concerts, each consisting of two solo performances and in four of the five newly composed saxophone quartets. The atmosphere was lively and enthusiastic, with plenty of audience to cheer on the contestants, and on the platform all of musical life, just about, was here - from a budding Wagnerian soprano to an extraordinary performance on the cusp of body percussion, mime and contemporary dance, and from Berio's Sequenzas to a close encounter with Russian pianism of the Gilelsy kind. Ten of the college's most gifted students had reached this final stage, along with four composers, and the standard was so high that we ended up awarding four medals instead of three, plus one designated for a composer.

Here are our winners, in alphabetical order.

L to r: Lauren, Alex, Leanne, Sergio, Delia
Leanne Cody (piano). A young pianist whose passion for contemporary works was reflected in her ability not only to memorise Joe Cutler's On the Edge, George Benjamin's Shadowlines, and Ligeti's Etude No. 10 'Der Zauberlehrer', but to play them with the musicality, imagination, beauty, flair and sheer sense of love that other musicians might offer Beethoven or Schubert, creating rapt atmospheres with singing, glowing sound.

Sergio Cote (composer): Sergio, from Colombia, wrote a short saxophone quartet that made immense virtuoso demands on its performers and their ensemble, pushed the boundaries of the soundworld with startling breathing effects, and kept us on the edge of our seats.

Lauren Fielder (soprano). Lauren is blessed with a rich, pure and powerful soprano voice that proved deliciously versatile, especially when handled with so much intelligence and stylistic awareness. Having wowed us by opening with the demanding 'Come scoglio' from Così fan tutte, she gave mellifluous performances of three of Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder, a set of beautiful and sensitively performed Roger Quilter songs and to close 'Voi lo sapete' from Cavalleria Rusticana - in which she suddenly sounded entirely Italian.

Alexander Panfilov (piano). Having started his studies at the Gnessin School in Moscow, Alex has one of those unmistakeable techniques that shows the Russian School is alive and well...and living in Manchester. He's a big chap with a big sound, yet capable of great delicacy and vivid colouration; he performed a little-known piece of Beethoven, the Fantasia Op.77, with improvisatory flair and an ideally Beethovenian sound, followed by a very fine account of the Chopin Second Ballade, in which his feel for musical storytelling was particularly impressive. Finishing with Stravinsky's Three Dances from Petrushka he gave the music all the narrative and virtuosity you could wish for, besides making it look ridiculously easy.

Delia Stevens (percussion). It seems almost invidious to call Delia a "percussionist": what we saw here bordered on performance art and sound sculpture. She opened with Casey Cangelosi's Nail Ferry from Naglfar, a fearsome invocation of Norse mythology's "beginning of the end of the world" veering from repetitive bass drum booms to a conclusion in which cutting a series of strings released 20 suspended chopsticks onto the ground - think Norns cutting the strings of life, humanity scattered to the winds... Per Nørgård's Hexagram No.57: "The Gentle, The Permanent" from I Ching was a rapt meditation; marimba virtuosity whirled us away in Leigh Howard Stevens's Rhythmic Caprice and to close, the Compagnie Kahlua's Ceci n'est pas une balle required her to undertake a mime of invisible bouncing sphere to a pre-recorded tape that would surely make Marcel Marceau applaud.

Many plaudits to all our contestants: Helen Clinton (oboe); Michael Jackson (saxophone) - who gave a stunning performance of Berio's Sequenza VIIb; Kimi Makina (viola); Kana Ohashi (violin); Jeremy So (piano), Meinir Wyn Roberts (soprano); and composers Nelson Bohorquez, Richard Evans and Aled Smith.

Thanks to all of you for an amazing and memorable day.