A new competition for violinists is announced named after Benjamin Britten, an inspirational figure who was keen on helping young musicians. He understood string-writing wonderfully well. Not many people write as intuitively. The words of Michael Berkeley, who has written a test piece for and is a Patron of the Britten Competition, a format that divides opinion. It has been masterminded by musicians and by violinists, which is a good thing. We all tend to feel that music shouldnt be competitive, but its a fact that it is whether youre applying for a job in an orchestra, or going to be a soloist, or whether your music is going to be performed or not. Thats life. I do think that they have informed this competition with musical values, which makes it important.
Following the opening concert on Saturday 24 July, twenty-five hopefuls launch the competition on 25 July in Goodenough College, London WC1, which is a delightful campus and a bit of a discovery. Twelve violinists then give Second Round recitals, which includes just forty-eight hours to study Michaels piece, Persistent Memory, so-called because theres a fragment from the middle movement of Debussys violin and piano sonata. Just as I was starting to write it, somebody chose the Debussy on Private Passions (Michaels Radio 3 programme) and it stuck in my mind.
Michael has approached his task with conviction. I thought it would be nice for a violin competition to have a reference to one of the great works written for the instrument, which keeps trying to insinuate itself into the piece. I feel that a test piece should not just be about pyrotechnics but must be a satisfying musical experience, although I can assure you that they wont find it wanting in technical challenges! But when Ive sat on juries the thing that sorted the men from the boys for me was how people interpret music, the musicianship, what they have to say with the music.
Persistent Memory is for violin and piano. I wrote a solo piece, Funerals and Fandangos, for the Carl Flesch Competition and I thought it would be interesting to see what the violinists make of a new piece when they have to work with another musician. There will be no consulting with the composer: the whole point is to see what they make of it.
The twenty-five violinists represent fifteen countries. Theres only one from the UK, which means integrity is maintained; so if thats the way it was, thats the way it should be. The thing that does worry me is the sad state of affairs regarding music-tuition in schools, especially with the peripatetic teachers all gone. There are less people coming through; its something we should be worried about.
All the rounds and their times can be found on the Competitions website (the link below). The Final takes place in the Barbican Hall on 1 and 2 August, each of the four finalists playing two concertos, which must include Brittens; and the winner plays there again on the 3rd, with the LSO and Andrew Davis.
Michael Berkeley muses that there are an extraordinary number of people who can play just about anything on the violin; its what they do beyond that that marks them out as potentially great musicians. Young musicians do need these opportunities to establish themselves, and its marvellous that a lot of young players will be learning Brittens concerto just in case they have to play it in the Final!
- Britten Violin Competition
- The above article was published in Whats On in London on 21 July and is reproduced here with permission