Only older colleagues and parents will remember when the music teachers affectionately dubbed this competition the ‘Eddie Waring’ (you have to be a similar age to remember that rugby league commentator, as well) but in 2015 all listeners will agree that there was more ‘oop’ than ‘oonder’ in the Helen Wareham Grand Final. It was a special pleasure also to welcome back Janet Newman, a much-loved piano teacher at Cranleigh for 13 years and now Head of Keyboard at RGS, Guildford, as well as a distinguished performer who studied with the legendary Richard Goode. Janet’s adjudication was perfect: concise but full of positivity: her genuine joy in all 15 performances was clear to all.
The winner of the Jack Cook strings prize was Olivia Chesser for a memorised and beautifully controlled rendering of Wieniawski and we also heard another fiddler, Soyoung Choi in Dancla, and Harrison White in a very expressive and aptly tragic reading of Bloch’s ‘Prayer’ arranged for double bass. The Dashwood keyboard prize went to Alice Simmonds, who played three bagatelles by Howard Ferguson, demonstrating her love for the music and relish for its bleak landscapes and mysterious harmonies. It was a special pleasure again to hear Jakub Bartoszewski display the Mander organ’s suitability for the German repertoire in the Leipzig-based Karg-Elert’s famous warhorse, ‘Nun Danket’: he brought out the majesty of this piece in which Bach seems to meet Wagner’s ‘Meistersinger’.
The brass winner was Tim Ayling (who also played most elegantly on recorder) in Saint-Saёns’s ‘Romance’ for horn op 67. The legato, intonation, poise and control were near impeccable and Tim clearly listened to how the acoustic was taking his sound as well as to the pianist. It was in this piece especially that we heard how much the performers owed to Richard Saxel for his unstinting preparation and support. Richard was also the genial host for the concert; schools are so fortunate that musicians of the calibre of Richard and Janet are prepared to sacrifice some their own performing careers to give their time and their skill to the nurturing of the next generation of artists. The quality of this section was remarkable: hornist Chris Paton gave a very well-prepared and subtle reading of Franz Strauss’s ‘Notturno’ and trumpeter Noah Frett played Büsser’s ‘Andante and Scherzo’ with a powerfully open tone and great reserves of stamina.
In the vocal class Theo Golden clearly wowed the adjudicator with his beautiful pure-toned countertenor as Anastasio in Vivaldi’s ‘Il Giustino’ and his tasteful but passionate ornamentation in the da capo. It was a pleasure also to hear Ben Mills’s attractive baritone as Mozart’s Figaro, for once avoiding the exaggeration often given to this ‘Se Vuol Ballare’ aria: his vocal sneer was conveyed through sibilance rather than hectoring.
The concert was given a relaxed ending by the multi-talented George Wilkinson playing a piece by the equally multi-talented composer Graham Lyons. George really understands the jazz idiom, allowing a little dirt in the tone and was sensitive to dynamic contrast, especially in the witty ending. There was a time when there was a single winner of the competition (often there were fewer Grade 8 musicians in the School) and if that were still the case, the argument for Fayruz Megdiche would have been compelling. Fayruz played a Chopin nocturne with insouciant musicianship and sang Catalani’s greatest hit (memorably featured in Jean-Jacques Beineix’s 1981 film, ‘Diva’) from ‘La Wally’ with sensational theatricality and a stunning top B. Just as, or, perhaps, even more stunning was her oboe playing in the first movement of the concerto by Vaughan Williams. Fayruz’s deep love for the music was evident throughout and the breath control and stamina needed for the long, flowing lines was remarkably consistent. Just as she has found the melancholy at the heart of French pieces in the past, so here we heard the slightly more understated pastoral nostalgia of the English tradition.
Fifteen musical performances of the very highest quality made this a special evening and none of the audience was tempted to take an early bath.