Television rarely communicates why people who love classical music care about it so much.
The BBC series Maestro bucked the trend by communicating something of that passion – of how music-making can be deadly serious and generate a wild joy. Channel 4 viewers are about to experience that serious joy in a three-part series, The World's Greatest Musical Prodigies, which begins transmission on 8 June. The filming finished at a thrilling concert in Gateshead.
The series follows the 16-year-old prodigy composer-conductor Alex Prior as he travels across three continents seeking gifted musicians even younger than himself. It culminates with Prior conducting his final four choices in the concert, each playing the first movement of a concerto and then the premiere of Prior's Velesslavitsa, a concerto composed to showcase his discoveries – the 10-year-old pianist Zhang ("Jack") Xiaoming from Shanghai, and three American string-players, the violinists Simone Porter and Michael Province, 12 and 13, and the 15-year-old cellist Nathan Chan.
Province and Chan, in Mendelssohn and Dvorák, revealed minor technical problems, but nothing that further coaching won't sort out, and their sheer pleasure in music-making was a fillip in itself, while in the Haydn Violin Concerto, Porter was the consummate chamber musician. Best of the lot was the diminutive Xiaoming in Beethoven's Second Piano Concerto, so short he had to perch on the edge of the stool to reach the pedals – but already fully in command of the music.
But Prior was the real star. In his fourth year at the St Petersburg Conservatoire, he is in essence a Russian composer, and it was no surprise that Velesslavitsa sounded like an exuberant apotheosis, in concerto-grosso form, of Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and other Russian Romantics – the kind of over-the-top music a 16-year-old should be writing. At 47 minutes the structure could be tighter, but it has drama, colour and excitement in abundance.
And Prior the conductor is an absolute professional, clear in his gestures, authoritative in manner, supportive of his soloists. No longer a Wunderkind, he's well on the way to being a Wunder-adult.
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