Leading soloist accuses BBC of side-lining 'Young Musician'

Emma Johnson, the clarinettist and celebrated winner of BBC's prestigious Young Musician of the Year competition, has accused the corporation of pushing the show into the ghetto of digital television.

The broadcast of the competition is a shadow of its former self. The final once commanded audiences of up to 20 million, but next Sunday's 25th anniversary final on BBC2 is expected to attract only 1.5 million viewers, and the five semi-finals, from Monday to Friday, have been relegated to the digital channel BBC4.

"I feel cross about how it has been marginalised, something that is to do with the taste of producers at the BBC rather than the hard facts of the audience not wanting to watch it" Johnson said. "Perhaps it's not trendy enough.

"From the TV point of view, classical music really has been sidelined. I don't think you would ever get master classes on television now, but lots of people watched them in the past. Classic FM is proving that there really is an audience out there."

It is 20 years since the 18-year-old Johnson charmed Britain to win the competition. She dropped out of the public eye after the death of her first baby and a second, successful pregnancy, but returns to the limelight with a five-album deal and a repertoire that will dismay some hard-core followers. Tomorrow she launches Journeys, a compilation album including Flight of the Bumblebee, Barrington Pheloung's theme from Inspector Morse and "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring".

Johnson defended her new image last week, describing it as a chance to reach a wider audience with a recording that also includes music by Ravel, Finzi and Tchaikovsky.

"I've got 20 years of hard grind in the classical field behind me. I don't think anybody could accuse me of being lightweight," she said.

Johnson is a respected figure in British music, known for working with up-and-coming classical performers. In 1996 she was awarded an MBE. Other Young Musicians who have gone on to distinguished international careers include the oboist Nicholas Daniel, the pianist Frederick Kempf and the French horn player David Pyatt.

The BBC denies it is marginalising the event. "The Young Musician of the Year is the UK's most prestigious competition for young classical musicians," said a spokeswoman. "It continues to play an important role encouraging and supporting young British musicians."

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