My first night of the Proms: meet the young stars making their festival debuts

The chameleon saxophonist, the competitive composer, the solitary pianist … three young musicians about to make their first appearances at the world’s mightiest music festival tell us how it all began

Our writers picks their highlights of the coming season

Jess Gillam, saxophonist, 19

I didn’t grow up around classical music. Mum and Dad own a tea room in Ulverston and used to play Classic FM and Smooth Classics for Babies – to keep the customers calm, Dad would joke, but I’d always ask him to turn it off.

When I was 11 I went on a saxophone course and was exposed to a variety of classical music and started to love it, the sheer power, the emotion, and from that moment on it became what I wanted to do. Dad is a drummer and used to play in an indie band and I worried about “coming out” to him: “I want to play soprano [the sax that most classical music is written for] and I’m going to go into classical music.” I remember his face just dropped.

Jess Gillam.
‘I worried about coming out as a classical fan’ … Jess Gillam. Photograph: Darren Gillam

My mum says when she was a kid watching the Proms or BBC Young Musician on TV she felt it was for a select group of people, not her. When I was part of the competition – a category winner in 2014 and the runner-up in 2016 - my friends all watched and many of them said to me, with surprise, how much they enjoyed it. Sometimes my life must seem a bit alien to them – they can’t really relate to how much practice I need to do and how disciplined I need to be.

It’s a challenge we all face today, getting younger audiences interested. People have preconceptions about what a concert is, that they won’t be welcome, or worry that they won’t know the etiquette. Provision for music education in schools is nowhere near enough. Music is part of how we’ve expressed ourselves for centuries. Why isn’t it a core subject like history or maths? It’s part of who we are.

The sax is a chameleon instrument, and I play soul music and jazz as well. I don’t think barriers between genres are helpful. I’d like to keep as many doors open as possible – top of my wishlist of collaborators is Peter Gabriel: his New Blood orchestral album is incredible. So long as something emotionally connects or moves you then it’s music and worth engaging with.

We’re lucky that the internet makes music so accessible today. You don’t have to buy CDs or go to concerts to hear it, and I love how I can collaborate with other musicians wherever they are, watch a rehearsal via Skype, work on and share MP3s; My social media presence is an important part of my identity as a musician. In fact it’s vital – you need to appeal to people offstage and on.

But the most important thing is to be yourself and play music that you love. If you don’t love it it’s likely the audience won’t either. I feel I’ve been most successful when I’ve moved an audience. I would hate to live in a digital-only world. There’s something about live music and the excitement and wonder of being in a room where it is being created that you can never capture on camera.

Grace-Evangeline Mason, composer, 22

Grace-Evangeline Mason.
‘Opportunity to watch and listen to the orchestra is crucial for a composer’ … Grace-Evangeline Mason. Photograph: BBC Proms and BBC Orchestras & Choirs/PR Company Handout

My parents bought me a piano when I was 14: it was what I’d always wanted. I didn’t know how to play it and started improvising, and so slowly started composing. I was lucky enough to have free instrumental lessons at my school, but you had to audition and compete for them – there wasn’t funding for everyone. In the orchestra I played the trombone. You get a lot of bars of rests when you’re a trombonist and so plenty of opportunity to watch and listen to the orchestra and learn how it interacts, which is crucial for a composer.

In my last year, I went to a BBC Proms composing workshop, and saw someone wearing a hoodie with the letters JRNCM. I asked what they meant and was told about the Royal Northern College of Music Junior department. I had no idea music colleges existed. But after that, I auditioned and started going to its Saturday school. Now I’m studying composition there as an undergraduate.

When I was 18 I took part in the Proms Inspire young composers competition. Three years later, I got an email out of the blue, asking if I wanted to compose a short piece to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Handel’s Water Music. They wanted something that could be performed on either modern or period instruments. I’ve never written for period instruments before – it’s been a steep learning curve.

Being a composer means there’s not a clear career path to follow. Success for me is in terms of commissions and performances. Soundcloud is a great way of connecting with other composers and also of finding an audience. I enjoy all kinds of music, but I’ve always wanted to be part of classical music. I love its variety and sense of community.

Beatrice Rana, pianist, 24

Fundamentally, things aren’t so different now to what they were 10, 20 or 100 years ago. To make it in classical music, you need to play well. Quality is the most important thing on stage, and everything should work towards that one moment.

Music is so accessible today. We’re so surrounded by it wherever we go that I do sometimes think we are afraid of silence. Creating silence in a concert hall so that you can concentrate and really listen to something is just as meaningful for an audience as a performer. Last year I wanted to play Bach’s Goldberg Variations, but kept asking myself: what’s the point of doing it now, in this age, when people are so busy and will never have the time to turn off their phones and just listen? Who’s going to stop their lives for an 80-minute recital?

Beatrice Rana
‘I grew up surrounded by classical music’ … Beatrice Rana. Photograph: Nicolas Bets

Both my parents are pianists and I grew up surrounded by classical music, but I went to a normal school. I was the only one in the class studying the piano. I tried to explain to my friends that classical music is not something that belongs to another scary world. They started coming to my concerts because they were my friends, but now they all go to all kinds of concerts whether I’m there or not – which makes me so happy!

Music is part of our culture, and should be as important in schools as literature or maths. I don’t think there’s any single magical strategy that will bring in a younger, more diverse audience but it helps, I think, if the performers are from a younger generation.

Sometimes people forget that artists are normal people and they find us intimidating – I like putting photos of my life, on stage and off, on Instagram to try and demystify all that. Would I have built my career without social media? Maybe, but certainly not so quickly.

Classical music expresses so much – it can be transgressive, revolutionary, intimate, powerful … it feels to me the most modern of musical genres, and the very opposite of boring. I could never imagine doing anything else.


Interviews by Imogen Tilden

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