16 May 2018
Piano prodigy Lauren Zhang, 16, a music scholar at King Edward VI High School for Girls, Birmingham, has won the BBC’s prestigious Young Musician of the Year competition, just 2 days before she starts her GCSEs. She took the title on home turf, playing Prokofiev’s challenging Piano Concerto No 2, accompanied by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Hall where she has performed in several school concerts.
Kerry Andrew, chair of the judging panel, said the performance “left us all breathless”.
Lauren beat cellist Maxim Calver and sax player Rob Burton to win the title and paid tribute to her family, friends and school as she received the prize.
“I’m astonished!” she said. “I’m pleasantly surprised and I can’t believe it.
“The journey, right from the start of the competition, has been incredible.”
Although this was her first time playing with a professional orchestra, conductor Mark Wigglesworth had nothing but praise for the youngster.
“When you meet Lauren she seems… I wouldn’t say shy, but controlled within herself and very confident about her own personality,” he said.
“Then you hear her play and you discover this incredible depth and range of thought and imagination. That’s an extraordinary combination.”
Lauren said she chose Prokofiev’s second piano concerto because it balanced “lyrical, elegant” melodies with moments that are more “grotesque or bizarre”.
She also explained that it neatly fitted into the final’s 30-minute time limit, although it was a demanding piece to learn.
“I really had to practise it quite a few times before I could play without stopping in the middle because it was just so difficult,” she said.
Lauren, was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico and started learning piano aged 4. The family came to England while her mother, Hui, a statistician specialising in Econometrics, was taking a sabbatical year at Birmingham University and Lauren was invited to join the Birmingham Junior Conservatoire in 2010. Although they planned to return to the US, Lauren’s experiences at the Conservatoire where she is taught by Dr Robert Markham, himself a former Piano Prize winner in the BBC Young Musician contest, encouraged the family to stay put. She has since won a string of major piano and violin classes including the top contest for young pianists worldwide, the Ettlingen International Piano competition in 2016.
As one of the few BBC Young Musician finalists not to attend a full-time music college, Lauren enjoys a variety of interests. A talented fencer and biologist, she also excels at Maths and after an outstanding performance, scoring full marks in the UK Intermediate Maths Challenge, was one of a handful of gifted teenage mathematicians offered a coveted place at a National Maths Camp this summer.
Following her victory, she is fitting media commitments into her GCSE timetable, with her first exams, French and Biology tomorrow [Tuesday 15th May, 2018.]
“King Edward’s has been really encouraging and flexible,” she said, “as I’ve had to juggle GCSE revision with practising for the competition and my other activities. They gave me extra free periods to practise in and time off to compete and perform recitals. I also enjoy music for fun, taking part in chamber music with my friends. On a school day I do up to 4 hours of good-quality practice, thinking about the heart and emotion in the pieces, not just the technical aspects. Dr Markham’s taught me that it is extremely important to understand the music.”
The BBC Young Musician competition began in 1978, and previous winners – including Nicola Benedetti and Freddy Kempf have gone on to achieve worldwide success.
As the 2018 title-holder, Lauren will now perform at BBC Music’s Biggest Weekend in Coventry on 28 May, and also at a special BBC Young Musician 40th anniversary concert at the BBC Proms on 15 July at the Royal Albert Hall in London.