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Violinist.com members may keep personal journals on the website. Violinist.com's editor selects the best entries for the column below. Links to all other recent blog posts may be found in the column on the right.

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What I've Learned from Early Music Training

By Mendy Smith
May 22, 2015 20:04

About a year or so ago, I reconnected with my first private viola instructor. When I took lessons from her as a child around the age of 8 or 9 in the late '70's, she was teaching out of the university but had moved on to teaching elementary school children later in her career.

I fondly remember warming up in the university's rehearsal rooms before lessons, performing music written by seniors at the school for their finals, unknowingly at the time auditioning for the Sewannee Summer Music Festival, and playing pieces with no fear that I struggle with today.

Since the time we reconnected, she has always been willing to lend advice on my viola playing struggles. It has been a very nice and much appreciated surprise to have my first teacher still take an interest in my music education 30+ years later.

When I discovered earlier this year that she was retiring at the end of this school year, I began a project to show how early childhood music training continues into adulthood, both for personal music and professional career growth. As I delved deeper into this project, I became amazed at how these early lessons had become deeply ingrained into my life as a whole.

Today is her official retirement day. This is the first installment of her retirement gift from me to her.

There are particular practice and rehearsal methods, techniques and etiquettes that we all learn early on in our music training: make sure you have your music, tune first, practice slowly, count out loud, keep playing no matter what happens, don't chit-chat during rehearsals etc. This is especially true when playing in a small ensemble no matter how old and experienced you are ...

Later in life, those early music skills found a way of making their way into my professional career, despite that career being completely unrelated to music:

Part two of this series: practicing at home, taking lessons, pushing personal limits and summer camp as an adult will come out in early fall.

Happy Retirement Dr. Creider, and thank you for getting me started on this most amazing journey!


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Live from New York! The 2015 Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies begins next Tuesday

By The Weekend Vote
May 22, 2015 12:37

Next week violinists from all over the world will gather in New York the 2015 Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at The Juilliard School.

It promises to be an exciting week, with so many wonderful artists and teachers scheduled to participate. I will be in New York to bring you coverage of the master classes, concerts and pedagogy classes, which begin Tuesday and run through Saturday. Here is a little preview:

2015 Lineup

Master classes will occur every day, with student artists playing for Sarah Chang, Ronald Copes, Laurie Smukler, Daniel Heifetz and Paul Kantor.

Several recitals will take place, including performances by Sean Lee on Tuesday night and Ani and Ida Kavafian on Friday night. Student artists will give performances on Wednesday and Thursday nights.

Daily pedagogy classes include topics such as tone production, right- and left-hand basics, interpreting the Tchaikovsky concerto, teaching Kreisler and more. Those will be taught by Brian Lewis, James Stern, Kurt Sassmannshaus and Benjamin Ramirez.

Check in with Violinist.com next week, as well as the following week, for daily coverage of these events! Articles will appear on Laurie Niles' blog (that's me!), and on our official Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at Juilliard page, which contains both past and present articles on the symposium.

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V.com weekend vote: Are competitions for horses, or are they okay for violinists, too?

By The Weekend Vote
May 22, 2015 11:02

"Competitions are for horses, not musicians."


Next week the Finals begin in Belgium's Queen Elisabeth International Music Competition, and we are thrilled to have our correspondent Heather Kurzbauer there to bring us live coverage on Violinist.com. But yesterday in her blog, Heather mentioned up the above quote, which goes to the heart of the ambivalence that many people feel about competitions. Should competitions remain in the realm of horse races, and not in the realm of art and expression? Or do they serve a useful purpose, raising the level of our art, bringing attention to artists and creating some excitement about the violin?

Please vote, and discuss! And visit us next week for Heather's articles from Belgium.

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Tips from the top: Rosanne Philippens shares Queen Elisabeth Competition insights

By Heather Kurzbauer
May 21, 2015 15:50

Depending on which sources are your mantra, diverse musical figures including Bela Bartok, Claude Debussy and Igor Stravinsky asserted, "Competitions are for horses, not musicians." Proper attribution aside, such observation holds more than a modicum of truth. Truth notwithstanding, music contests are more popular than ever before. Great numbers of hopefuls crowd the circuit, new competitions can be found worldwide and millions of listeners/ viewers tune in and add their two cents worth after live streaming.

Belgium's Queen Elisabeth International Music Competition (QEIMC) reigns supreme amongst classical music contests with eight decades of myth and magic linked to its illustrious name. Epic violinists including David Oistrakh, Leonid Kogan, Philippe Hirshhorn, Vadim Repin and Nikolaj Znaider have shown their mettle and garnered the coveted Premier Prix while living legends such as Ana Chumachenco, Gideon Kremer and Noah Bendix-Balgley are but a few of the laureates who have passed to the final round of twelve players. Looking beyond the lists of distinguished finalists, a glance at the semifinalists, the penultimate 24 chosen brings many a prominent performer's name to the fore. In the heat of competitive glory, how does it feel to 'almost' reach the final round?

Closing the door on a major music competition is inevitably disappointing, even traumatic for some. Months, more often, years of preparation lead to the moment suprême. Backstage interviews tell tales of letdowns that go beyond the personal: contestants feel that their mentors and even their countrymen share a stake in their competitive success. And then there is mind-numbing exhaustion that empty feeling 'after the race' described by Hirshhorn as 'all-consuming.'

Violinist.com caught up with Rosanne Philippens, a Dutch violinist who recently stole the hearts of discerning listeners in Brussels.

Back home in Amsterdam after the semifinal rounds, she shared pearls of wisdom for all those who consider entering the competitive arena. Strengthened by the conviction that reaching the semifinals at a major competition is an achievement in and of itself, she repeated a strong, simple point.

"Musicians are drawn to expression, to sharing ideas within a rich and varied repertoire," she said. "This is the essence of what we do and who we are. The first round at the QEIMC was an incredible experience: I walked out on stage and to my surprise I discovered that the hall was full! Imagine the first rounds of a competition attracting so much enthusiasm. This inspired me to go for it and play as if I were giving the concert of my life, although I would probably not program Paganini on a recital! "

All rounds are not created equal. Elated to move on to the second round, Rosanne learned that giving your all was not necessarily the best modus for competitive success.

“Although this might seem a bit strange, I did not realize that there is a ‘contest’ aspect along with the ‘performance’ aspect at top competitions," she said. "I learned that a competition is a world in and of itself where many components beyond your level play a role. Repertoire choices for contestants are often made with the intent to 'win'. A winners program, a set of pieces that persuades a jury might well be different from your dream recital program."

QEIMC semifinalists are required to perform a Mozart concerto, a specially commissioned work (the 2015 selection: an ethereal tone poem by Vykintas Baltakas) and Ysaye's e minor Sonata op. 27. In addition, the jury chooses an additional piece selected from two recital programs presented in advance by the candidates. It is interesting to note that while some semifinalists were required to perform showpieces (a preponderance of Waxman’s Carmen Fantasy this year) others competed with a Brahms or Beethoven sonata. The jury is out with regard to the wisdom of comparing a sonata to a showpiece as pundits ponder the consequences of such choices.

"In my opinion, I was fortunate to be able to perform Brahms’ Second Sonata with an incredible pianist (Thomas Hoppe)," Rosanne said.

To prepare for her interpretation of Mozart's 5th Concerto, Rosanne purposefully avoided listening to recordings in order to find her own source for inspiration.

“This concerto bears such a resemblance to Cosi fan tutte - imagine my delight to reopen the doors to Mozart's operas," she said. "Drama, text, joy and action and even an analogous Turkish march. I was surprised to hear from several jury members that my Mozart did not fit into an acceptable template, a so-called framework suitable to Mozart. Since when does Mozart arguably one of the most original composition talents call for a framework? An interpretation should be well thought out, convincing and expressive, not merely a correct repetition of an 'accepted' version. Even though several jury members seemed to take offense with my Mozart, I stand by my interpretation."

For this refreshingly original young artist, 'to thine own self be true' takes precedence over artistic compromise. Rosanne Philippens will take her Mozart on tour this fall: "an interpretation that is open to change, inevitably a performance I stand behind, not a framework but an invitation to experience."

Vive la différence.

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Should I practice my concerto before orchestra rehearsal?

By Michael O'Gieblyn
May 21, 2015 08:24

I've heard some conflicting advice on this topic:

When I was school, I was told things like "Take advantage of every moment you have to be practicing," and "If you're not sleeping, you should be practicing."

And when I was in school, I usually had a violin concerto I was working on. If I had 10 or 15 minutes before orchestra rehearsal started, it only made sense to practice that before rehearsal started....which everybody else was doing as well.

After getting out of school and into some gigging orchestras, I quickly learned that this is highly frowned upon.


And so, in my effort to de-mystify some of these unspoken orchestral rules, here is a short video explaining what I've learned:

Be well and practice well,
-Michael O'Gieblyn

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Thoughts after five years with a mezzo violin (A440)

By Allan Lewis
May 20, 2015 18:19

Five years ago, FedEx delivered my Mezzo Violin (A440). Each of the following years I have entered comments to Violinist.com on the 20th of May.


Nearly every day I read the comments of a frustrated a v.com reader trying to find a really good student violin in the $1500 price range. And in the back of my head, a little voice is screaming tell this person to investigate one of Bob Spear's imported mezzos. But by writing every time I am sure that it would sound as if I was commercially motivated. I am just one of Bob's satisfied customers.

There are several reasons that these instruments are different. First is that Bob has refined a design from the inventive work done by members of the Catgut Acoustical Society in the last half of the 20th century. The result is an instrument that has a main body that has dimensions increased 5% from the Grand Pattern Stradivarius. 21St century woods react differently from 17th century woods therefore the need for the size change. Design parameters copied from the great old instruments are frequencies of acoustical resonances, not measurements of a caliper.

As for playing, mezzos project better than an equivalent high grade14” violin and speak well in the full range of the instrument. But, of course due to resonances and impedances, as in all violins, each note has a different db level. Yet the sound is that of a true violin.

Instruments that Bob contracts from the Chinese violin factory are required to meet the specifications of his mezzo drawings, including graduations, and quality as well as many other parameters. Even the varnish is required to be thin so as not to impede resonances of the instrument. (This is in contrast to wholesalers who order a quantity of violins from a factory without defining any specifications, just that they have bright shiny varnish and look good to sell quickly.) Currently Chinese makers have the ability to supply everything from vso's to some really great instruments.

What I have just written I intend as an advocate for amateur players and students. If there were another modest cost source for these instruments I would tell you. If, I have a goal, it is to lead fellow string players to the availability of advancements, and possibly rediscoveries, to the art of violin making realized by the Catgut Acoustical Society, whose most prominent member was Carleen Hutchins. (And Bob was one of her students.)

Another subject; all types of violin included:

In the past year, I have read discussions in v.com where violin players have removed the tail piece fine tuner/s and installed instead a geared peg for the E string for an improvement in tone quality. All strings then are attached to the tail piece.

Logically, side to side movement of a bowed string is transferred to all of the other strings through the bridge, driving them to form many harmonics. The widest oscillating point of movement is at the top of the bridge. But, that movement tapers in both directions to the nut at the end of the fingerboard and the saddle below the tailpiece. Any mass in this moving system can cause an out of phase movement which will change or diminish the sound. (Fine tuners acting as mini mutes?)

Therefore I invested in a set of Wittner fine tune pegs. There are other fine tuning pegs are on the market that you should study to find which are most appropriate for your own use.

The result: is, like all other adjustments to a violin, just another small but important increment in the quest for a better sound. And tuning all strings becomes much easier and more precise due to the gear multiplication.

Another subject; problems of playing.

We have moved to a NE Dallas suburb and finding a church where I can play as a DIY offering nearly every Sunday is turning into an extended quest. I enjoy playing, but want something that requires me to practice. Therefore the fiddle is in its case and the bows are hanging on the wall to save the hair. I now understand the problems of v.commers who want to play in church but have not found a way to fit in.


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Laurie's Violin School: Scott Slapin's Innovative Étude-Duets for Violin or Viola

By Laurie Niles
May 20, 2015 12:07

Imagine playing études, just for fun.

Violist Scott Slapin has found a way to both drill the skills and sneak a little play into this genre of technical study: he has composed a set of 24 Progressive Études for violin or viola that also works as a book of duets.

"I see études as a challenge," Slapin said. "Playing violin or viola is not only an art, it's also a sport. Études are a dare: 'Can you do this?' Paganini even dedicated his set to 'the artists.' He was daring other violinists!"

Scott Slapin

Knowing the benefits of études, Slapin wanted to get students motivated to practice them more and prepare them better.

"My first thought was to write accompaniments to Wohlfahrt études," said Slapin, who teaches violin and viola privately in western Massachusetts as well as worldwide via Skype, along with his wife Tanya Solomon. "I like and use the Wohlfahrt etudes, but they are often musically boring. That's not because of any deficiency on the composer's part, but they have to be boring because when the student can only play eighth notes in one key, there's not much a composer has to work with there."

Then it occurred to Slapin to simply write his own. He set out to write a book of études in which the first half of the book could be played with the second half -- étude No. 1 with 13; 2 with 14, etc. "Midway, the student and teacher would reverse roles," he said. "The idea is at the end of the week the étude might turn into something more musical with the teacher. Also, I've found that when students have to 'perform' at the end of the week, they're a little more diligent."

Slapin's 24 Progressive Études start around the level of Wohlfahrt No. 1, then they progress a little more quickly than the Wohlfahrt études. "They're aimed to be more or less a student's first book of etudes; something someone would start maybe in the second or third year," Slapin said.

Did Slapin enjoy playing études, when he was a student?

"I did! Not at the very beginning, but by somewhere around Kreutzer 6 or so I began to," he said. Études are not all created equal, in terms of being both good exercises and good music. "Études always have a range. Kreutzer No. 13 (in the Urtext 12, the one that starts with the same chord changes as the first Bach Cello Suite) is good enough to perform on a recital. Kreutzer No. 9 (Urtext 8) definitely isn't. Paganini 13 is, 12 isn't. I think it's fun to take the less musical ones, though, and try to make music out of them."

"With my own students, after they've covered the entire fingerboard through scales, I like the étude always to be the most difficult thing that they're working on," Slapin said. "They shouldn't struggle so much technically with repertoire, where I'd rather we talk about the music -- phrasing, vibrato, etc. I see the étude as the engine that pulls the train forward, technically speaking."

Slapin is an experienced composer; he has written three albums of what he calls "violacentric" recital music: Reflections; All Viola, All the Time; and Violacentrism, the Opera. His viola trio, Capricious, quotes half of the Paganini Caprices and was commissioned by the American Viola Society as a tribute to Slapin's late viola teacher, Emanuel Vardi.

"Mr. Vardi and I were the first two to record all 24 Paganini Caprices on viola, he over forty years before I did," Slapin said. "I also made the first recording of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas on viola, which along with the Paganini, I consider the twin-bibles of upper string playing."

Nonetheless, Slapin's étude-duets presented a composing challenge. "It was a lot of things to juggle at once. It had to seamlessly line up so that Étude No. 13 was just a little harder than Étude No. 12," Slapin said. "They had to be true etudes, not duos. These each needed to focus on a technical issue." That being the case, they couldn't follow some of the normal conventions for duets, like parts imitating each other. "Still, I like to think they work well enough as duos, and I think there's some music in there that will make the experience more satisfying for the student and teacher."

He did make one set sound more étude-ish: "The last set (12 & 24) is just a fun, crazy homage to Wohlfahrt. I thought that in a book of twenty-four études, at least something should sound like an étude!"

* * *

Here, Scott Slapin and Tanya Solomon play Slapin Études Nos. 1-3 and 13-15 on viola, as duets.

Here are links to videos of the Slapin's other étude/duets:

Slapin Études Nos. 4-6 and 16-18
Slapin Études Nos. 7-9 and 19-21
Slapin Études Nos. 10-12 and 22-24

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The Week in Reviews, Op. 83: Ray Chen, Lisa Batiashvili, Stefan Jackiw

By Laurie Niles
May 19, 2015 09:47

In an effort to promote the coverage of live violin performance, Violinist.com each week presents links to reviews of notable concerts and recitals around the world.

Ray Chen performed Lalo's "Symphonie espagnole" with the San Diego Symphony.

  • U-T San Diego: "Ray Chen’s program bio talks about his “unstinting efforts to break down barriers between classical music, fashion and culture” through his affiliations with companies like Giorgio Armani and his appearances in publications like Vogue. But really, Armani and Vogue have nothing to do with it. Chen crashes through any supposed barriers erected around classical music with his playing. As he demonstrated in an especially satisfying, Spanish-themed San Diego Symphony Masterworks concert at Jacobs Music Center Friday, he’s a performer who knows what he wants, knows how to get it, and knows how to communicate it to an audience."

Ray Chen
Ray Chen. Photo by CAMI Music.

Lisa Batiashvili performed Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No. 1 with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

  • Philadelphia Inquirer: "Violinist Batiashvili was never reckless in Shostakovich, but she continually pushed the piece toward maximum expressivity, not in the confessional manner of Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg but in a way that seemed to burn from within. The big cadenza that ushers in the finale, dramatizing a massive mental meltdown while never losing its musical through-line, was a concert in itself. The frenetically-paced final movement seemed to go as fast as the music possibly could, with orchestra and soloist playing as if a single entity."

Stefan Jackiw performed the Mendelssohn and Bottesini's Gran Duo Concertante for Double Bass and Violin with bassist Maxime Bibeau and the Australian Chamber Orchestra

  • The Sydney Morning Herald: "Jackiw returned to end the concert with an earnest, breathless and strikingly accomplished performance of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in an arrangement by Richard Tognetti for 10 string instruments plus soloist. Jackiw's sound is lean and transparent, with thrilling glow in the upper register and characterised by brilliance and refined colour, more than warmth and breadth."
  • The Daily Telegraph: "Jackiw is an exciting talent who is on the verge of classical music stardom. Once he starts building his discography the world should be hearing a lot more of him."

Kristin Lee performed the Fung with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.

  • Journal Sentinel: "Opening with faint, atmospheric sounds, the piece is an endlessly interesting tapestry of contrasting sounds, rhythms and moods that delivers bits of the gamelan musical tradition of Bali, Tibetan chant and even phrases reminiscent of Stravinsky. The solo violin part ranges from ghostly harmonics to big, forceful statements. Lee brought a perfect balance of finesse and vigor to the piece, giving a driven, commanding performance that demanded and got rapt attention from the audience."

Sergey Khachatryan performed the Khachaturian with the London Philharmonia Orchestra.

  • The Armenian Weekly: "On the stage, the artist was absorbed in moments of emotional enjoyment, which also engulfed the audience. Khachatryan’s violin produced sounds that were magical, captivating, and mesmerizing. He is truly an exceptionally talented artist."

Ilya Kaler performed the Rozsa with Ars Viva, in its final performance.

  • Chicago Classical Review: "Ars Viva’s 'second concertmaster' Ilya Kaler delivered a sturdy and largely impressive performance, playing with singing tone and fervent attacks. Kaler was clearly in synch with the rhapsodic tenderness of the central Lento, and, with equally propulsive accompaniment by conductor and orchestra, threw off the fireworks of the Bartok-meets-Hollywood finale with worthy fire and panache."

Elina Vähälä performed the Sibelius with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra.

  • Nashville Scene: "She has a technique that seemingly knows no difficulties, so she blazed through virtuoso passages with seeming effortlessness. And yet, her interpretation never came across as showy. Rather, it was the haunting beauty of her tone and the warm, patrician elegance of her playing that made the biggest impression."

Nicola Benedetti performed two movements from Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No. 1 with the London Symphony Orchestra, outside in Trafalgar Square.

  • Classical Music Magazine: "The event received a positive reaction from those watching, with many taking to social media to express their enthusiasm." (Wondering if the reviewer even went!)

Caroline Goulding performed the Barber with the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra.

  • The Sentinel: "The gifted Goulding, now in her 20s, may still be considered precocious by some, but her exquisite play on Barber’s groundbreaking 1939 work, which marries two lyrically sumptuous opening movements with a strongly dissonant finale, displayed a fine and mature touch."
  • PennLive: "Goulding ably demonstrates why the concerto is such a singular showcase for the virtuosic capabilities of a violinist. Her minute-long standing ovation was well earned."

Anthony Marwood performed the Britten with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.

  • Stuff: "The Violin Concerto saw Sondergard in complete sympathy with soloist Anthony Marwood. This gave us a subtle, beautifully inflected performance of a work that is not easy to bring off, and few could have remained unaffected by the depth of feeling in the finale - a passacaglia that dies away to nothing."

Bella Hristova performed Paganini's Violin Concerto No. 1 with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.

  • NUVO: "She managed all the 'stuff' with aplomb that Paganini threw at her, and did it with a nicely centered tone, all but equaling the finest laureates to emerge from the competition. Plus Trevor's orchestra easily held up their end of the bargain."

Sergej Krylov performed Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 5 with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

  • ArtsATL: "...Krylov performed with an amazing brilliance. There was also opportunity aplenty for lyricism, particularly in the slow second movement, but Krylov’s approach retained a sense of an inner tensile strength, never allowing the lyricism to become languid or sentimental. Krylov took multiple bows for his exceptional performance, then played Paganini’s “Caprice No. 24” as encore, with even more personal musical investment than the concerto."

Christian Tetzlaff performed the Widmann with the Cleveland Orchestra.

  • The Plain Dealer: "Tetzlaff was impressive as he tore into the demanding work, his tone full-bodied and sure, even when required to navigate the very highest reaches of his instrument."

Janine Jansen performed the Mendelssohn with the San Francisco Symphony.

  • San Francisco Chronicle: "Her Mendelssohn sparkled, once past the underpowered sonorities of the first movement, and she shaped the melodies of the central slow movement with lyrical grace. But the whole thing felt light and airy enough to float away with the next breeze."

Alexandre Da Costa performed the Sibelius with the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra.

  • Lexington Herald-Leader: "The LPO performed the work creditably, with beautiful contributions throughout by the woodwinds, and by the French horns in the second movement, but less so by the soloist. To give Da Costa the benefit of the doubt, it seemed that the Sibelius is brand new to his repertoire, as he did not perform from memory, rather keeping his eyes fixed on the music stand."

Please support music in your community by attending a concert or recital whenever you can!

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Stolen: 1936 Gaetano Sgarabotto Violin and Rolland Bow

By Laurie Niles
May 17, 2015 15:51

Please spread the word! Police are still looking for leads in the disappearance of a 1936 Gaetano Sgarabotto violin and Benoit Rolland bow. The violin and bow, in an oblong blue canvas M.A. Gordge case, were stolen in the early morning April 13 near the Ritz Carlton hotel, in Georgetown, Washington D.C.

The instrument is orange-brown, with a two-piece pine top and two-piece flamed maple back. The 1999 octagonal bow has an ebony frog and is inscribed with the serial number 983.

If you have any information, you can e-mail Gtownviolin@gmail.com, or call D.C. Police Officer Roberto Corchado at (202) 730-1901 or cell (240) 422-2108.

Here are pictures of the violin:

missing Sgarabotto

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Finalists announced in the 2015 Queen Elisabeth Competition in Belgium

By Laurie Niles
May 17, 2015 00:24

Congratulations to the 12 finalists in the Queen Elisabeth Competition! The finalists, announced at midnight Saturday in Belgium, are:

QE Finalists 2015

  • William Ching-Yi Wei (Chinese Tapei)
  • Tobias Feldmann (Germany)
  • Thomas Reif (Germany)
  • Mohri Fumika (Japan)
  • Kenneth Renshaw (U.S.A.)
  • Kim Bomsori (Korea)
  • Wang Xiao (China)
  • William Hagen (U.S.)
  • Lee Ji Yoon (Korea)
  • Oleksii Semenenko (Ukraine)
  • Lim Ji Young (Korea)
  • Stephen Waarts (The Netherlands / U.S.)

The finals will take place at thee Brussels Centre for Fine Arts from May 25 to 30. Finalists will perform with the National Orchestra of Belgium conducted by Marin Alsop. On May 30 the laureates will be ranked at the end of the evening.

Here is the schedule for the finals.

Videos of the semi-finals can be seen in the Queen Elisabeth Competition digital archives.

Watch the live stream here.

We will be bringing you live coverage of the Finals from Belgium, with Heather Kurzbauer.

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