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Yixi Zhang

Thoughts after the Beijing 2012 Menuhin Competition

April 18, 2012 at 2:04 PM

One obvious difference between watching a violin competition on the Internet (which I did a few times in the past) and attending the competition in-person (in this case, in Beijing), is that Internet could give one the impression that this was all about winning and losing, while on the ground, the mood was well-rounded and everyone was more relaxed and playful. A number of competitors said that they didn’t feel this was a competition; rather, it was more like a music festival, where young talents, parents, teachers and music lovers got together to have fun. The young competitors lived in the same hotel, some practiced a lot and others partied more. They were also busy making friends with each other and supporting each other.

When the results of each round came out, to be honest, I was more upset than the ones who didn’t make it to the next round. For instance, I like the playing of Ke Zhu and Andi Zhang very much, but neither made to the final. When I talked to them afterwards, to my surprise, both of them and their family were somewhat lighthearted about it. They said they completely accepted the results, and they were ready for the feedback from the jury and to move on to future competitions. Probably this is the necessary attitude for anyone who wants to become one of the finest. I could only laugh at my own silliness.

Still, surprise and disappointment among the audience about the completion results seems a given. During the senior final, I happened to be sitting among a number of retired professional violinists, teachers and conductors. During the jury deliberation, we all had different guesses about the order of prizes among the four finalists. The couple sitting next me were well-known musicians in China and parents of one of the jurors. They both missed the actual result by a big margin. The only one who had it completely correct in our group was a seasoned orchestra conductor, who is retired and but is still actively conducting in North America. When I asked him why he didn’t think the first prize would go to the Korean girl, Anna Lee, he sighed, “the Shostakovich is hard labor that doesn’t please.”

Transparency of the jury obviously is a concern for many observers, although not among the people I spoke with in Beijing, except a Chinese classical music critic who published an article specifically addressing this issue in a local Chinese paper. But when I spoke to him after I read his article, his tone was much milder than one would expect, and he explained to me why Chinese people tend to be twitchy about any sign of possible corruption.

I believe healthy skepticism is a good thing in general, but I don’t believe the skeptics have got the picture right in this case. The Chair of the Jury openly admitted that the decisions of the jurors were entirely subjective, depending on each juror’s taste and chemistry, and he said that this was not sports. To what extent the jurors can be managed is certainly a very interesting question for a different discussion.

That said, among the four masterclasses given by four different jurors that I attended, I do see a clear pattern. They all seemed to stress the following points to the students in the classes:

1. You must show you understand something about the composer, the mood of the piece and a clear concept of the overall the piece you are playing.

2. You have to show your heart/soul, whatever you call it. The chair calls it the "goosebump effect."

3. Technical perfection is not what they are looking for. Again and again, I heard jurors told students that they were playing so in tune and in tempo -- but boring. It sounded too much like etudes and scales. They were asked to be free, be messy, to be imaginative. They were asked to do something, anything, to find one’s own voice and to make it interesting. This was quite shocking when I first heard it, but then the message couldn't be clearer.

Yes, this was a violin competition, but you had to be more than a good violinist to get the top prizes. Yes, every competitor who goes there wishes to win, but if winning the competition is the only thing one is looking for, then one may not be at the right competition. As Kerson Leong, the 2010 first prize winner, said to me during our interview at the competition: All he wanted was to share the music, and play for the music.


From Gene Wie
Posted on April 18, 2012 at 8:42 PM
"They were asked to do something, anything, to find one’s own voice and to make it interesting."

I'm going to blow this up, frame it, and put it on the wall of my studio. :)

From SY Chao
Posted on April 19, 2012 at 1:51 AM
This ‘controversy’ is not about who was happy & having fun, or who was not; who is the winner, or who is the loser. This ‘controversy’ is about what was going on with this jury process.

It’d be interesting to see a report if someone may get to ask the violin majored students and their faculty from “the top music schools” (picked the top ranking ones according to whatever your “standard” is); or, if someone may access few professional violinists. in Either case, ask them to blindly listening to all of the videos from this competition.
After they’ve done with the listening, ask for their vote based on the same criteria as you posted here:

1. The contestant must to show he/she understands something about the composer, the mood of the piece and a clear concept of the overall the piece he/she is playing.
2. The contestant has to show his/her heart/soul, whatever you call it. The chair calls it the "goosebump effect."
3. Technical perfection is not what the jury should be looking for.

It’s also hilarious to read that you were asking the very winner about if he cares about his winning after he has won it…

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on April 19, 2012 at 7:25 AM
SY Chao, I appreciate the fact that English is not your first language. I'm in the same boat. I want to point out though there is a difference between careless reading/writing and misconstruing other people’s point. For instance, I never said anything about asking a winner if he cared about winning. Nor did I use the term controversy. Rather, I mentioned skepticism. Also, I never said anything about criteria; what I listed in my blog is only my observation. I beg you please don't put words into my mouth. This is not merely a language issue. By the way, I think your English is very good and you made some good points. It’s just not nice to distort other people’s point of view like the way you did.
From SY Chao
Posted on April 19, 2012 at 8:53 AM
I don’t know much of the diplomatic language, so my tone may be sounded blunt or even rude, for that I apologize. I honestly say that I have no intention to twist your points.
What I was trying to say is that with the same points you used, there can be a totally different angle of view, totally opposite group of people for inquiry, and a different set of checkboxes to introspect what was really going on, since there has been too much artificial sugar coating on this event.
‘Decline of the arts”, as sighed by another responder logged to your other thread, would be a sad trending leading to the death end for this arts that we all cherish.

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