More than a dozen violin makers from around the world gathered in Indianapolis last weekend for a exhibit at the Indiana History Center, in conjunction with the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis.
The opportunity to meet these makers and play their instruments certainly influenced my decision to attend the competition in person. The "Spotlight on Today's Violin Makers" included makers such as Gregg Alf, Gerry Borman, Joseph Curtin, Joseph Grubaugh, Feng Jiang, Francis Kuttner, Frank Ravatin, Guy Rabut, William Scott and Isabelle Wilbaux, as well as Indiana makers Ted Skreko, Chris Ulbricht of Indianapolis Violins, Alexander Leyvand, Mark Russell, Todd Matus, Tom Sparks, Mark Womack (and his assistant Luke Marvell) and Michael Duff of Berg Bows.
I tried to make it to everyone's table over the two-day exhibit, and I also tried to play everyone's fiddles. That said, the exhibit took place in two rooms, with talking and playing, and much noise! I was not able to reach everyone, and I don't feel I can a definitive opinion on these violins after playing them for a few minutes. But I will give you my impressions, my pictures, and a few thoughts from these makers. If you are interested in a violin from a modern maker, it makes sense to contact the maker, and that information is hyperlinked below with their names.
First I visited Gregg Alf of Alf Studios, who is shown here holding a late del Gesu model (the "Ole Bull") violin, and behind him is his assistant, Zach Moen. Alf made his first fiddle in 1975.
I was hoping to get to know Alf violins better – he was going to lend us a few for chamber music! But the week was so busy, no chamber music happened. I appreciated his offer though!
Tom Sparks stood at a table nearby with two violins. Sparks teaches at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music String Instrument Technology program. The program currently has about 40 students – 20 in the violin-making program and 20 taking general classes in history and diagnostics. It's possible to get an associate degree, Bachelor's degree or a minor in string instrument technology at Indiana University.
Sparks had a nice fiddle he'd made long ago, strung with steel strings because he was playing an Irish Fiddle gig (he was a United States Irish Fiddle Champion, 1980-82). For Irish Fiddle, steel strings are more responsive, "steel strings are quicker to do ornaments and rolls," he said. Here, he demonstrates a cran, which is a kind of Irish Fiddle ornament. (You can hear how noisy it was in the background!)
For his fiddles he uses new wood, from which he extracts the organic matter out of it with water. "It's green wood, but there's nothing green about it when I'm through with it." He's come to this method after many years. "I've got thousands of dollars in ruined wood and 20 years of experimentation," he said.
Violin maker Joseph Curtin was conducting a scientific experiment all week, with the help of Paris scientist Claudia Fritz and Fan-Chia Tao of J. D'Addario strings. I actually participated in the experiment, in which I was blindfolded and asked to choose between 10 pairs of violins; then after that, asked to discern characteristics between six violins. It was like wine-tasting – I was tipsy by the end from playing 20 + fiddles! I won't know what I chose until the experiment is completed and results are compiled in several months, but the idea was to get feedback from players on their preferences.
IVCI executive director Glen Kwok and Joseph Curtin
Curtin said that he spends a lot of time doing writing and research. I asked him what models he used for his fiddles and he held up one of his fiddles and quipped, "This is an exact copy of an imaginary violin!" He said he made about six violins a year, and the one I tried out had a clear, penetrating sound.
Francis Kuttner described his fiddles as being patterned after "a mishmash of models, I've borrowed from different makers over the years and it's evolved into my own model." The violin I tried had a ringing sound that was even on all four strings and smooth.
The violins of Feng Jiang made quite an impression among people attending the exhibit – a number of colleagues singled his out.
I did get a chance to sneak into a recital hall with one of his violins, most of which are patterned after a Guarneri model. His violins are currently priced at $22,000. The violin I tried sounded smooth, responsive and open. Feng gave me a good way to remember which plate is made from which kind of wood: the top is the "Christmas tree," spruce; bottom is maple. Got it? Top=spruce, bottom=maple. Originally from China, Feng Jiang has been making violins for 21 years and has been located in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for 13 years.
At the next table over stood violin maker Guy Rabut, with an assortment of his "normal"-looking violins and then also this fun contemporary-looking one:
Rabut's violins go for $25,000, and he's itching for someone to commission a few more of those contemporary-look moderns – maybe for a contemporary music ensemble? I enjoyed talking with Guy, who can be philosophical.
"When the (price of) Strads went through the roof it made it impossible for students to buy – and it made it possible for me to have a career," he said. No longer do people feel that getting a modern violin is just a temporary solution, until they can buy an old Italian fiddle by a famous maker of the past. "The younger players are saying, 'Which maker did you talk to?'" he said; young violinists are getting the modern instruments with the intention of making them their own.
Terry Michael Borman has been making violins for 35 years, and the word that came to mind while testing his instruments was "sweet tone."
Borman said that musicians' input is very important to him. "Musicians are never wrong," he said. "In fact they can be absurdly right! Most of my instruments have been modified from musician feedback." His violins go for $32,000 and violas for $34,000.
Frank Ravatin was in town from Vannes, Brittany, France. His violins, which I found to be very high-quality and responsive, are priced at approximately $22,000 or €15,000. (I do not find a website for him, but here is his e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org)
William Robert Scott, or "Bill Scott," of Minneapolis, had a number of copies that he'd made, of the 1733 "ex-Kreisler" del Gesu; 1720 "ex-Rochester" Strad and 1742 "ex-Beno Rabinoff" del Gesu. "Really playable," is what I scribbled after trying his fiddles.
Joseph Grubaugh was on hand from Petaluma, California, and his partner Sigrun Seifert was there in spirit.
He showed me several violins; one was a copy and the other not. The copy was $38,000, the other was $28,000.
"A copy is like repairing a violin into existence – it's a lot more work," Grubaugh said.
I tried some bows from Berg Bows, which are composite fiber bows.
They are not, said bowmaker Michael Duff, "carbon" fiber, but they are another kind of fiber that is less dense and more like pernambuco wood. I would have loved to have taken one of these babies home (I actually need a bow), but the first price he quoted was $7,500, which seemed a bit much for a composite bow. He amended this to say their bows were anywhere from $2,500 to $7,500. At any rate, I still liked the bows!
I hope that the above information helps to give you a starting point for modern makers. It was my starting point with these makers as well, and because I did not have the time or proper situation to truly test every maker's instruments, I simply can't give you anything but my impressions. Besides which, instruments are very individual. I will say that all the above are worthy of consideration if you are looking for a modern instrument. They are also live makers, which gives you the benefit of being able to talk with them and create something that suits you.
You may have noticed, if you were watching, that gold medal laureate Clara-Jumi Kang appeared to be tears Friday night after her performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto at the 2010 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis Finals.
Actually, the real tears came the day before.
"I cried for 40 minutes the day before I played the Beethoven," she said. For the competition, Clara-Jumi played on a 1774 Guadagnini from Turin, on loan from the Kumho Foundation in Korea. The fiddle was not always an easy partner, especially for the Beethoven Violin Concerto. (Listen to her Final round here.)
The Guad has a very bright sound, and "sometimes it has a personality I can't control." By contrast, her normal violin has a darker sound. "I was used to that phrasing" that comes out of a darker violin, and "somehow nothing seemed to work."
Clara-Jumi, 23, has perfect pitch, and she was accustomed to a 443-hertz "A" in Korea, or a 444 in Europe. The Indianapolis Symphony used a 440 "A" – much lower. "I was used to the higher sound," she said. Putting all those things together, everything felt out of her control.
But then she came to a profound realization: "I found myself thinking that Beethoven is much too great for me to control it," Clara-Jumi said. "It's from above this earth, and I should just play it, just worship it as something from above. That is what I focused on all evening."
"I was so into the music," she said of her performance of the Beethoven at the Finals. "I am blessed to have played the Beethoven with orchestra eight times – nobody wants to play the Beethoven with you when you are 23.
"(On Friday) I was playing it like I was worshipping it – that's why, after the performance, I had tears running," she said. They came from her deep emotion for the Beethoven and from her sadness at the piece coming to an end, the competition coming to an end. "It wasn't because I was upset or because I didn't like my playing.
Photo by Denis Ryan Kelly, Jr.
"I love Beethoven too much," Clara-Jumi said. "If this concerto didn't exist, maybe I wouldn't love the violin as much."
Clara-Jumi started playing the violin when she was three years old. Her parents – both opera singers – had planned for her to play the piano. "I said, 'No," I wanted something with a longer sound."
The Beethoven was always her favorite violin concerto, and she had more CDs of it, with more violinists, than she can count. She used to fall asleep listening to the Beethoven. "The timpani would make my heart beat," she said. "I guess it just grew into me."
"With Beethoven, every time you play it, it's so different – the feeling you have, the phrasing," Clara-Jumi said. "I get surprised with what feeling I come to."
She said she has eight or nine scores of the Beethoven and tries to use a different score each time she studies the piece, without writing in many fingerings or bowings.
"I try not to touch Beethoven's dynamics – Beethoven has a strong dynamic," she said.
Performing Beethoven, "sometimes you feel like you are getting all your weaknesses pulled out of you in public," Clara-Jumi said, "but sometimes it touches people's hearts."
I spoke to Clara-Jumi Kang on Sunday, right after she rehearsed Waxman's Carmen Fantasy at the Scottish Rite Cathedral in downtown Indianapolis for her final appearance at the IVCI awards ceremony. It would be her first performance as the competition's gold medal recipient.
The IVCI was by no means Clara-Jumi's first international competition – she won first prize in the 2010 Sendai International Violin Competition, second prize at the 2009 Hannover International Violin Competition; and first prize at the 2009 Seoul International Violin Competition. I wondered if the Indianapolis competition was different in any way from these other competitions.
"It has an incredible host family system," she said of the Indianapolis. She had worried about whether or not she would be able to perform her best, under the circumstances of living with a host family, but she found that it worked very well. Her host family gave her an attic bedroom with its own bathroom, and "I could be upstairs alone for two hours and not feel bad about it," she said. "They made me feel like, 'You play a concert, and then rest.'" They also showed her around town and fed her well, she said.
She also felt happy with the audiences in Indianapolis. "The feeling I had onstage was that the audience seemed happy to hear the music. I can feel it when I play, if someone is into me, listening to me," Clara-Jumi said. "Something about America is attractive; the audiences don't hold back their feelings." For example, they don't hesitate to give a standing ovation. "Sometimes you play in other countries and they tend to show feelings in a different way,"
She said that she used to have a bad attitude toward audiences when it was clear that people were not listening. Over time, she came around to a different feeling about it. "Now I want to play for everyone. My love for music was bigger than other people's negative thoughts in the audience."
"I think it helps if you are on stage more often," Clara-Jumi said of finding the right mentality for approaching performance. "Having a stage presence is important, even in competitions."
For her, the competition went in four stages, coinciding with the four rounds.
"The first round really felt like a competition," she said. That was the round in which competitors had to play movements from Bach unaccompanied Sonatas and Partitas; two Paganini Caprices; a Mozart violin-piano sonata and an encore piece. She played the Adagio and Fuga from Bach Sonata in G; Paganini Caprices 7 and 11; Sonata in G, K. 301 by Mozart; and Beau Soir, arranged by Heifetz. (Listen to her preliminary round here.)
The second round felt completely different, playing a Beethoven violin-piano sonata; a non-Beethoven violin-piano sonata and a showpiece. She played Beethoven Sonata No. 3 in E flat, Op. 12; the Ravel Violin Sonata; Joan Tower's "String Force"; and Waxman's "Carmen Fantasy."
"It should have felt like a competition, but the Ravel and the Beethoven made me enjoy playing," she said. (Listen to her second round here.)
The Classical Finals were made even more interesting for her by the selection of a new Mozart – or at least one that had been in storage for a while.
"I had played Mozart No. 4 for eight years and recently won the Sendai Competition playing that," Clara-Jumi said. "I changed in July to Mozart No. 5 – I have not played it since I was eight years old." (Listen to her Classical Finals round here.)
"I wanted a fresh start for Mozart," Clara-Jumi said. "I felt like I was playing Mozart Four out of habit. And I like the Turkish (section in the last movement of the fifth concerto) very much," though that last movement proved hard to memorize, she said, the way it keeps repeating with different decorations.
"I was very nervous for this competition. I ate this many blueberries," she laughed, indicating a large bowl with her hands. "I think a nervous feeling is always a good thing, as long as it doesn't interfere with your playing.
When she was about to go on stage for one of the final concerts, conductor Samuel Wong asked, "How do you feel?"
"Nervous!" she said.
"That's good!" he said.
"And somehow his comment really helped," Clara-Jumi said. She was grateful for his support and for that of the the orchestra. "Samuel Wong made me feel like I didn't have to give him too many cues," she said. "I could close my eyes and just play."
Clara-Jumi tends to think in terms of a singing line – her parents are opera singers, and her father sings things such as Wagner.
"When I was in my mom's stomach, she was singing at La Scala," Clara-Jumi said. Her mother stopped singing publicly when Clara-Jumi was born, but her father has continued. Though she looks up to violinists such as Anne-Sophie Mutter, David Oistrakh, Jascha Heifetz and Ivry Gitlis, her father counts high among the people she admires.
"The reason my father is one of my idols as a musician is not just because he is my father," she said. "My father has always been true and honest to music." He has tried to ignore the politics of music.
"He said, 'Try to win with your music, never try to concentrate on how you effect people. Think of your language as a musician and be true to yourself as a musician.' I think I'm about to follow his path," she said.
She said she would like to bring music to places where people may have never heard a violin, in poorer countries.
"I would like to heal people with music," she said. "There are so few thing that can heal people's hearts – music is one of them."
(Here is the page from which all performances from all contestants, all rounds, can be accessed for listening.)
On Saturday the 2010 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis concluded its final round of competition, with performances of the Sibelius Concerto by Benjamin Beilman, 20, of the United States; of the Tchaikovsky by Haoming Xie, 20, of China; and of the Sibelius Concerto (yes, two in one night) by Soyoung Yoon, 25, of South Korea.
(On Friday, the other three finalists performed: Andrey Baranov, 24, of Russia, played the Tchaikovsky; Antal Szalai, 29, of Hungary performed the Bartók Concerto No. 2 for Violin; and Clara-Jumi Kang, 23, of Germany/South Korea performed the Beethoven Violin Concerto.)
Saturday's performances commenced with Benjamin Beilman, who began with a good icy, still tone in the Sibelius (this Finnish gem is always best, served on ice). But though many things seemed poised to go right, a number of technical details simply went wrong with intonation in octave passages. Beilman seemed to have an off night. When it came to the orchestra, Sibelius can be rhythmically complex and ambiguous, and the lack of precision made for a muddy effect during orchestral tuttis.
Haoming Xie played the Tchaikovsky Concerto, using a combination of ideas from the Auer and Tchaikovsky editions. A few things parted ways with the score, such as the runs in both the exposition and recapitulation, which were mis-counted (kudos to the orchestra for following) and part of the cadenza was missing. The last movement was extremely fast, and Xie had the technical ability to make that happen, though it was fast for the orchestra.
Soyoung Lee wore a gold dress for her appearance this last night (go for the gold!). Her Sibelius was spellbinding, and she nailed all the very difficult technical passages. She made perfect octave runs, even chromatic ones, look easy. The orchestra seemed a bit more attuned to the details for this Sibelius, save a conspicuous missed entrance by the flute.
At the end of the evening, while the jury was deliberating. Indianapolis Symphony Concertmaster Zach De Pue led a blind "taste" test, with help from master of ceremonies Steve Shipps. He played four pairs of violins, allowing the audience to decide which they liked best of each pair, based on playing excerpts from “Scheherazade" and Strauss' Don Juan. Each pair included one old and one modern violin. The votes were very close each time, but ultimately the audience chose one modern violin and three Strads, from the years 1699, 1714 and 1715. Several more tests and votes narrowed the fiddles to the one the audience liked best: Jimmy Lin's 1715 Strad.
Then, of course, came the announcement of the winners and I will list their awards:
1. Clara-Jumi Kang: $30,000, a gold-mounted Tourte-Voirin model Berg bow valued at $8,000 and the four-year use of the 1683 "ex-Gingold" Stradivari violin and Tourte bow
Sunday Update: In addition to presenting the laureates with their medals Sunday evening, the jury also presented some special awards:
Best Performance of a Bach Work ($1,000): Benjamin Beilman
On Sunday, I also interviewed Gold Medalist Clara-Jumi Kang - look for my interview here on Violinist.com later this week.
On Friday evening the show moved into Indianapolis's Hilbert Circle Theatre for the finals of the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis.
Just to set the scene for you, here is Indianapolis's Monument Circle:
And here is the Hilbert Circle Theatre, right on that circle. Beautiful outside and in!
On Friday we heard performances of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto by Andrey Baranov, 24, of Russia; the Bartók Concerto No. 2 for Violin by Antal Szalai, 29, of Hungary; and the Beethoven Violin Concerto by Clara-Jumi Kang , 23, of Germany/South Korea.
After hearing quite a lot of Mozart over the last few nights, I enjoyed the chance to hear three very different concertos, all in one night.
Andrey Baranov gave himself no breaks in the physically exhausting first movement of the Tchaikovsky Concerto. The movement basically goes: big, long, technically demanding exposition...cadenza...mirror-image big, long, technically demanding recapitulation. A few stumbles at the end let me to wonder if he ran out of steam. But if that was the case, one would never have known it in the second or third movements. I loved his second movement, with his steady and singing bow arm paired with an articulate left hand, which seemed to savor every trill and make it so clear. It was just so well-enunciated, without detracting from its musicality.
Throughout the piece he used a combination of the original Tchaikovsky version and Auer's; here in the second movement he did use Auer's idea of playing the theme up an octave. But he played it extremely softly and tenderly, so that it did not overshadow the culmination: a wonderful, heart-piercing peak note. The natural weightiness of the last movement fit well with Baranov's playing; this in no way seemed tired! It was quite exciting, and he brought out the violin articulately, over the orchestra. Parts of it were so fast, and he nailed it. In this movement Baranov did use the original Tchaikovsky repeats, to good effect. (Total aside, go to this Youtube, minute 4:53, does this remind you of the end of the Tchaik third mvt? I always think of it!)
In the last Indianapolis competition (which I did not attend) there were apparently quite a few contestants playing Bartók's Concerto No. 2, but for this one, Antal Szalai is the only one, and that made it a treat. What a mammoth and complex work, and he really nailed down all the details. In the first movement I noticed that he had good direction, like he was directing the flow, and I enjoyed the effect made by his waves of runs. This piece has so many right angles – fast transitions into a new and different gesture, and Antal was able to switch gears well. In the second movement I noticed how perfectly in-tune was the section that was sans vibrato – so much more precision is required for this kind of work. That second movement sounds to me like some kind of aural soundboard, upon which the violin's voice is a means to explore tonal colors within the orchestra.
If you don't know this piece, you may have guessed that it's not the kind of piece with melodies that you will whistle on your way home. It's punctuated with those Bartók pizzicati, it has pitch-bending quarter-tones, sudden bursts of noise, melody and non-melody. "What a funky plucky puzzle," I wrote in my notes while listening to the second movement. It changes, slips away. Antal's performance was technically solid and full of insight, and I mean no insult when I say that I hope to hear him play this piece in 10 years as well, because I think this piece will age with him like fine wine – or a fine violin made with the best kind of wood.
Clara-Jumi Kang's Beethoven Concerto was nothing short of stunning. At first, when she appeared in her beautiful white dress, I wondered if it was the same dress worn last night by Soyoung Yoon! It wasn't, but no matter. The white and the elegance fit with Beethoven, whose concerto demands the same kind of purity that Mozart concerti demand.
This concerto certainly brought out golden beauty of her sound. The first-movement cadenza was elegantly executed, with every voice clear and strong, and as the orchestra quietly entered pizzicato accompaniment after the cadenza, Clara-Jumi kept the atmosphere still and riveting.
The second movement was sweet and gorgeous all the way up the line, and each piano was hair-raising, it was so soft yet present. I was happy that, because of the way this concerto is written, she had the opportunity to set her own tempo in the third movement. She set it at a good clip. Her chords had muscle but no crunch, and she kept the feeling nice and bouncy. "I'm smiling," I wrote in my notebook. She played the cadenza super-fast, about double speed, and I enjoyed the effect because one hears different things in it this way. "Just wow," is what I wrote there. Then she artfully led the orchestra back in after the cadenza – her cadenzas were a high point in an otherwise extremely beautifully and artfully played Beethoven. People immediately rose to their feet after her performance.
What does the jury really talk about during a competition? Are there too many competitions? How do the judges decide? These are a few of the questions that various panels have been exploring each night before each round of the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis.
On Wednesday night, Heather Kurzbauer of Amsterdam, who has covered many competitions over the years for The Strad magazine and who has also served on the critics jury for the Hannover International Violin Competition in 2009, spoke about the difference between American competitions and others around the globe, about judging competitions and about their value. She was joined IVCI Executive Director Glen Kwok.
What is the value of a competition? Does it really help launch careers?
"It depends, but certainly many careers have been launched by competitions," Heather said. "I think competitions are helpful to launching careers if one thinks about them in the right way."
Competitions allow all competitors – not just the winners – to gain public exposure. "I don't agree that competitions are for horses," Heather said. "How else would we meet these wonderful people from all over the world? We love our local heroes, but this gives us a chance to hear someone from halfway around the world." It also allows students to receive advise and mentoring from jury members from around the world.
Glen added that nowadays, with the Internet, "Every performance you give, literally the whole world truly is watching," noting that listeners from at least 100 countries have tuned in this week to watch the current Indianapolis competition over the Internet.
Also, people can e-mail each other about performances that excited them and watch the archived performances many times, thanks to the Internet.
What are some of the mistakes contestants make?
One mistake they can make is their choice of repertoire, Heather said. For example, it doesn't make sense to play two intense 20th century pieces in a row, or for that matter two pieces of any genre back-to-back. "You have to think of the psychology of the jury," she said. Don't make them tired.
Another mistake can involve what the contestant wears. "Wear things that make you comfortable onstage," Heather said. "Especially for women, you need to get some really good advice about what to wear" so that it does not detract either from the music or from your own level of comfort. A strapless gown that is constantly falling down and requiring adjustment is not the best bet.
When the jury is splitting hairs, deciding between players of almost identical skill level, what causes one to win over another?
One jury member from another competition told Heather that he asks himself, “Would you pay money to hear a recital by this contestant? Who is the musical memory-maker for you? They are all good girls and boys, but who is the one where you say this is the musician?
"It's what makes you go on Youtube and listen to Fritz Kreisler," Heather said. "It may be a little out of tune and smeary, but then you find yourself in tears."
How much discussion goes on between jury members?
Said Glen Kwok: "Our philosophy for Indianapolis is there should be no discussion. When I share with the jury who the semi-finalists and the finalists are, they are hearing it for the first time."
An audience member asked: Shouldn't all the pieces be the same, for the sake of scientifically ranking the contestants?
"You, as the audience, would go crazy, and the jury would go crazier," said Glen Kwok.
"I think that's where music and science diverge," Heather agreed. After hearing about 10 Sibelius concertos, you stop looking forward to it. Being able to choose pieces "shows so much more depth of musicianship," Glen said.
What if the jury does not agree with the way a contestant has chosen to play a piece?
This can be a big issue, when one starts talking about "historical" and "correct" performance of Bach and Mozart. One thing is for sure: there will be dissension. "The nine individuals on this jury come from very different musical cultures," Heather said.
Glen added that the World Federation of International Musical Competitions requires for certification that 50 percent of the jury not be from the host country.
Are there simply too many competitions? asked another audience member.
"I don't think so," Heather said. Having many competitions across the world "ups the ante and broadens the chance for exposure for young musicians."
The Classical Concerto Finals continued for a second night on Thursday at the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, with the last three of the six finalists, Benjamin Beilman, Haoming Xie and Soyoung Yoon.
A colleague compared these classical finals to a beauty pageant's “bathing suit round” – indeed, performing Mozart and Haydn strips a person's playing down to the essential elements of intonation, clean articulation and the ability to create a musical line. No place to hide!
Benjamin Beilman, 20, of the United States, walked onto the stage with the contented demeanor of someone who is enjoying himself. His playing also reflected this comforting assurance – certainly the ability to put an audience at ease is an important asset to a solo violinist. Of the six finalists, only Beilman chose to play Haydn and not Mozart for this round, with the Violin Concerto No. 1 in C major. In the midst of so much Mozart, it felt like a treat, the harpsichord in the orchestra being the cherry on top. In fact, tonight the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra seemed like a whole new band, with stand-out playing by the oboist and overall better ensemble than last night.
The concerto began with Beilman playing the tutti with the orchestra, with which he had excellent rapport throughout the piece. In my view, this chance to warm up a bit before the solo entrance in the Haydn also reinforced the piece as a wise choice. I enjoyed Beilman's bow arm – picture-perfect straight, and I felt his vibrato was downright beautiful. The first movement brought moments of nice filagree and well-graded dynamics overall, with great rhythmic drive in the cadenza. The second movement began with exquisitely controlled first notes – an unwavering bow. In the third movement I enjoyed the way he organized various progressions into a long musical line. Throughout the performance he fumbled his intonation just a handful of times – tiny fumbles. These I would completely overlook in a normal performance, especially such a compelling one, but in a competition, he may have lost a few points there.
Haoming Xie, 20, of China, played Mozart Concerto No. 5.
I always find it interesting when someone has a very different technique than the one I would advocate for students – Xie played with a very high elbow, straight pinkie on the bow – the pinkie on the lefthand was collapsed at the joint. I wondered if perhaps he is double-jointed. He played with good intonation, and a very fast vibrato. His performance was very controlled, and he seemed to stay within the bounds of a rhythmic plan.
Soyoung Yoon, 25, of South Korea, projected an aura of elegance the moment she emerged in her sparkly, strappy white dress. (I mention this because judges talked about the fact that appearance choices do matter – a blog will be forthcoming on this matter!)
Her Mozart Concerto No. 3 was well-articulated and clean, and rather like Beilman, she had a happy, – even loving – attitude toward the music. She played the first movement with good timing and humor – with personality and energy. In all the cadenzas, her violin filled the hall all by itself. In the second movement she seemed to sing straight from the heart, with a pure tone and such natural pacing. In the third movement, the orchestra started rather slow, and though she indicated with her bow that she wanted it faster, the orchestra did not respond until she entered and then had to kick them into gear, something she nonetheless did with grace. That tempo was well-chosen, I'm glad she stuck to it. Her performance was well-received by the audience; a number of people rose to their feet in applause.
Tonight begins the finals, with Andrey Baranov playing the Tchaikovsky concerto, Antal Szalai playing Bartok Concerto No. 2 and Clara-Jumi Kang playing the Beethoven Concerto.
It was an all-Mozart evening Wednesday at the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, with three of the six finalists playing in the Classical Concerto Finals.
I was not here for the preliminary and semi-final rounds of the competition last week, so this was my first time hearing violinists Andrey Baranov, 24, of Russia; Antal Szalai, 29, of Hungary; and Clara-Jumi Kang, 23, of Germany and South Korea.
They did not disappoint. I now see the reason for all the buzz I've been hearing about the “high level” of this particular pool of contestants. About 270 people came to hear the concert, held in the the Christel DeHaan Fine Arts Center.
Each violinist was accompanied by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, with guest conductor Samuel Wong. Unfortunately the orchestra was plagued with faulty horn entrances and timid string playing, which contrasted rather conspicuously with the degree of polish and shine each soloist brought to the endeavor.
Whether the orchestra or solo part, Mozart is revealing and unforgiving. Every entrance must hit the target dead-on; every last bit of intonation must be pristine. Call it the high-definition television of classical music: every little flaw will show.
The evening began with Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major played by Andrey Baranov, playing on his 1682 Andrea Guarneri.
He got things rolling with a little surprise run into the Allegro Aperto, a movement which he played with a nice, bouncy feel. He used a cadenza I did not recognize, perhaps his own? His second movement was simply-stated and straightforward. Before the second-movement cadenza, I enjoyed the effective way he melted his sound into the accompaniment to bring out the line in the woodwinds and orchestra. His presence on stage was solid and assuring.
Next up was Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 3 in G major, with Antal Szalai, whose fiddle seemed a bit low, but maybe it was just the darker color of its sound in comparision to Baranov's. These are the kinds of inadvertent comparisons that creep up in competitions! I enjoyed the way his second movement ended, and then how the third movement seemed to suit him so well.
Clara-Jumi Kang also played Mozart Concerto No. 5, though I did not feel even slightly tired of the piece, hearing it twice – both Baranov and Kang had their own versions.
Kang's was elegant and clean. I noticed at least one occasion in which she was using extensions to get around the fingerboard, which when played with accuracy (as she did), can make things even cleaner. She used the Joachim cadenzas, and I would certainly point any student of mine to her performance for a nice primer in using these oft-played cadenzas to good effect. I found her “a la Turk” in the last movement to be downright exciting, full of verve and precision, with well-channeled energy.
Tomorrow night: the second night of the Classical Concerto Finals, with Benjamin Beilman, 20, of the United States, playing Haydn Concerto No. 1 in C; Haoming Zie, 20, of China, playing Mozart Concerto No. 5; and Soyoung Yoon, 25, of South Korea playing Mozart Concerto No. 3. And the wonderful thing? You can listen to the performances I described above, and to the ones tonight!
I'll just say it: they picked a true winner in 2006 when the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis awarded Augustin Hadelich the gold medal.
On Tuesday evening violinist Augustin Hadelich, collaborating with pianist Rohan De Silva, performed a recital in Indianapolis for those gathered for this year's International Violin Competition, which has entered its final week. The program included Beethoven's violin sonata No. 8 (Op. 30 No. 3); Schnittke Sonata 1; Ysaÿe solo Sonata No. 4; the Poulenc Sonata and Zigeunerweisen.
Certainly I'm speaking of Hadelich's playing as “winning” – so well-calibrated, engaging and clean. But I'm also speaking of his four-year commitment to the immense work required of being violin soloist and taking advantage of the opportunity given him by that gold medal, as evidenced by the long and growing list of orchestras with whom he has performed, including the New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra and way more; as evidenced by his release of two CDs in that time.
Tuesday I noticed something else, Hadelich's engagement with his audience, which I believe has also grown steadily since I first heard him play in 2006. I started noticing it in the middle of the Beethoven: He plays with a generosity toward his audience, demonstrative and communicative. Serving the music, and serving it to the audience.
Photo by Denis Ryan Kelly, Jr.
Tuesday evening Hadelich was performing with his new violin, having relinquished the “ex-Gingold” Stradivarius for the competition's 2010 winner, which will be decided over the next four days. (You can see and hear the action here, it's being live-streamed from the IVCI website and performances are immediately archived.) Now Hadelich is playing the 1723 “ex-Keisewetter” Stradivari, on loan to him from Clement and Karen Arrison, through the Stradivari Society. At times I wished the violin were a bit louder, though I'm not sure if the acoustics of the Ruth Lilly Hall in the Christel DeHaan Fine Arts Center at the University of Indianapolis were a factor, or perhaps the fact that he's had just six weeks to adjust to a new fiddle.
For me, one of the most enjoyable pieces of the evening was the Sonata for Violin and Piano, Op. 1, by Alfred Schnittke, a piece which draws on a well-organized tone row. The first Andante begins with thin line of sound from the violin, with barely any vibrato, then “pling!” from the piano. It proceeds in gestures: a super-quiet pizzicato chord, a rhythmically driven passage, a dance and much noise. The Largo began quietly, with long, pitch-bending notes, no vibrato. In one moment Hadelich had it sounding like a prayer, but somehow impoverished. Then vibrato – a ray of light. Hadelich and De Silva had the audience in a spell by the end of the Largo, after which there was utter stillness and silence in the hall – I dared not move my pen. There were a number of moments like these.
Photo by Denis Ryan Kelly, Jr.
The evening seemed to demand a piece by Eugene Ysaÿe – Ysaÿe being Joseph Gingold's mentor and Joseph Gingold being the founder of this competition. Hadelich played solo Violin Sonata in E minor, No. 4, in which he negotiated the multiple voices expertly and worked with many layers of dynamics.
Something I noticed, as Hadelich swept through the introduction of Sarasate's Zigeunerweisen, was his acuity with the bow – the sun can rise and it can set, and the birds can chirp in between, all in one bow.
The latter half of Zigeunerweisen was a joy ride, maybe on an Indy car. It was just fast, baby. About 148 mph. Maybe more.
Fritz Kreisler's “Liebesleid” – Love's Sorrow – ended the evening with simplicity and grace.
I'm looking forward to hearing this year's finalists over the next week.
Congratulations to the six finalists in the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis!
Andrey Baranov, 24, of Russia
The two-part finals begin Wednesday. Three finalists each night will play with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra on Wednesday and Thursday evenings in the first round, and again on Friday and Saturday evenings for the second round.
I will be in Indianapolis for the finals and writing about the event here on Violinist.com. You can watch the events live online at the competition's website, http://www.violin.org.
Listening to Hilary Hahn's new recording of the Higdon and Tchaikovsky Violin Concertos, I noticed how differently the two concerti begin. The orchestral interlude at the beginning of the Tchaikovsky is full of warmth and comfort, like an old friend walking straight toward me with a smile and open arms. The opening of the Higdon casts me into a land of icicle harmonics; it seems more about wonder than warmth.
It strikes me that these concertos also had very different beginnings, as well. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's concerto was rejected by the man for whom it was written, Hungarian violinist Leopold Auer, who deemed it "unplayable" and canceled its premiere, delaying the piece's arrival into the world for two years, when in 1881 another violinist, Adolf Brodsky, performed it. By contrast, Higdon's concerto certainly has been embraced by the American violinist for whom it was written, Hilary Hahn, who has put much energy into playing it live and now recording it. Within two years of its 2008 premiere with Hilary and the Indianapolis Symphony, Jennifer Higdon was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for its composition.
Hilary's new recording of both the Higdon with the Tchaikovsky Violin Concertos, with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko, is out this week. It is the world premiere recording of the Higdon Concerto.
Hilary was a student at Curtis Institute when she first met Jennifer Higdon, who was her 20th century music history teacher. The violin concerto was commissioned by the Indianapolis, Toronto and Baltimore symphony orchestras, as well as by Curtis. If you want to play or perform the piece, the solo violin part, full score and piano reduction parts are all available through Jennifer Higdon's website.
For this recording, Hilary also came back to the Tchaikovsky Concerto after a 10-year break. While Leopold Auer originally rejected the piece, he later came back and performed it – after making his own revisions to the score. Auer taught his version to many of his students, including influential violinists such as Mischa Elman, Efrem Zimbalist and Jascha Heifetz, and as a result, Auer's edition arguably became the default version of the Tchaikovsky, at least for a time. For this recording, Hilary was drawn to Tchaikovsky's original ideas.
Hilary talked with me over the phone last week about coming back to the Tchaikovsky, and about playing the Higdon concerto.
Laurie: As I was listening to the Higdon concerto, I was thinking, 'I wonder how playable this actually is?' It seems like the kind of piece that requires a lot of technique, and also a real commitment to learning it. What kind of techniques a violinist would need to play this piece?
Hilary: One thing that helps is being able to reach unusual intervals --- there are a lot of sevenths and ninths. They're not always played simultaneously, but I think you have to be comfortable with all of the intervals. So it helps not just to do scales or in thirds, sixths, fifths, octaves, but you have to do everything in between, too.
Rhythmically, it helps to be comfortable with the range of rhythmic options: fives, threes, sixes and sevens -- and syncopation, in those patterns. If you're comfortable with those things, then the piece seems less overwhelming. But you can also work towards being comfortable with them in a piece like this. You don't have to come to it, knowing how to do it. You can figure it out as you learn, and it actually gives you a focal point. It's not the worst thing to learn something new in the context of learning a piece.
It's a substantial work. I don't think it's overwhelming, I just think it takes time, like anything else. You keep chipping away at it and eventually you get things in your system that you weren't as familiar with before, and that becomes part of your technical and musical repertoire that you can reference later, whether in that piece or in another piece. It really helps to have a large (left-hand finger) extension and to be very comfortable in high positions.
Laurie: Does she require extensions beyond something like a 10th, or a 12th?
Hilary: It depends on your fingering and how you want to play a passage. There is at least one very large stretch in a double stop. With my fingerings I like to use the extension rather than hopping around too much, so I do think that's helpful for this piece, but someone else coming to it might come up with a different set of fingerings that doesn't require that as much. With a new piece like this, it's hard to know exactly what is required until multiple people have played it and they all come to the same conclusion. What I might perceive as required may not actually be necessary for someone else.
Laurie: Do you see other people playing it?
Hilary: At the moment I have exclusivity for performance, but that's not a forever situation, and the idea is that people do take it up and learn it – the idea is that other people play it!
Laurie: Do you see yourself ever teaching this piece, or giving masterclasses on it?
Hilary: So if someone showed up (to a masterclass) with (the Higdon), I would give them some guidance, but I don't think I'd make a point of teaching a class on it – it's not really my piece. It is, in a way, but it shouldn't be, in the end.
Right now, it's helpful that people want to perform it with me – and I've already done it. I find it really helps if someone on stage has already done a piece. It helps the rehearsal process, it helps in concert. Interpretatively it's free-reign for anyone who takes it on, but just for logistics of a new piece, it helps if someone has it in their ear.
Sure, I would teach it in a class, but I would teach anything else in a class, too. It's just kind of interesting to see how different people approach pieces that I'm familiar with and how they present pieces I'm not familiar with.
Laurie: I noticed that the concerto had some really beautiful orchestra writing – for example, the flute in the second movement.
Hilary: Jennifer is a flutist by training. She writes a lot of the soprano lines like a flute line, and I think the violin part is very flute-like, in a sense. It's a different kind of language for the violin, but it still works. She has a lot of hidden polyphony in it, and it's rewarding to locate that and it helps with the structure of the phrasing.
Laurie: I'd like to talk with you about the Tchaikovsky as well. As I understand it, you took a long hiatus from it. What did you find different about it, after 10 years away? I would think that the Tchaikovsky might look different to you after playing things like the Schoenberg Concerto and the Higdon.
Hilary: My first teacher, Klara Berkovich, always used to say that toward the concert, you have to approach the piece like it's fresh, like you don't know it. I never quite understood how I was supposed to do that, because if I knew it, I knew it! (laughs) But now I do see what she meant. I think that's what the break from it allowed me to do.
With the so-called standard works, we assume a lot about the interpretation. As musicians, we hear them from childhood, we play them, and we never quite get them out of our heads. It's really hard to come back fresh and to think about the notes on the page instead of all the associations we have with the piece as listeners and performers. So that break, and all the repertoire I did in the meantime, really helped. It wasn't intentional, it just kind of happened that way, and I'm glad it did. It also gave me a good perspective check on how I approach other pieces that I play regularly.
Laurie: Sometimes violinists can be really ambivalent about this piece. It seems to me that the Tchaikovsky has so much baggage attached to it. I've actually played this for teachers who have told me that they hate this piece, told me that they wish I hadn't brought it to them. I don't hate it; I love it. But there are a lot of weird things about it: the repetition, that last movement, whether or not to use the original...You used the original versions without the Auer cuts, right?
Hilary: It's as much toward the original as I got without actually doing historical research. The point, for me, wasn't to make a definitive original recording. But as I was working on it, over a couple of years, I realized that I actually preferred not doing the Auer change here, and then there, and then there... I wound up returning one little bit at a time, to what Tchaikovsky had written. It's not that I don't like the Auer version -- I grew up with the Auer version. I learned that from my teacher, and it's so familiar, it's part of my concept of the Tchaikovsky. But I also like having the flexibility to play it another way.
I like the details of the original version because it gives a whole other pacing to the piece. They may be small changes from what we're used to hearing (in the Auer version), but they add up to a big difference. For example, in the second movement, if you don't take it up an octave (in the music, at letter D; on her recording, track 5, 4:10 minutes) when the theme repeats at the end, then when you actually hit the highest peak note, it is the highest peak note (4:56) you haven't given a preview. So the emotional impact of that is intensified because suddenly you're up in the stratosphere. It doesn't stay there for long, but it's important.
In the third movement, there is a transition (in the music, before letter I, the transition into Tempo I; on her recording, track 6, 8:04 minutes) where Auer moves in a 16th-note pattern way up the fingerboard to a high C# and then back down, and Tchaikovsky just has a repeated pattern of 16th notes, down on the G string. The Auer version is flashy and exciting and more complicated-seeming – although the Tchaikovsky repetitions are kind of a finger-tangler. I find that if you actually just stay down in the bottom range and you repeat, it revs up the momentum and it keeps the audience wondering where it's going to go. The more embellished (Auer) version doesn't give you time to prepare yourself for something coming – it is like a focal point in itself. Then when you get back to the theme, the ascending pattern – you've already gone way above that before, so it doesn't really have the same impact. But if you hold down in the actual pure repetition, then it's like you're pulling the string of a bow back – a bow and arrow back – you're pulling the bowstring back and then you're pulling harder and harder and it gets more and more tension, then you release it and the arrow just flies. That's the effect.
(Going back to the Tchaikovsky version) changes the pacing a little, it changes the structural focus a little bit. I really wanted to make sure, with the interpretation, that I took my time in it. And I wanted to look at the piece as a whole, not just here's one half of the first movement, and here's the next half, and here's the coda and now here's the slow part and here's the fast part, and this is the cadenza that leads into it...it's so familiar that people have short-cuts for reference for these different parts. It's really important to remember that these parts are not separate from each other. They are all part of a big whole that has to be connected in some way in order for such a big piece to have a long arc and to carry the audience through. You don't want them to be carried through by just recognizing the melody and listening along, you really want to draw them into the piece as if they're hearing it fresh. So that's what I tried to do.
Laurie: Another place I wanted to ask you about was in the first movement, the poco piu mosso (m. 109) followed by the poco piu lento (m. 114) I noticed you took a really different tempo between them, with the double stops much slower. It's written to be faster and then slower, but sometimes people still really race through the double stops. The way you played it, I really heard the contrast, and I also heard more in your double stops than I usually do.
Hilary: I discovered all these fun elements to the piece as a player. What's really fun about that part is just sitting back in the tempo and letting it go um-bah, um-bah, um-bah under the triplets. You can push and pull the phrasing within that kind of framework. But in order to set that up, it's important to pay attention to what comes before, to have a bit of a contrast, so people feel like there's more weight or... "wait"! Unless you have something different happening beforehand, then it won't sound like suddenly everything turned. It's kind of neat to find those transitions and make the most of them, and also to lead one thing into the next. Sometimes it's a sudden transition, but sometimes you have to prepare the next thing.
It's so tempting just to play it the way you've heard it or the way you were told to do it. It's such a big piece, it's so familiar – and it's kind of difficult. But you have to make yourself take it one little bit at a time when you're deciding what to do with it, and really just start over. That's a very important part of the process, especially for things that are known well.
Congratulations to the semi-finalists in the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis!
I will be there as of Tuesday to bring you more about the last week of the competition. Can't wait!
“Draw this,” said the art teacher, plunking an apple next to a coffee mug. “Do it any way you like and then we'll talk about it.”
I was taking a trial art lesson with my daughter, and the topic at hand was sketching. He wanted us to first try it, then he'd talk about technique.
Sure, why not? I'm not too bad at drawing, though my last class was a long time ago. I took the sketching pencil and drew a long, sideways oval, the opening of the mug. Then I drew lines on either side, then the curved base of the cup. Next to it, a circle. A stem. Okay, done. I looked up. What now?
Obviously the teacher wasn't exactly expecting me to finish this in two minutes, he was on the other side of the room, attending to other students. I looked at my little drawing. I looked at the apple and the mug. I looked around. My daughter was sketching in the shadows.
Oh right, the shadows. I looked at the apple again, and the cup. I squinted. Yes, shadows! I see them now. So I started drawing the shadows. Then I noticed that the indentation for the stem of the apple made a rather interesting shadow, a bit elusive to draw, but maybe if I looked at it longer...I began to see the inconsistencies on the skin of the apple – a scratch here, bits of color here and there. How to capture that in black and white? Then there was the mug, it also had some texture to it – different from the apple. How to convey that?
By the time the teacher came back, I was completely immersed in all the fine details of what an apple looks like, and what a mug looks like.
I realized that one of the most important assets, for a person creating visual art, is the ability to see. After that comes technique, that is, the ability to competently render what you see. Equally important is judgment and restraint – you may see every detail, but the best kind of artist knows how to suggest without painstakingly drawing every last thing. You show the viewer what you want them to see, and suggest the rest.
These were my thoughts, and I do believe that there is a parallel in music. When I wrote last week about the importance of listening, many agreed it was important, but others thought that listening would somehow corrupt a person's interpretation.
Not so. A person who doesn't do anything but imitate was not ready for an “interpretation” anyway, that person is still learning technique and learning to listen. It is important to listen, and it is important to hear – hear everything!
The more you look, the more you see, and the more you listen, the more you hear.
Recently I've been listening to Julia Fischer's new recording of the Paganini Caprices. Before you dare tell me that there are too many recordings of the Paganini, listen to it. There are some beautiful revelations in there. For example, the opening of Caprice 20; she does it completely sans vibrato. Whatever her intention, I suddenly felt I was standing on a hillside in Scotland, listening to a bagpipe, just for those measures. What an effect, but one that necessarily comes from a knowledge of sound.
Listen to music, yes. But listen to everything around you and embrace it for your music. How does your heart beat, when you are falling asleep? How does it beat when you are walking, but then realize you are late? It never beats like a metronome. But how does a metronome beat? Take it all in.
How does a baby laugh? How does an insane person cackle?
Music is expression. Expression is when one person conveys something that is meaningful to another. You can't do that without a vocabulary of sound, and for this you must listen, and hear, and imitate, and experiment.
Laurie Niles is from Pasadena, California. Biography
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