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Impressions from the Menuhin Competition Senior Semi-Finals Day

Laurie Niles

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Published: February 27, 2014 at 7:42 AM [UTC]

AUSTIN, Texas — I suppose they had to pick four Finalists from the nine Semi-Finalists who played at the Menuhin Competition in Austin today, but they all played extremely well. Here I will offer you my general impressions from the entire day in Austin.

First, to set the scene: the Menuhin Competition, which switches location every two years, is a pretty big news right now in Austin; I saw a big sign for it at the airport when I arrived yesterday, and I noticed a feature about it on the front page of a local newspaper this morning as I went for my morning latte at the excellent Cafe Medici downtown:

Austin coffee

It was a cold, rainy day in Austin, and the Semi-Finals were held at the Butler School of Music at the University of Texas:

Laurie at Butler

The Senior competition is for violinists ages 16 through 21, although this year's included one competitor who was 15. Semi-Finalists were each required to play two movements of a Haydn quartet, sitting as first violinist with the Miró Quartet. They also played a five-minute solo violin piece specially composed for the competition, entitled "Black-eyed Suzy" by Butler School of Music Professor of Composition Donald Grantham (scroll down for more about the composition). Finally, each of them played a showpiece with piano.

It was a long day -- some six hours of performances! But I will offer you my impressions, from seeing them all live. Also, I've included links to each performance, in case you would like to watch.

First up was Japanese violinist Minami Yoshida, 15. (Here are her performances: Part 1 and Part 2)

Minami played the first movement of Haydn's Op. 64 No. 5 with facile and lively trills. In the second movement she produced a really beautiful tone -- warm but not smothering-warm. During an arresting sans-vibrato entrance I remembered: Haydn can be so surprisingly poignant.

It also occurred to me that it might be somewhat comforting for a competitor to begin a performance this way: by playing chamber music with three affable, capable professional musicians (violinist William Fedkenhauer, cellist Joshua Gindele and violist John Largess) supporting your efforts. Of course, there is probably very little that is comfortable about a high-pressure situation such as a competition, but a little chamber music might warm up the fingers and set up the musical antenna nicely, before the spotlight shines on you-the-competitor, alone.

"Black-eyed Suzy" was an absolute treat, and I'll tell you about it, before describing any of the other performances. I spoke to composer Donald Grantham during one of the breaks:

Donald Grantham

The original "Black-eyed Suzy" is a country fiddle tune that can be traced back as far as the Fitzwilliams Virginal in England, he said. But he's found the tune commonly in country fiddling field recordings, porch bands and the like. "The tune is very short and fast," he said, and so he also added a Delta blues-style section which begins the piece and also reappears in the middle.

The Senior violinists received the sheet music for "Black-eyed Suzy" four weeks before this performance. Grantham was clearly enjoying watching nine violinists interpret his new piece in their own way; for example, Stephen Kim's way of ending the piece: "It was a false cadence, and he really got that," Grantham said. "It showed a lot of preparation and engagement with the piece, which I really appreciated. They're each contributing their own thing to it."

Grantham had input from several violinists about the piece, including Brian Lewis, Bruce Colson and Dillon Welch. "I wanted to write something (the competitors would) like playing and the audience would also like hearing," Grantham said. And if you really like it, here's the composer's website, PiquantPress.com, where you can the sheet music!

Back to the Semi Finalists:

Second was Canadian violinist Aaron Timothy Chooi, 20. (Here is a video of his performance.) I enjoyed the way he made "Black-eyed Suzy" feel episodic, like a story with his good pacing.

American-Korean violinist Christine Seohyun Lim, 19. (Here is a video of her performance) Christine played Haydn's Op. 64 No. 5 with a bouncy quality that even had her bouncing in her chair! She seemed a natural quartet leader, and during the fast-moving fourth movement she gave a nice shape to the thousands of notes flying by. She really got into the groove with "Black-eyed Suzy," finding the gesture in each section, like a series of characters channeling through her playing. She played Wieniawski's "Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 15" with clarity and joy. The considerable technical demands (10ths, octave runs, left-hand pizzicato, huge leaps, etc.) seemed to require no exertion from her. (And surely they did, but she just had things that well in hand.)

Christine Lim

American/Dutch violinist Stephen Waarts, 17. (Here is a video of his performance) I enjoyed watching Stephen lead a string quartet, with well-shaped phrases and lots of energy -- energy that seemed to infect the second violinist as well. The fourth movement had good drama and syncopation. He had memorized "Black-eye Suzy," and he seemed to bring out and enjoy its moments of asymmetry. His choice of Szymanowski's "Nocturne and Tarantella" was unique among these competitors; it begins muted and spooky, with fifths and birds high in the sky, silhouetted against the full moon. (Okay, I made up that last part.) Stephen sold the piece very convincingly and played with great technical accuracy. My one beef was that the piano frequently overpowered the sound of the violin, but I suspect this may have been an inherent problem in the score and not either performer's fault.

Chinese violinist Zeyu Victor Li, 17. (Here is a video of his performance) What a riveting Tzigane -- Victor really had the audience's attention with his articulate and vibrant playing. This piece shimmered in places where I've never noticed it shimmering and was elegant in the places where the music is less complicated. Harmonics were loud and ringing -- just well-played overall. And back to the Haydn, he chose to play the Op. 33, No. 2 "Joke" -- and at the end, the audience did indeed laugh, as intended, at the musical joke!

American violinist Stephen Kim, 18. (Here is a video of his performance) It was during Stephen's time with the Miró Quartet that I was appreciating this quartet's ability to reflect each competitor and his or her different style of playing. Stephen clearly enjoyed the Haydn, in the second movement inserting some very-intentional slides that made at least a few people sit up. ("Glissandi in Haydn, wa-what?") Stephen's "Black-eyed Suzy" struck me as being on the jazzy side. By this time I'd stolen a look at the score and followed along -- it's written in a very clear and do-able way. It's difficult but neither unplayable nor inaccessible, and perhaps because of the music's accuracy of notation, it actually leaves a lot of room for expression. Stephen played a very elegant Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso by Saint-Saëns, and kudos to pianist Colette Valentine for the well-played tuttis.

Korean violinist Ji-Won Song, 21. (Here is a video of her performance) Ji-Won did a nice job of channeling the Delta-bluesy beginning to "Black-eyed Suzy," and the rest was quite fast. She played with extraordinary technique, a very nice up-bow staccato.

American violinist William Hagen, 21. (Here is a video of his performance) During William's time with the Miró, I got the idea that this is certainly not the first time he's played in a quartet! He seemed very comfortable in that role. His "Black-eyed Suzy" seemed to have more of a rock 'n' roll angle. The Wieniawski "Polonaise" really suited his playing well, with nice form on the string-crossings.

Korean violinist In Mo Yang, 18. (Here is a video of his performance) It's just not easy to be the last person to play, when judges and audience have been listening for more than six hours. That said, as over-saturated as I felt by that time, I took in In Mo Yang's performance like a sponge. His "Black-eyed Suzy" had a nice, slow and bluesy start, and he seemed easily familiar with bluegrass decorations -- no slide or effect seemed particularly affected. He perhaps startled a few of us with a big stomp of the foot, but it felt just right; soon after he tapped his toe through a whole section. He did what I'll call the "electric guitar effect" (somebody tell me the name for this over-vibrating effect) on several high notes, to great effect. He finished with Ysaÿe's "Caprice d'après l'Etude en forme de Valse de Saint-Saëns." It was very, very elegant, flowing with the inevitability of water. Water pouring quite naturally up into the sky, but that's the point. Tonight, it did.

* * *

To see the results of the Semi-Finals please see this article.


From Yixi Zhang
Posted on February 27, 2014 at 9:12 PM
Wonderful blog, Laurie! I too feel that all the semi-finalists did such a great job. How can you pick only four? It's unfair to all the others! :) Here is the necessary evil of a competition I suppose.

All of them appear to me are experienced quartet players as well as soloists. I think In Mo Yang’s Quinten is one of the best I’ve ever heard and I’ve heard no less than dozens of them. His percussion-like foot stomping in Black-eyed Suzy is a well-crafted strategy that worked for that piece. I can’t wait to hear his Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 1 at the finals. I also love Timothy Chooi’s Tzigane. I particularly liked how he played so softly the intensive parts but with so much color. It brought tears into my eyes when I listened.

We hear so differently live and on the internet, don’t we? To me, I find the acoustic in the hall varies so much depending on where you sit and how full hall is, etc. With the live stream and YouTube, you can hear more clearly the little details that picked up by the electronic equipment. It may just be me, but last August when I was at the Banff International Quartet Competition, I had a chance to go back to the YouTube each evening and compared notes. I changed my impression on some quartets significantly afterwards.

There are so much to learn and be inspired by watching these competitions.

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