Listening to the Finalists in the Shanghai Competition

September 2, 2016, 1:48 PM · SHANGHAI -- Over the last few days I've heard some wonderful playing at the Shanghai Isaac Stern International Violin Competition.

Finals were held in the Shanghai Symphony Hall, a relatively new building that was opened in Sept. 2014 and seats 1,200. Though tickets were sold out and scalpers could be seen at the entry, the hall was about 70 percent full. (You can listen to their archived performances here. The website is in Chinese; if you don't speak it - as I don't! - just click around and you'll find some very nice performances!)

Finalists were required to play one major concerto and one virtuoso piece, which they performed with the Shanghai Symphony, conducted by Michael Stern (yes, Isaac Stern's son). The finalists played Thursday and Friday nights, with the winners announced after Friday's performance, with Mayu Kishima winning the $100,000 First Prize.

Here are some of my impressions from the final round:

Stefan Tarara
Stefan Tarara.

Stefan Tarara was an amiable presence on stage, starting with the "Poeme" by Ernest Chausson. Here's someone who knows how to hit a solid high note, and that's is helpful in the Chausson. He was having to project a great deal to get out from under the orchestra, and that did make his sound a little bit forced.

Tarara also played the Tchaikovsky Concerto. His introduction was beautiful, and he brought out the syncopation in the slow theme. He kept it energetic and intense, and the orchestra played with gusto and bounce -- I got the feeling this was a work they knew pretty well already.

Richard Lin
Richard Lin.

Richard Lin of the United States had that ability to draw the audience in with quiet playing in his "Poeme" by Chausson. He had a nice way of sculpting time.

I was also a fan of Lin's performance of the Violin Concerto by Ludwig van Beethoven, a piece he really has in hand. The Beethoven Concerto does not play itself, nor does it make a big show without some effort. Lin played with tremendous subtlety, never lacking direction. In the second movement the orchestra seemed a bit unpredictable, the horns simply too loud. For his part, Lin was able to play very softly and still have presence. In the third movement, Lin was really clear with his articulations, trills and details.

Ming Liu
Ming Liu with conductor Michael Stern.

I liked Chinese violinist Ming Liu's choice of Sergei Prokofiev's Concerto No. 2 in G minor, though this is not the easiest piece to put together with orchestra in limited rehearsals. Those problems started emerging in the first movement, when after a beautiful opening she took off fast and left the orchestra behind. Honestly, the orchestra should have been able to keep up, so maybe this is a matter of communication. The third movement is a kooky dance in changing meter, and orchestra and soloist were not together for a considerable portion of it. Some of it may be inexperience on her part, but also the orchestra was not helping her with a few missed and early entrances.

Liu's playing is aggressive, strong and decisive -- I like it. I hope to hear her play again as she gets more experience playing with orchestras and gains that awareness-in-the-moment that is so difficult under the pressure of performance.

Maurice Ravel's "Tzigane" suited Liu's strengths very well, and she really filled the hall with her musical presence.

Mayu Kishima
Mayu Kishima.

Mayu Kishima began Friday night's performances with Chausson's "Poeme." Kishima has a crystal-clear voice on the violin, and she speaks boldly with it. The orchestra was not always quick to catch her tempos, but in those instances, she turned to them and put it right. Her Shostakovich was hair-raising, and certainly, she made it her own. She introduced an entire palette of colors in the opening statement alone, and between the moments of muscle she also had goosebump moments. Before the speedy second movement she gave a tempo to conductor Michael Stern -- then the force of her will seemed to help hold it together. The second movement is a noisy mess, and she seemed to know every quirk and crooked edge; delighting in its clashing tones and rhythms. In the slow movement, her violin just wept and her sound was wound with tension. She gave about 120 percent in the cadenza, and after the frenzied last movement (with one scary moment that just didn't seem to matter), she received a very long and strong ovation from the audience.

Sergei Dogadin
Sergei Dogadin.

I don't imagine it's easy to be the second Shostakovich concerto of the day, but Sergei Dogadin of Russia, who most recently won the 2015 Joachim Competition in Hannover and who won the 2011 Tchaikovsky Competition, knows what do do with Shostakovich. His version was solid, with forward motion and long lines. His double-stops were clean and very much in tune -- including some flawless octaves in the third movement. His sequence in the cadenza was so very well-paced, starting with the softest whisper and slowly but insistently building to the frenzy that bursts into the last movement. I loved the part mid-cadenza where the violin blasts out from near-silence; somehow he managed to reach full-blast without compromising sound quality.

Pablo de Sarasate's "Zigeunerweisen" certainly is a favorite among lovers of violin music. Dogadin seemed to want to go a little faster, and the orchestra was slow to respond. His up-bow staccato was impressive and the fast part was nice and breakneck speedy.

Somewhere during this piece, the person beside me started noodling around on his cell phone. I was amused when, after a few minutes, a red-laser dot appeared from nowhere and circled his phone repeatedly until he put it away! Something to try in America perhaps?

Sirena Huang
Sirena Huang.

Sirena Huang of the United States, who starts her masters studies at Yale University next week, started with a piece that I've never heard before (and I've heard a lot of violin music!): Henryk Wieniawski's "Fantasie brillante on themes from Gounod's 'Faust.'" It starts with a lick that goes to a higher-than-high harmonic, and she did it so effectively, it seemed to stop all sound and movement in the entire room. The piece featured quite a complex set of tricks, and she really nailed them, especially the up-bow staccato and a passage with a lot of artificial harmonics, which was so clear and accurate. A few missed and not-speaking notes did little to take away from the overall effect of a very well-done virtuoso work, and well-chosen.

Contrasting with the musical cream-puffery of Wieniawski was her concerto, Bela Bartok's Violin Concerto No. 2 in B minor. Huang was engaged in the music at all times, including the orchestral interludes. Her sound has juice to it and the precision in her articulations brought out the musical ideas embedded sometimes in a thicket of notes. And the orchestra even got the chance to do a few Bartok pizzicatos! It was a bold choice, and she carried it off well.

Previous coverage of the Shanghai Isaac Stern International Violin Competition:

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