September 2010

Indianapolis Competition 2010 Finals - Night 4/4

September 26, 2010 13:00

I watched the last night of the Indianapolis competition about twelve hours after it actually occurred. A big round of applause for archived performances. And they didn’t even plaster the winner’s name all over the website, as I feared they would, so I was kept happily in the dark about who won until I sought out the news myself!

Once again, a disclaimer - I am not a professional violinist or critic - I think everyone in the competition is amazing - it was a privilege to watch them all - etc etc etc. Okay, onward!

Benjamin Beilman was up first in the Sibelius concerto. As those of you who have been following this blog know, he was my favorite coming into the competition, in large part because of his prizewinning performance of Sibelius in Montreal this year. He played beautifully, with all of the subtlety and charm I have come to expect from him. But there was something tonight that kept him from playing at his full potential - whether it was nerves, exhaustion, illness, some combination of all of the above, or something else altogether, I don’t know. However I did feel his performance in Montreal was just a smidgeon stronger than in Indianapolis - if Montreal was 100, then Indianapolis was a 90. This isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy the performance a great deal. There were multiple passages where I had goosebumps on the back of my arms - I love how soft yet searing his quiet dynamics are. He unearths so many little details in the score that are really a joy to uncover. He is definitely one to keep an eye on in the coming years.

Second came Haoming Xie in the Tchaikovsky concerto. As you’ll remember, I wasn’t entirely sold by his Mozart in the classical round. And throughout the first half of the first movement of the Tchaikovsky I wasn’t much more impressed. He was hitting all of the notes, but I didn’t feel as if he had an overarching conception of the piece in mind. Without that, I usually don't feel drawn into a performance. But then, somewhere around the first movement cadenza, he really started hitting his stride, displaying a newfound confidence and facility. Unlike Baranov the night before, he cut straight through the orchestral texture, which can occasionally be quite dense in this concerto. His sound really sweetened during the gorgeous second movement, and the dance of the third movement was joyfully propulsive.

Last came SooYoung Yoon in another Sibelius concerto. If Beilman’s Sibelius was more intimate and restrained, with more introverted moments, SooYoung Yoon’s was almost operatic. They were both dramatic and heartfelt, only in different ways, and I found myself falling in love with both interpretations. SooYoung Yoon brought an astonishing power to her playing. I wish I could have been there in the hall to hear the full force of that gorgeous sound; I’m sure it just sailed clear to the back of the auditorium. SooYoung Yoon and Clara-Jumi Kang strike me as having similar approaches to music - their sounds are gutsy and gorgeous, and those gutsy, gorgeous sounds combined with their passion and intelligence make them very, very interesting performers to watch and listen to. At the end of her Sibelius concerto SooYoung Yoon’s shoulders collapsed and a huge look of relief came over her face. You could tell she had given everything she had up there, and it was inspiring.

(Before I continue, no, I did not read the Indy Star's review of the concert, although we said basically the same thing, including using the same words to compare the differences between the Sibelius concertos. As I said in one of my previous reviews, I do not read any reviews of performances before writing about them myself, and any similarities to any other reviews are purely coincidental.)

So. Here comes the moment everyone has been waiting for…

Before I checked the final results, I took a moment to guess who had won what prize. By the end I kind of wanted to rip up the list. Szalai had done so wonderfully in the Bartok concerto - but his Mozart just was not to my taste at all. On the other hand, Baranov’s Mozart had been really gorgeous, and yet I was underwhelmed by his Tchaikovsky. How do you translate that into numbers? At the same time, how stupid is that to translate into numbers? That is not what music is about. And I kept thinking again and again about Clara-Jumi Kang’s Beethoven - how does one put a value on how she made herself so vulnerable in that exquisite Beethoven? And then what about Beilman versus SooYoung Yoon in the battle of the Sibeliuses? How to choose? Well, I liked SooYoung Yoon’s for her power and strength, but there were moments in Beilman’s that were so delicate and moving… How do I choose? Do I go for the style that stereotypical juries prefer (SooYoung Yoon's extroverted one) or do I go for Beilman’s more introverted interpretation, the one I probably ultimately preferred just a teensy bit more? But then again, am I biased because I was familiar with Beilman before I even started chronicling this competition? What if I had heard them blind? Should I have been listening to this whole competition blind? Is there a remote possibility I am actually thinking this through way too much? Hmm. During the intermission of the third night, juror Rodney Friend said something that really struck me - “At this point, it’s like asking, do you like orange, or do you like purple?” or something to that effect. And it is so true. Really the jury could have flipped a coin for the top three, in my opinion. I hope all of the performers get all of the exposure and accolades they deserve.

Anyway, here the list I came up with, with the addendum written on the bottom “Top three interchangeable.” It was just a question of whether the judges cared more for orange or purple. The actual placements are written in parantheses.

1) SooYoung Yoon (Clara-Jumi Kang)

2) Benjamin Beilman (SooYoung Yoon)

3) Clara-Jumi Kang (Benjamin Beilman)

4) Antal Szalai (Haoming Xie)

5) Haoming Xie (Antal Szalai)

6) Andrey Baranov (Andrey Baranov)

So as you can imagine I’m content with the results. A hearty congratulations to everybody in the competition, and particularly to this extraordinary top three. It was a very memorable competition, and a very heartening one. Anyone mourning the state of modern violin-playing need only watch the finals of this competition to realize the future of our art is in brilliantly competent hands. I’m already looking forward to 2014.

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Indianapolis Competition 2010 Finals - Night 3/4

September 25, 2010 09:41

Friday was the first night of the Indianapolis Competition that I was able to watch in real-time. It was something I’ll never forget; I felt as if I was watching a little bit of violin history unfold. Three cheers to the technical team that made this Internet live stream happen!

As of this writing, last night’s performances have not been archived, so I am going to have to rely purely on memory. Tonight I have obligations away from the computer, so I won’t be able to watch the last three performances live, or the results. I will try to sequester myself tomorrow morning so I can watch the last three contestants before deciding who I think should win the prize. That way I won't be biased toward who actually did win. That's the plan anyway. I may very well go to the Indy archive and see the winner's name emblazoned there in a giant font, but I'm going to try to keep the secret for as long as possible.

Once more, a disclaimer. I am an amateur violinist with limited training, so take my comments with a grain of salt. Keep in mind that I stand in awe of each and every competitor this year. I think they are all extraordinary.

OK, with that out of the way -

The evening started off with a Tchaikovsky concerto by Andrey Baranov. He has a beautiful, sweet, singing tone - as evidenced in his Mozart in the classical round - but for whatever reason, it didn’t seem to carry very often last night. Aside from the legato lines in the first and second movements, many notes just didn’t pierce through the orchestral texture, especially in the double-stops in the first movement. There weren’t many expressive slides or tempo fluctuations or little touches like that, either, and I missed them. I felt as if it was just a read-through of the score, contrasting sharply with his Mozart performance. The orchestra didn't help matters, either; I felt the tempos were plodding and rather dull throughout. But, as I said, those legato lines carried beautifully and were a real joy to listen to. Perhaps it came across totally differently in the hall… All in all, a very good performance, but in a finals with great performances, I don’t know if very good will net you first prize.

Second was Antal Szalai in the Bartok second concerto. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, I was very much looking forward to this performance, despite my lukewarm feelings about his Mozart. I was not disappointed. Szalai came onstage cool as a cucumber and played the Bartok through with intelligence, commitment, and charm. He understands Bartok’s musical idiom very, very well - whether this is because he has studied Bartok for many years, or because he was born and raised in Hungary, or both, I don’t know. But it was a brilliant choice of repertoire for him; I can’t imagine him choosing any other concerto for this evening. There was a standing ovation after his performance, which was very rightly deserved. I want to mention, too, that the orchestra sounded like a totally different group in the Bartok. You'd think, given the difficulty of the Bartok, it would have been the other way around! The plodding tempos of the Tchaikovsky immediately gave way to fluidity and grace. The inconsistency of the orchestra has been a bit of a mystery to me throughout the competition... Hopefully some of the muddiness can be ascribed to a poor Internet connection, or misplaced mikes, or something.

The finale of the evening was Clara-Jumi Kang in the an emotional performance of the Beethoven concerto. It was transcendent, elegant, and in-tune (not such a small feat with Beethoven). She cut down a bit on the wide vibrato that she had employed in earlier rounds, and the result was a clear piercing tone that cut through absolutely everything in a really gorgeous way. She began to lose a bit of clarity toward the end of the final movement, and she looked very sad and worried. I thought she was upset with herself, but after she finished she looked as if she was about to cry, so that explains her expression. I hope they were tears of joy. What a major accomplishment to play the Beethoven concerto - the Beethoven concerto! - so beautifully in such an unbelievably highess environment. I was very moved by her performance. I wanted to give her a big hug afterward. I really felt as if she made herself vulnerable in a way we haven't seen from any of the competitors yet, really putting her heart and her soul out there on stage.

So. I hope I remembered what I wanted to without re-listening. Based solely on this performance tonight, here is my verdict -

First or second - Antal Szalai, Clara-Jumi Kang (can't choose! how do you choose between a rollicking Bartok and a divine Beethoven? it's impossible)

Third - Andrey Baranov

But this isn't taking into account their classical round performances. And I have a feeling tonight will bring two magnificent Sibelius concertos, not to mention a dark horse contestant in the Tchaikovsky... So stay tuned. It's still, three-quarters of the way through the finals, anybody's game.

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Indianapolis Competition 2010 Finals - Night 2/4

September 24, 2010 11:43

Onto night two of the finals of the Indianapolis Competition! Once again, as I did in my last entry, I offer to readers a reminder that, despite any gentle criticism I may have for any of the six finalists, I am in awe of all of them. They all have way more musical talent than I could ever hope to have.

The evening began with a performance by Benjamin Beilman. A couple of months ago, I listened to his performance of the Sibelius that won him the Montreal Competition. I was astonished by it. He’s the only violinist I’ve been following since the beginning of the Indy, simply because he was the only one I was really familiar with. So it’s tough for me to say whether I’ve been loving his performances so much in Indiana because I know his playing, or whether he just really is that good. Obviously I’m hoping the latter.
So, disclaimer aside, I enjoyed his Haydn a great deal. I’ve been trying to write my reviews while watching the video, but Beilman’s playing compelled me to stop multi-tasking and just absorb his performance in its entirety - so I was forced to watch it twice, once to listen and once to critique (poor me). It turns out, upon re-listening, that there wasn’t very much to critique. I loved everything about his performance: the dynamic contrasts - the quality of his sound (so mature and unique!) - his judicious use of vibrato - the way he was so aware of the orchestra around him - his smiles at the conductor and the other players. He looked as if he was having the time of his life up there, and I sincerely hope he was! The second movement in particular was just divine. He knows how to use artful pauses and silences to intensify the effect. I could hear, even through the Internet connection, that people in the hall were holding their breath, especially in the trill coming out of the cadenza (around 15:20 in his archived performance). It was magical. Even in moments where there were perhaps some minor errors - there were some intonation issues in the third movement, for instance - the general beauty of his playing and the intelligence with which he approaches playing makes up for them. Needless to say, this is a performance I will return to again and again.
Next came Haoming Xie in a performance of Mozart’s fifth concerto. It was all very pretty and heartfelt and elegant, but I didn’t feel much fire. I like a bit of mischief in Mozart - a quick dynamic change here, a subtle slide there - and, aside from the cadenzas, I didn’t feel as if he brought many of those little details to his performance. However, I did find the second movement to be very beautiful. His sweet gentle style suited Mozart’s delicate writing there very well.
The last performer of the evening was Sooyoung Yoon. Her playing was fresh and sprightly, full of verve and life. Her bow control was one of the highlights of the competition for me. Throughout the concerto she played a variety of staccatos at the frog, and every single one was crisp and clean and energetic. Her bow division in the second movement of the Mozart was a joy to behold (the pianissimo dynamic she was able to achieve around the 14:00 mark in her archived performance was particularly stunning). There were some issues with the tempo in the third movement when the orchestra lagged behind. But the character she brought to the music, combined with her strong clear tone, helped to make up for the little tug-of-war over tempo. I'm looking forward to her Sibelius as much as Beilman’s, and given how much I loved Beilman’s in Montreal, that’s saying something.
[I just checked out the Indy Star’s review of the concert and it turns out we wrote nearly the exact same thing - only I took more words to say it (of course). But I deliberately did not read any reviews of the concert until I wrote my own. Just so you know.]
So. Here are Emily Liz’s amateur predictions of who is currently ranking where on the jury’s list, based on their classical concerto performances.
First or second place - Benjamin Beilman, Sooyoung Yoon
Third or fourth place - Andrey Baranov, Clara-Jumi Kang
Fifth or sixth place - Antal Szalai, Haoming Xie
But, as we all know, any one of these players is capable of bringing out an extraordinary romantic concerto. For instance, I’ve already mentioned in my last entry how I’m thinking that Antal Szalai’s Bartok will be an important performance. It is still anybody’s race - but, for my money leastways, Benjamin Beilman has a head start.

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Indianapolis Competition 2010 Finals - Night 1/4

September 23, 2010 12:36

I thought it would be good for me to follow the finals of the Indianapolis competition, both as a listener and as a violinist. I’ve caught bits and pieces of the preliminaries here and there, but it is difficult to fit in sixteen hour-plus recitals! But now that we're down to six, I feel less overwhelmed and better able to pick my personal favorites.


First I want to congratulate every one of the six finalists. It goes without saying that they are all extraordinary players. I will never play half as well or as beautifully as any of them, and I freely and cheerfully admit that.

But. For better or for worse (I will leave out a discussion of the “morality”, so to speak, of musical contests of this nature), the format of the competition encourages us to pit one violinist against another. I suppose, cruel as it sounds, competition like this goes on all the time in our listening lives, whenever we decide what recording we like better, or compare memories of concerts we've been to. Still, I feel hesitant about passing judgment when the players are performing at such a high level, and especially when I play nowhere near as well as them. So remember these are nothing but an amateur violinist's subjective impressions, gleaned from a quick listen-through of the first three competitors this morning.
Andrey Baranov was first on the stage with the fifth Mozart concerto. From his first entrance, you could tell this was going to be a courtly, patrician performance in the best sense of the words: there was elegance and grace galore, but his playing was never shy or overly polite. There are times when his sound reminds me of an old Soviet player’s - someone from Oistrakh or Kogan's generation - which I suppose isn’t surprising, given his background. His playing was always very honest. By that I mean I never felt as if he was just playing the violin, but rather that he was using the violin to communicate with his listeners. I don’t know how exactly where or how that transition occurs, but it is always a joy when it does, and I'd imagine it would be difficult to make it happen in a highess competition environment like this. A real highlight for me was the middle of the second movement, around the fifteen, sixteen, and seventeen minute marks in the archived performance. The quality of his dynamics here was astounding - his sound was soft and breathy, but with a real core that I hope carried as well in the hall as it did on the Internet. And as Laurie Niles mentioned in her own review of the concert, his cadenzas were very simple, classic, and effective. (They were apparently written by a former jury member of the IVCI, but I was unable to catch his or her name.) The only little nit-pick I’d have is that I would have liked to hear a little more contrast in the third movement during the different episodes - a little bit more fire in the Turkish bits.
Next came Antal Szalai. I remember following him in a couple competitions a few years ago. I have always respected him a great deal as a musician - he always seems so passionate and committed about whatever he performs - but I have never really connected with his playing on an emotional level. Unfortunately tonight I had the same experience. It was all very refined and understated (maybe too much so?) and there were moments where his tone, at least as it came through the Internet video stream, took on a steely, almost nasal quality, especially on the D and A strings. I’ll have to re-listen to the better-quality audio archive to pass a final judgment. But even in this performance, which I personally didn’t care for as much as Baranov’s, I heard many little ingenious touches that I really appreciated. All of the cadenzas felt very intimate and were gorgeously played - the dramatic pianissimo at 15:40 really made me sit up and take notice - at 16:40 it felt as if time was suspended - there were a few slides in the final movement that I thought were very elegant and stylish - I loved the character he brought to the dance interval in the last movement - and I cracked a big smile when he leaned in and performed with the first violins toward the end of the concerto. There were lots of little bright moments like that scattered throughout the piece. And although his performance may not have been my cup of tea, I still stand in awe of his abilities. Perhaps surprisingly after that lukewarm Mozart review, I will admit that one of the performances I’m looking forward to the most this week is his Bartok second concerto. I think his sound will work really well in that piece, and if he can pull it off technically - which I bet you anything he will - it is going to be a really, really impressive performance. Watch out for it.
The last player on the program was Clara-Jumi Kang in the fifth Mozart concerto. Her playing has such a wonderful flow to it. She plays phrases instead of notes, and she knows exactly where she’s going from moment to moment within a piece, always keeping the bigger picture in mind. She has a gorgeous piercing sound accentuated by a wide vibrato. Intellectually I know it is probably not the greatest idea to approach Mozart with such a wide vibrato, but aesthetically speaking, I think she made it work. In fact, the historical performance practitioner deep within me (and yes, I am dorky enough to have a historical performance practitioner deep within me) feels a little guilty at enjoying the vibrato so much! I know at least one reviewer in Indianapolis found it a bit too much during her semi-final recital, and I can respect that - but I personally thought it was really beautiful. My favorite moment in her performance were those Turkish episodes in the third movement - she brought a real shape and flare to them. Check out at about 27:08 or so in her archived performance in which it sounds as if her violin is imitating thunder. It is interesting to compare her Mozart fifth directly to Baranov’s. She didn’t have as much dynamic contrast in the slow movement - I never leaned forward to catch the subtleties of some particularly lovely notes, as I did with Baranov - but on the other hand, he didn’t get as much playfulness into the Turkish episodes, either. But at this level, it really comes down to personal preference. On an entirely shallow note, I thought her dress was lovely.
Moving on to a few general observations…
One thing I’m liking about all of the violinists I’ve seen so far is that they are very rooted and grounded. They aren’t dancing around all over the place like many of the violinists born ten to twenty years earlier than them. Is this possibly a new trend in the violinists born in the eighties? Or is it just by chance that the violinists in these finals don’t like to move around all that much?
Every performer is playing with such a wonderful maturity. I don't feel as if I am watching a competition. I feel as if I'm watching a concert featuring three world-class artists who all have something unique and special to say. That doesn't happen all that often, and it deserves to be celebrated.
I felt the orchestra was under-rehearsed; there were multiple spots where my attention was drawn away from the soloist to something that didn’t sound quite right in the orchestra. There were a variety of bad horn entrances, some muddy strings, and just a general lack of cohesiveness. Maybe it was just an off night for them; we’ll see.
But anyway. Enough delaying. As I said, I hate pitting violinist against violinist, but this is a competition, for better or for worse. So. If I was forced by to decide, tonight’s first prize would go to Baranov, followed narrowly by Clara-Jumi Kang (ugh, I hate to choose), and third to Szalai. But all three are extraordinary, and at this stage of the game, the grand prize could clearly go to anybody. If you haven’t been following the competition, I encourage you to tune in and choose your own favorites - and then, if you have time, write about them! Looking forward to tonight.

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