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.
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.
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.
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.
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