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Emily Liz

Indianapolis Competition 2010 Finals - Night 1/4

September 23, 2010 at 7:36 PM

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.

From Marc Villeneuve
Posted on September 24, 2010 at 12:15 PM

Emily, very well written. Thanks so much... Saw James Ehnes in Quebec 3 weeks ago... Played the Sibelius beautifully. Among other things,spoke about you and your very nice comments on about Kreisler and the modern violinist traveler...

From Emily Liz
Posted on September 24, 2010 at 3:25 PM

Oh wow seriously? That's awesome. Thanks, Marc. It's always a real highlight of my musical life to see him perform. Must be careful what I say now, eh? *wink*

From Marc Villeneuve
Posted on September 24, 2010 at 10:18 PM

Emily, I found your comments very interesting and I am working on a project about Kreisler right now. In 2012 will be the 50th commemorative anniversary of Fritz Kreisler and that is why it came into the discussion...Of course, he knows who you are...

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