April 2012

Menuhin Competition: Masterclasses with Pamela Frank, Henning Kraggerud and Dong-Suk Kang

April 19, 2012 08:29

Here are some of my notes from masterclasses that I attended at the 2012 Menuhin Competition in Beijing, including ones with Pamela Frank, Henning Kraggerud and Dong-Suk Kang.

Pamela Frank

Pamela Frank, Chair of the Jury who is also Professor of Violin at Curtis and the Peabody Institute, is dramatic and funny. She was full of praise, but also extremely quick and precise to correct. Two middle school girls played Sarasate’s Nevarra duet cleanly but not quite together. She told them to forget about the intonation and the beats because, in ensemble, you must feel the music together in order to be together. She made them play back- to-back. They sounded instantly better. She also advised them to do the following:
• When you see a lot of notes, play messy!
• When playing in three, the 2nd beat is the softest and should always come a little late, without being behind the beat; i.e., play placed beats.
• Dynamics are character markings, not volume markings.
• Always be free to shape a phrase. Any shape is better than no shape.

A competitor played Wieniawski’s Etude-Caprice very cleanly. Pamela told her to have some fun and to shape the phrase at all times, especially when it comes to “ff”. She said that:
• “f” means “friendly” rather than “ferocious”
• Don’t play short phrases; make long phrases.
• Don’t play arpeggio like an exercise, do something with it and play free.
• One’s imagination needs to be practiced.
• "I can’t tell you how to feel, but please react to harmony." When harmony changes, do something to suggest the change at the end of the old harmony.

Robert Romik

Norwegian violinist Henning Kraggerud gave some very insightful advice:
• What has made you so good now is the same thing that prevents you from being better. To be better, you have to think of something new, then choose which way to play it afterwards.
• Your teacher is only your instructor -- YOU are your own teacher. You can learn something from your teacher, but what you learn is the consequence of something. How did your teacher arrive at that consequence? You need to explore that.

He also told the students:
• Don’t be afraid of change. Try to bring new inspiration to your work. Listen to singers and pianists. Sometimes you need to throw away the violin part and play the piano part.
• Dance to the music. Once your body knows what music you want, you know what to practice. This is a much more efficient way to practice.
• Practice an already well-polished phrase three times, and try something different each time. To avoid being bored, you need to invent something new, again and again.
• Fast notes should not sound like etudes, they should sound more like a dance.
• With a long, repetitive phrase, don’t reveal the important part too early. Keep it a secret at the beginning.
• Don’t play every line equally beautifully; give some lines priority, in order to make various shades.

With a Bach solo piece, he said there are many possibilities for further improvements and many ways to practice it, but it is impossible to experiment when one's hand is trying to play all the chords, multiple voices, etc. You must think ways to simplify it. This is how:
• With chords, play only the top voice. Since that is so much easier, you can pick which tempo to play, choose what style you like and try something unusual. Then play all the notes without worrying about the sound, just focusing on the rhythm like it's a dance -- imagining you are in 1700, wearing wigs, bowing to people, etc.
• Play the chords on the piano.
• Imagine how Bach wrote this piece for the orchestra, and then play the violin as though you are playing different instruments such as cello, oboes, etc.
• It sounds better when you move than when you stand still. You should sing Bach in shower.
• Playing too many scales and etudes can have bad side effect: it can make you forget to play musically.

With a Mozart violin concerto, he said that Mozart changes character all the time and it should be treated as though it’s an opera. You must find different characters and dance to the music. Also, work slowly with the piano to analyze the piece. Simplify it by omitting little notes and grace notes and playing long notes only. This way you can read the harmony, see what’s important and what’s not.

Dong-Suk Kang

During a jury concert, South Korean violinist Dong-Suk Kang was incredibly emotional and endlessly intense. When conducting his masterclass, he had a completely different persona: a calm, introverted scholar. He spoke chiefly to the player, as though it was a private lesson. He went through the music line-by-line, with all the specific little details that, unless you’ve worked on the piece yourself, you probably wouldn’t know what he was talking about.

With the 1st movement of the Mendelssohn E minor, he told an 11-year-old to remember it is never too early to know something about the composer and what the piece is about. It’s a romantic piece but also like the classical era in a conservative sense, so the tempo should be steady. One needs to feel the pulse, even when doing rubato, and get back to tempo. All in all, the first page has a lot of different things going on. It's hard to get everything right because you don’t have the time to prepare all the changes, so you need to do a lot of thinking ahead.

With Bach, he said that he noticed that too many competitors had problems with Bach, due to lack of clear articulation. Without clear articulation, the sounds mush together in the echo of a large hall.

6 replies

Thoughts after the Beijing 2012 Menuhin Competition

April 18, 2012 07:04

One obvious difference between watching a violin competition on the Internet (which I did a few times in the past) and attending the competition in-person (in this case, in Beijing), is that Internet could give one the impression that this was all about winning and losing, while on the ground, the mood was well-rounded and everyone was more relaxed and playful. A number of competitors said that they didn’t feel this was a competition; rather, it was more like a music festival, where young talents, parents, teachers and music lovers got together to have fun. The young competitors lived in the same hotel, some practiced a lot and others partied more. They were also busy making friends with each other and supporting each other.

When the results of each round came out, to be honest, I was more upset than the ones who didn’t make it to the next round. For instance, I like the playing of Ke Zhu and Andi Zhang very much, but neither made to the final. When I talked to them afterwards, to my surprise, both of them and their family were somewhat lighthearted about it. They said they completely accepted the results, and they were ready for the feedback from the jury and to move on to future competitions. Probably this is the necessary attitude for anyone who wants to become one of the finest. I could only laugh at my own silliness.

Still, surprise and disappointment among the audience about the completion results seems a given. During the senior final, I happened to be sitting among a number of retired professional violinists, teachers and conductors. During the jury deliberation, we all had different guesses about the order of prizes among the four finalists. The couple sitting next me were well-known musicians in China and parents of one of the jurors. They both missed the actual result by a big margin. The only one who had it completely correct in our group was a seasoned orchestra conductor, who is retired and but is still actively conducting in North America. When I asked him why he didn’t think the first prize would go to the Korean girl, Anna Lee, he sighed, “the Shostakovich is hard labor that doesn’t please.”

Transparency of the jury obviously is a concern for many observers, although not among the people I spoke with in Beijing, except a Chinese classical music critic who published an article specifically addressing this issue in a local Chinese paper. But when I spoke to him after I read his article, his tone was much milder than one would expect, and he explained to me why Chinese people tend to be twitchy about any sign of possible corruption.

I believe healthy skepticism is a good thing in general, but I don’t believe the skeptics have got the picture right in this case. The Chair of the Jury openly admitted that the decisions of the jurors were entirely subjective, depending on each juror’s taste and chemistry, and he said that this was not sports. To what extent the jurors can be managed is certainly a very interesting question for a different discussion.

That said, among the four masterclasses given by four different jurors that I attended, I do see a clear pattern. They all seemed to stress the following points to the students in the classes:

1. You must show you understand something about the composer, the mood of the piece and a clear concept of the overall the piece you are playing.

2. You have to show your heart/soul, whatever you call it. The chair calls it the "goosebump effect."

3. Technical perfection is not what they are looking for. Again and again, I heard jurors told students that they were playing so in tune and in tempo -- but boring. It sounded too much like etudes and scales. They were asked to be free, be messy, to be imaginative. They were asked to do something, anything, to find one’s own voice and to make it interesting. This was quite shocking when I first heard it, but then the message couldn't be clearer.

Yes, this was a violin competition, but you had to be more than a good violinist to get the top prizes. Yes, every competitor who goes there wishes to win, but if winning the competition is the only thing one is looking for, then one may not be at the right competition. As Kerson Leong, the 2010 first prize winner, said to me during our interview at the competition: All he wanted was to share the music, and play for the music.

4 replies

Kenneth Arthur Renshaw (USA) 18, Wins Senior Division of 2012 Menuhin Competition in Beijing

April 14, 2012 09:12

BEIJING -- Kenneth Arthur Renshaw, 18, of the United States has won the Senior Division of 2012 Menuhin Competition. Here is a list of all the winners (click on each name to reach their video performances page):

1st Prize: Kenneth Arthur Renshaw (USA), age 18
2nd Prize: Ji Eun Anna Lee (Korea), age 16
3rd Prize: Alexi Kenney (USA), age 18
4th Prize: Siyan Guo (China), age 20

Jury Chair Pamela Frank said that they had the closest scores among these finalists in the history of Menuhin competition. She told the winners that the numbers do not define them. They are defined by their soul and they all have a beautiful soul and will all have great future in music.

She also emphasized that this competition is not sports. Art is intangible and judging is very subjective, based on individual taste and chemistry.

Kenneth Arthur Renshaw plays the third movement of the Sibelius Concerto during the final round of the Senior Division on the 2012 Yehudi Menuhin International Violin Competition:

26 replies

Menuhin Competition: Masterclass with Joji Hattori, Vice Chair of the Jury

April 13, 2012 02:06

BEIJING -- At the Menuhin Competition, the competitors who are not going forward into the next round get to play in masterclasses and receive individual jurors' feedback. I've been watching those masterclasses for two days! Even though the junior finals are going on right now, I’ve got so many notes to type out and so little time, I’m sitting in the hotel, listening to the live stream and writing this blog, instead going to the concert hall.

Each class had four to five players who took turns playing for the teacher. Because everything had to be interpreted back and forth between Chinese and English, each class was 2 ½ hour long. I attended four classes, taught by Joji Hattori (Vice Chair of the Jury), Dong-Suk Kang, Pamela Frank (Chair of the Jury) and Henning Kraggerud. My masterclasses blog will be broken down to two to three parts.

This blog will focus entirely on Joji Hattori’s masterclass.

Joji Hattori

Hattori is a very engaging speaker, and he timed his class very well. He started with some general advice on what young violinists should keep in mind:

1. From the start, don’t forget to do things other than playing the violin.

2. Students 18 years or older must have the skills in chamber and orchestra as well as the knowledge of the composers and their history.

3. Don’t neglect simple things such as how to tune the instrument. He often heard young competitors tuning the pegs that badly needed some lubricant. Make sure the violin and strings are in the right condition for performance/competition.

4. The most important thing is to learn how to practice.

These are his Rules of Good Practice:

Rule #1: Play no more than 20 minutes each hour. The other 40 minutes should be spent thinking. He told parents that if you hear your kid playing one hour nonstop, you know immediately he is wasting his time.

Rule #2: If you get a note wrong the first time, the second time you must play it perfectly. This is how you do it. Say, a big shift. The first time you hit the wrong note, stop. Without the bow, just measure the distance of these two notes by watching the LH movement and plucking to hear the note. Repeat until the shift is correct, then play.

Rule #3: Practice 15 minutes, take 5 minutes off (or take half an hour if you want to), then practice another 15 minutes, so on. If you are tired, absolutely stop and rest.

5. Technique:

a) A lot of technical problems are caused by the asymmetric nature of the instrument, but violin can be treated as a symmetric instrument by twisting the left wrist so that the hand is parallel to the fingerboard without bringing in the elbow, as often suggested. He demonstrated this by holding both fists up and moving a bit like boxing match, then turned the right fist into a bow-hold hand and the left fist into an open hand, twisted a bit to be parallel to the violin fingerboard.

b) The bow should not be pressed, even at the tip. He held the bow steadily in the air and moved the violin from the tip to the frog to make an even sound. See! No pressure at any point is necessary. The point is that you should feel that you are always holding the bow, rather than putting it down on the string and resting it there. If the violin is knocked off by a bullet, he said, you’d still have your bow in your hand.

6. The summary of what he said to the five students who played for masterclass:

a) From early on, every student should learn to be a good musician, not just a good violin player. Whatever melody you play, you must imagine some kind of text to go with it.

b) The first contact of a piece, you shouldn’t play it on the violin. You need to sit down with a cup of coffee and pencil in hand, use a piano if you can, to analyze the piece: the bowing, fingering, how it should sound and what is the mood or atmosphere, etc.

c) With Bach solo pieces, don’t play them like etudes. Fast notes should be broken down to chords. Make sure you are clear about where each phrase starts and ends. You can hear a chord by only playing every first note in a group of notes, and mark phrases accordingly. Improper division of phrases will lead to harmonic problems. The 16th détaché notes should be played like separate legato ,and use more bow to make them sound better. Volume is not important in Bach solo, as after 10 bars, all that people can hear is dynamics, rather than volume.

d) Unlike another teacher you will see later in my blogs, Hattori is against body movement, especially when playing Bach (although when he was performing the Mozart last night at the Jury Concert, his body was not still!).

He left some a few minutes for a short question period, and one question was about Bach and dances. He modified his earlier point about keeping the body still, and he said that in some movements, such as the Gigue and Courante, the body can move a bit.

6 replies

Menuhin Competition in Beijing --The Senior Finalists

April 11, 2012 07:46

BEIJING -- Here are the Senior Finalists, and what they will play in the final round (click on their names and it will go to their performance videos from the competition):

1. Siyan Guo (China), 20 - Tchaikovsky violin concerto
2. Alexi Kenney (USA), 18 - Sibelius violin concerto in D minor
3. Ji Eun Anna Lee (Korea), 16 - Shostakovich violin concerto No 1 in A minor
4. Kenneth Arthur Renshaw (USA), 18 - Sibelius violin concerto in D minor

Here again is the live web stream, if you'd like to tune in and see some performances. Also, here is a cool page that allows you to choose individual contestants and to watch each of their completed performances, on demand: http://www.menuhincompetition.org/competitors-2012.html

The semi-final attracted so many audience members that the music hall was just not big enough for all of them. It must be tough for the jury to pick only four out of these outstanding semi-finalists. I thought Eunice Kim and Ke Zhu were both very strong, although Zhu at one point missed some notes due to the flying broken bow hair landed on the fingerboard. The sympathy in the audience was audible.

Here is Chinese violinist Ke Zhu playing Paganini Caprice 17:

Everyone I talked with loves Ji Eun Anna Lee. I’m not sure if you guys who have been watching the liveeam have noticed, but she had to wait for a few seconds before starting her second piece because someone in the audience sneaked in a toddler, who inevitably cried, so they had to be let out in middle of the concert. There are guards at the outside doors, and many volunteers (music students from the Central Conservatory of Music) at the inside doors to keep things in order, but there are just so many people coming in and out during each mini-break. It’s quite amazing that the whole thing has been running so smoothly.

Tomorrow will be a full-day masterclasses given by the jury, and then the jury will give a concert in the evening. My kind of day.

Here is American Alexi Kenney (one of the senior semi-finalists), playing the Gavotte and Rondo form Partita No. 3 in E by Bach:

10 replies

Menuhin Competition in Beijing -- The Junior Finalists are:

April 10, 2012 02:46

BEIJING -- From the Mehuhin Competition, the Junior Finalists are:

Grace Clifford (Australia), 13 years
Yehun Jin (Korean), 12 years
Angela Wee (American), 14 years
Ayana Tsuji (Japan), 14 years
Taiga Tojo (Japan), 14 years
Kevin Zhu (American), 11 years
Soo-Been Lee (Korean), 11 years
Alina Ming Kobialka (American), 15 years

Archive link

How to Practice, from Two 2010 Menuhin 1st Prize Winners

April 9, 2012 15:56

BEIJING -- Okay, this is official: two 2010 Menuhin 1st Prize Winners usually only practice one hour a day and two or three hours a day before a competition.

Last evening, Kerson Leong and Angelo (Xiang) Yu both had fantastic recital performance at Middle School of Conservatory of Music. There was a question-answer period at the end of their performance. The first question they got was about practice: How could one practice so little yet get the 1st prize? The answers came from Kerson and Angelo were pretty much same:
1. Think nine times then play once but not the other way around;
2. Mind practice: visualizing the music, how it should sound and how it can be best executed (bowing, fingering and shifting, etc.);
3. Slow practice the difficult fast passages; and
4. Keep a healthy life style with a lot of sports and exercise.

During this question-answer period, the parents of the winners were also on the stage to tell their stories. Kerson’s father (a physicist) talked about how he worked with Kerson on tone production and movements. Angelo (Xiang) Yu talked about the incredible strength he discovered inside himself when mourning his late mother. Engaging parents in this way gives the audience a quite different perspective about the competition that we usually don’t get by watching the competition at distance.

I think Menuhin Competition has done a pretty good job to show that that it’s a family event and the sacrifice and accomplishment of the parents are much appreciated. Having watched how the competitors interact with each other, discussed with some of the parents and an executive member of the Menuhin Competition, it becomes obvious that the competitors, while being extremely serious about their performance, generally treat the competition as a big party with family, making music and friends and having a grand time. Unlike sports, winning or losing seems to be of secondary importance to them. It’s kind of funny to think about how some of us (myself especially) watching the competition can get so worked up about who wins or loses over the competition.

7 replies

Menuhin Competition Beijing 2012 -- the Semi-Finalists are...

April 8, 2012 08:55

Zeyu Victor Li (China)
Eunice Kim (USA)
Siyan Guo (China)
Alexi Kenney (USA)
Zenas Hsu (USA)
Ke Zhu (China)
Gabriel Ng (Singapore)
Ji Eun Anna Lee (Korea)
Kenneth Arthur Renshaw (USA)

2 replies

Menuhin would be pleased to see these first couple of days of 2012 Beijing Competion

April 7, 2012 07:13

BEIJING -- I arrived in my hotel in Beijing less than an hour before the reception yesterday at the Menuhin Competition, but I am so glad I made it. (By the way the web stream for the Menuhin Competition can be found at this link: http://www.menuhincompetition.org/webeam.html It begins today!)

It was surreal to see so many world’s finest violinists in one room. Whether it is the years of very hard working or something special about the instrument they devote their life to, these famous artists are some of the most real and humble people I’ve met.

The Opening Concert was also a great success. It started with the exciting Enescu's Rhapsody for orchestra, performed by the China Youth Symphony Orchestra. Then a number of previous prize winners performed solo pieces, such as Mozart Violin Concerto No. 5 (Xiang Yu) and Bartok's First Rhapsody (Ning Feng). I am a big fan if Ning Feng (a fellow v.comer), and I think his Bartok was exquisite and full of love carried out by his superb technique. I met him during the reception before his performance. What a nice guy! His new biography was published last month in China. I can’t wait to read it. I’m also hoping to get a chance to interview him some day.

With Ning Feng

with Ning Feng

Speaking of interview, I have just scheduled an interview with Kerson Leong and his family. Kerson played Saint-Saëns - Introduction & Rondo Capriccioso during the opening with passion and technical ease. The audience went wild. An old gentleman sat next to me was in total disbelief and kept saying, “Oh, this is scary!” Yup, you'll see why this is so when you read my interview in near future.

Today is the first half of the senior round one. There are a few very fine competitors with Zeyu Li and Andi Zhang on top of my favorite list. The audience is very warm and supportive. They were first told not to clap but the audience couldn’t help themselves, so after a few hours, the panel relaxed the rule. I’m also impressed by a few quite young (look like 5-7 years old) kids in the audience, sitting there for hours quietly and cheerful. You can’t force young kids to love music like this.

Now if anyone is to argue with me about the value of violin competitions, I only need to remind them that they should keep their mind open and mouth closed until they’ve participated in one of these international events.

5 replies

China's National Grand Theater

April 4, 2012 15:29

If all goes well, I'll be writing my next blog right from here:

1 reply

Peking Roast Duck and Menuhin Competition

April 4, 2012 15:15

I’m very opinionated when it comes to food and I always suspect that French cuisine is overrated. Take for example duck confit, the unique duck flavour and natural tenderness just can’t possibly survive the amount of salt and lengthy cooking imposed on this dish and all you get is a pile of grease salty mush.

Very much like violin playing, I believe a duck can be handled with a lot lighter touch without losing its juiciness and oomph. If you’ve had Chinese roast duck, you’d know what I’m talking about. Every great dish has a story, and every great Chinese dish has a history stretches back for many centuries. Having more than 1500 years of duck roasting history in China doesn’t hurt. Partially due to the fact they are basically vegetarians, Chinese consider ducks to be much “cleaner” food than chickens or other animals and that they are “Ying food” and would keep our body cool and balanced.

What does this have to do with violin? Well, as many of you know this year’s Menuhin Competition will be held in the city of the world’s best roast duck, Beijing. Peking ducks! Imagine all the competitors and the members of the jury will be savouring them in between the competition rounds, workshops and the evening concerts. Of course, there are a lot more than just the Peking duck in Beijing. The completions will be held in the Chinese Central Conservatory of Music. The CCCoM is not an old institute (established in 1950), but its unique history adds a different touch to this prestige international violin competition:

A reminder, the Competition will have webeam starting at 10:00am Beijing time on Saturday April 7th.

Beijing is 8 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time. If you want to know what this means to your time zone, this link should give you the answer.

2 replies

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