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Tips from the top: Rosanne Philippens shares Queen Elisabeth Competition insights

Heather Kurzbauer

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Published: May 21, 2015 at 10:50 PM [UTC]

Depending on which sources are your mantra, diverse musical figures including Bela Bartok, Claude Debussy and Igor Stravinsky asserted, "Competitions are for horses, not musicians." Proper attribution aside, such observation holds more than a modicum of truth. Truth notwithstanding, music contests are more popular than ever before. Great numbers of hopefuls crowd the circuit, new competitions can be found worldwide and millions of listeners/ viewers tune in and add their two cents worth after live streaming.

Belgium's Queen Elisabeth International Music Competition (QEIMC) reigns supreme amongst classical music contests with eight decades of myth and magic linked to its illustrious name. Epic violinists including David Oistrakh, Leonid Kogan, Philippe Hirshhorn, Vadim Repin and Nikolaj Znaider have shown their mettle and garnered the coveted Premier Prix while living legends such as Ana Chumachenco, Gideon Kremer and Noah Bendix-Balgley are but a few of the laureates who have passed to the final round of twelve players. Looking beyond the lists of distinguished finalists, a glance at the semifinalists, the penultimate 24 chosen brings many a prominent performer's name to the fore. In the heat of competitive glory, how does it feel to 'almost' reach the final round?

Closing the door on a major music competition is inevitably disappointing, even traumatic for some. Months, more often, years of preparation lead to the moment suprême. Backstage interviews tell tales of letdowns that go beyond the personal: contestants feel that their mentors and even their countrymen share a stake in their competitive success. And then there is mind-numbing exhaustion that empty feeling 'after the race' described by Hirshhorn as 'all-consuming.' caught up with Rosanne Philippens, a Dutch violinist who recently stole the hearts of discerning listeners in Brussels.

Back home in Amsterdam after the semifinal rounds, she shared pearls of wisdom for all those who consider entering the competitive arena. Strengthened by the conviction that reaching the semifinals at a major competition is an achievement in and of itself, she repeated a strong, simple point.

"Musicians are drawn to expression, to sharing ideas within a rich and varied repertoire," she said. "This is the essence of what we do and who we are. The first round at the QEIMC was an incredible experience: I walked out on stage and to my surprise I discovered that the hall was full! Imagine the first rounds of a competition attracting so much enthusiasm. This inspired me to go for it and play as if I were giving the concert of my life, although I would probably not program Paganini on a recital! "

All rounds are not created equal. Elated to move on to the second round, Rosanne learned that giving your all was not necessarily the best modus for competitive success.

“Although this might seem a bit strange, I did not realize that there is a ‘contest’ aspect along with the ‘performance’ aspect at top competitions," she said. "I learned that a competition is a world in and of itself where many components beyond your level play a role. Repertoire choices for contestants are often made with the intent to 'win'. A winners program, a set of pieces that persuades a jury might well be different from your dream recital program."

QEIMC semifinalists are required to perform a Mozart concerto, a specially commissioned work (the 2015 selection: an ethereal tone poem by Vykintas Baltakas) and Ysaye's e minor Sonata op. 27. In addition, the jury chooses an additional piece selected from two recital programs presented in advance by the candidates. It is interesting to note that while some semifinalists were required to perform showpieces (a preponderance of Waxman’s Carmen Fantasy this year) others competed with a Brahms or Beethoven sonata. The jury is out with regard to the wisdom of comparing a sonata to a showpiece as pundits ponder the consequences of such choices.

"In my opinion, I was fortunate to be able to perform Brahms’ Second Sonata with an incredible pianist (Thomas Hoppe)," Rosanne said.

To prepare for her interpretation of Mozart's 5th Concerto, Rosanne purposefully avoided listening to recordings in order to find her own source for inspiration.

“This concerto bears such a resemblance to Cosi fan tutte - imagine my delight to reopen the doors to Mozart's operas," she said. "Drama, text, joy and action and even an analogous Turkish march. I was surprised to hear from several jury members that my Mozart did not fit into an acceptable template, a so-called framework suitable to Mozart. Since when does Mozart arguably one of the most original composition talents call for a framework? An interpretation should be well thought out, convincing and expressive, not merely a correct repetition of an 'accepted' version. Even though several jury members seemed to take offense with my Mozart, I stand by my interpretation."

For this refreshingly original young artist, 'to thine own self be true' takes precedence over artistic compromise. Rosanne Philippens will take her Mozart on tour this fall: "an interpretation that is open to change, inevitably a performance I stand behind, not a framework but an invitation to experience."

Vive la différence.

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From jean dubuisson
Posted on May 22, 2015 at 6:46 AM
Rosanna's Mozart performance at the competition can be viewed online:

Semi-final 2015: Rosanne Philippens---concerto

I listened to it and, not being educated in "the right style" for playing Mozart, I'd like to learn from more knowledgeable people what aspects of this performance could be considered "wrong". At any rate I enjoy this performance very much except perhaps for a few very small intonation issues, but that is most probably not what is meant by "being outside the traditional Mozart framework".

Posted on May 22, 2015 at 8:56 AM
I saw Ms Philippens live, in semi finals, and precisely found her Mozart refreshing, sparkling, probably as Mozart would have liked it being played nowadays, and also very moving in the slow movement.
As a lot of people sitting near to me ( most of them musicians and/ or cultivated people), I was fed up with the Carmen "show" we had to hear more or less 3 times a day and I appreciated the musicality of this Brahms.
And her Ysaÿe was also one of my favourites.
Maybe one should wonder about the average age of the members of the jury, all very talented but ...
Competition or not, this young lady is one of the only candidates I would care to see in concert and to take time for it in my buzy schedule...
From Bram Heemskerk
Posted on May 22, 2015 at 7:14 PM
"It is interesting to note that while some semifinalists were required to perform showpieces (a preponderance of Waxman’s Carmen Fantasy this year) others competed with a Brahms or Beethoven sonata. The jury is out with regard to the wisdom of comparing a sonata to a showpiece as pundits ponder the consequences of such choices."
Repertoirechoice is also important in a competition. Too much Waxman's Carmen Fantasy's or too much Tsaijkovsky or Sibelius in the final is boring for the audience and it is a pity the candidates could not choose The 1st or 2nd Mozart concerto (In Hannover they could choose between 5 Mozart and 3 Haydn violin concerto's), but I do not understand why noone choose this piece for the recital: Poème Elégiaque, Op. 12 of Ysaye. Ok again Ysaye after the obliged sonata, but great impressionistic music from a Belgian composer in Brussel with which you can tell the audience a lot of you as violinist:

Hannes Minnaar
made a good choice with Miroirs of Ravel in the recital. later he has recorded this piece:

I hope in the next piano edition someone will play Reflets dans l'eau from Debussy in the recital or perhaps everybody in the 1st round? But ok I like impressionistic music:

Posted on May 23, 2015 at 12:48 PM
Hmmm… I have some thoughts I want to get out here, to see whether any of you can enlighten me. Basically, I’m kind of puzzled as to what the fuss regarding Rosanne Philippens’ not making it to the finals is all about. I’m not criticizing her playing, I just found myself pondering the reaction to her being eliminated from the competition. I’m just an enthusiastic amateur, so I’ll be glad if someone with more expertise could shed some light on this. Mind, it’s kind of long (see TL;DR at the end). ;)

1)First of all, this is what I’m talking about:
- Philippens’ facebook post in which she repeated Varga’s comment about her having “nailed her coffin” with the Mozart and the “crazy Dutch girl remark”. Regarding the latter, it’s not entirely clear to me whether he actually said that or whether that was attributed to him by Philippens because it was what seemed to be going through his mind while giving the feedback.
- The reactions to the Facebook post: naturally supportive, plus a photo of Philippens waiting in the hall of one/some other jury member(s) hotel because s/he/they wanted to see her and “this was not a unanimous decision”
- Reactions to the semifinalist announcements here and on FB
- This article

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I see this as a big controversy or whatever, but while there are usually some reactions along the lines of “oh shame, I liked his/her playing”, I think this is a bit more of a reaction than usual. Feel free to contradict me though. I definitely understand the immediate reaction of disappointment, and as to the Facebook posts, of course supporters are going to, well, support, but some of the comments seemed a bit, I don’t know, defensive and bitter. Why the need to say that not all judges agreed? Of course they didn’t, there’s twelve of them! And apparently, enough of them did want her in the semifinal. It’s not like it’s a shame not to make it to the finals of a very tough competition. Surely at this level semifinals is already great, and anything more is a huge bonus?

So I didn’t get why there is more of a reaction regarding Philippens than there usually seems to be. Regarding Varga’s remarks, if he really said the “Dutch girl” thing, that’s obviously a stupid slip. Reparding the Mozart remark, see below. Regarding the recital programme, the above implied (intentionally or not) that the jury managed to bias certain candidates through their choice of the recital option, and that this unfairly played to Philippens’ disadvantage, as the Waxman flashiness gave candidates more of a chance of going through. However, 7 out of the 12 finalists didn’t play the Waxman; so I think that’s clearly not the case. Another explanation would be that Philippens is just very good and that it’s a shame she’s out, which makes sense, but really, there’s no one who’s not “very good”, and it’s a tough selection. I may prefer some of those who didn’t make it to some of those who made it, but that’s exactly what this is: preference. Which leads me to my second point.

2) I don’t think, but again, correct me if I’m wrong, there’s an objective reason why Philippens SHOULD have been in the final. A couple of remarks showed some bitterness towards the jury (or towards Varga anyway), implying he’s “wrong” for not liking her Mozart or whatever. But you can’t really say someone’s preference is “wrong”, can you? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I don’t think personal preference should overtake rational assessment. I think and hope that jury members try to be as objective as possible and try to keep their personal tastes out of their judging as much as possible. However, I think the judging should always take both technique and musicianship into account, and here’s the rub: how can you ever objectively judge musicianship? It kind of comes down to whether the playing hits the right, your personal right, spots, doesn’t it? So as far as I know some personal preference will always shine through.

Now I understand the QE jury is known to be rather conservative, and I don’t expect the more “out there” interpretations to win. The interpretation of Philippens’ elimination also came down to the idea that some members didn’t like her Mozart because they are too conservative and her Mozart wasn’t, was too refreshing for them. I’m not disagreeing with that analysis, but I think I disagree with the idea that their conservatism somehow makes their judgment less valid. I’m just wondering – aren’t these members entitled to their opinion, don’t they have the right of preferring a more conservative Mozart? If the topics on favourite violinists on here teach us anything, it’s that a lot of violinists don’t work for everyone. If conservative playing doesn’t work for me, as a jury member I would try to be objective but, since this playing doesn’t “do” anything for me musically, I would probably mark this candidate down for that category, how could I not? I don’t see why the same shouldn’t be true for the opposite: if jury member x doesn’t like violinist X because his/her playing is too controversial and doesn’t work for said jury member, it’s also going to affect his/her marking. I don’t agree with conservatism and it may well be that there are blockheads in the jury who disagree with anything new (though I don’t think the selected semi-finalists are all that conservative and boring, so not sure), I just think they have a right to prefer what they prefer, and unless judging is suddenly entirely objective, that preference is going to affect the marking.

Maybe I’m overthinking this, probably I’m stating the obvious, and maybe I’m not experienced enough to judge and there is actually a way in which musicality can be more objectively judged. Feel free to contradict me, I’m really just throwing this out there in order to learn!

3)And finally, I’d like to second Jean Dubuisson’s question above: what exactly was so particular about Philippens’ Mozart? It’s really just a question – I see the Competition as a huge free opportunity to develop my listening skills and to learn to discern differences between players (not necessarily as to right or wrong, more to develop my personal taste). I personally liked her Mozart but didn’t really get what made it so exceptional – people mentioned it’s vivid, sparkly, etc, but those are really only vague descriptions – I’d use the same words to describe some of the other Mozarts and I don’t think the jury would think “sparkly” doesn’t fit the Mozart framework. So I’d be grateful if anyone could give some concrete reasons as to what made it “different”.

1)Why is there a stronger than usual response to Philippens’ elimination?
2)Can you blame the “conservative” preferences of (some members of) the jury? Can and should they be more objective?
3)What was controversial about Philippens’ Mozart?

Thanks for anyone who made it through this wall of text and anyone who wants to reply!

Posted on May 23, 2015 at 2:51 PM
Granted, the world is literally littered with great violinists, yet I find it remiss in speaking about competitions that the name of Ilya Kaler is not on the lips of all who are aware of his accomplishments....and have heard/seen him perform.
From Alexander Regalado
Posted on May 23, 2015 at 11:09 PM
Of course she is extremely good, but I am not surprised she did not progress. There was nothing blasphemous in her Mozart interpretation, but in a competition she is compared to others, and hers was one of the more undisciplined interpretations. She was often too soft and held some notes for too long, making her phrasing not concise. It seems petty, but Mozart benefits greatly from simplicity and clarity, so every little thing sticks out a lot, especially if it is not what Mozart wrote.

I was more surprised that Ji-Won Song did not progress.

From Bram Heemskerk
Posted on May 24, 2015 at 12:16 PM
Ok, I have to do first some research, but now found out that Eugène Ysaÿe : Poème élégiaque op. 12 has been played in 2009 in the semi's by Mayu Kishima who played later in the final. You can still hear the audio on the E-competionsite.
Reflets dans l'eau from Images from Debussy
has been played in the semi's for piano in 1978 and the final in 1938. There are is audio from both concerts.

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