Upon arriving at the Poznan (Poland) airport, a traveler with a love for classical music cannot help but notice a name emblazoned in large letters on the aerodrome: Henryk Wieniawski. A century after the birth of Poland’s beloved 19th century violin virtuoso and composer, the violin competition that bears his name was inaugurated.
That first iconic session back in 1935 boasted a stellar list of prize winners. Ginette Neveu, David Oistrakh and Henri Temianka were awarded the top three prizes with the seven-year-old Ida Haendel winning the seventh place and Hollywood’s prize violinist Bronislaw Gimpel taking the ninth place.
The oldest and one of the most revered amongst violin competitions, the International Henryk Wieniawski Violin Competition (HWC) moved from those early years in Warsaw to grace the city of Poznan every five years since 1952. The local reverence and deeply felt love for culture made visible at the airport carries through every aspect of the event, from its creative take on repertoire and carefully crafted, transparent jury rules to the buzz in a beautiful concert venue brimming nightly with crowds of violin aficionados and masses of attentive young children.
After an extra year hiatus due to the pandemic, the 16th edition of the HWC welcomed 31 pre-selected hopefuls between the ages of 16-29 from a record number of 224 candidates. Expert streaming on Youtube (still available to watch) and The Violin Channel granted welcome access to hundreds of thousands the world over.
BELOW: On Thursday violinist Hina Maeda was awarded first prize in the 16th International Henryk Wieniawski Violin Competition. Here she performs Violin Concerto No. 2 in D Minor, Op. 22 with the Poznan Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Lukasz Borowicz, in the Finals:
To prepare for the exhilaration of the finals, I took the decision to listen (not watch) the second round to reach an informed, objective opinion of the fifteen candidates vying for a coveted place in the third and final round. Two candidates who did not pass to the final round stood out in remarkable sonata and show piece renditions: Max Tan and Shihan Wang. Conversations with enthusiastic audience members who attended each and every performance for the full three weeks of rounds revealed several first round favorites including Sueye Park and Alexander Won-Ho Kim.
Taking a novel approach to jury composition, HWC XVI under Augustin Dumay’s stewardship eschewed the customary jury predominance of violin pedagogues augmented by famed soloists to adjudicate the final round for a lineup that included a conductor; a composer, a famed quartet violist, a feted cellist, and of course several celebrated violinists. To add to the transparency factor, the jury members scored each competitor in every piece to determine advancement to the next round. In the final round, the first and second round scores are weighted at 25 percent per round, with an additional 25 percent for each of the two concerti performed in the last round. Furthermore, in a truly bold move, the HWC will publish the individual jury member scores to eliminate any signs of partiality.
This year’s HWC was characterized by its appealing repertoire choices (sonata choices included the oft-ignored Grieg Second Sonata and compositions by Karel Szymanowski). To quote jury member Barnabas Keleman, the quest for "authenticity, style and musical sensitivity" was reinforced by the second round requirement to perform Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante. An excellent ‘trio’ of Polish violists and a particularly sensitive accompaniment led by Anna Duczmal-Mroz with the fine musicians of the Amadeus Chamber Orchestra made this one of the high points in the competition.
Augustin Dumay, the President of the jury was careful to clarify, "We say, yes to the craft of violin playing the violin, the technical skill so valued by all competitions, however, above all, the HWC strives to reward artistry and imagination."
Perhaps surprising to connoisseurs of competition, HWC repertoire requirements did not include contemporary compositions. Classical repertoire (Mozart; Beethoven; Brahms) sits at the core and Wieniawski is given pride of place in the finals, during which candidates are required to perform one of the master’s concertos along with a chosen concerto taken from a short list: Beethoven, Brahms, Dvorak and/or Mendelssohn.
While the option to perform the Mendelssohn concerto rather than the traditional competition warhorses Shostakovich, Sibelius and Tchaikovsky concerti might raise eyebrows, Augustin Dumay’s cogent commentary assuages critique and sheds light on his refreshing approach to competition repertoire. "We are looking for a deeper type of musical talent....all too often a competitor delivers an extraordinary Shostakovich Concerto only to sink to a disastrous level in Mozart. Rest assured, our approach to stylistic correctness is not rigid, rather shall we say, no mustache on the Mona Lisa."
Success at the highest competitive level is predicated on choice. Some of these choices provide a great deal of food for thought on this blog. When should an accomplished player take the plunge to showcase their competitive side: as a teenager, or at the older end of the spectrum (late 20s)? If given a choice of several concerti to pair with a Wieniawski Concerto, does Beethoven provide the appropriate vehicle in a competitive setting? Should the candidates strive for a concert performance or does the weight of a competition with its time-honored emphasis on technical perfection win the day? Cutting to the chase, the first evening of finals offered a feast of the finest technique imaginable. For those who might think that the pandemic wreaked havoc on artistic productivity, an introduction to the six HWC finalists is in order.
The first evening opened with two candidates opting for the Beethoven Concerto, and one performance of each of the Wieniawski concerti.
Hana Chang (Japan/Singapore/USA, age 20) boasts a picture perfect technique that lends her an ease of performance that inspires awe. Her ability to spin pianissimo passages in the Beethoven Concerto created a soundspace of pure magic. A wonderful artist who will undoubtedly blossom in the near future, Ms. Chang will benefit from greater exposure and more public performance.
Dayoon You (South Korea, age 21) stunned all within earshot with his incredible rendition of Wieniawski’s fiendishly difficult Concerto No. 1. Interesting to note, the concerto was written when its violin-virtuoso composer was a mere 17. This powerhouse performance replete with pyrotechnics was a testimony to the high level of the HWC’s final round.
The refined Jane (Hyeonjin) Cho (South Korea, age 25) shone with an uncanny attention to detail, a tangible link to the musical score with each and every phrase. Perhaps the Beethoven concerto would have been a better channel to communicate her refinement instead of the Brahms concerto chosen.
Meruert Karmenova (Kazachstan, age 29) offered a full-blooded Brahms that showed her experience as a fully developed artist to good advantage. In the competitive arena old-style, audiences and juries alike have been swayed by the ‘youth’ factor. At HWC 16, thankfully, this competitor was given a warm audience reception for a strongly focused Brahms and emotionally mature Wieniawski.
The two final competitors, Hina Maeda (Japan, age 20) and Qingzhu Weng (China 21) literally brought down the house. One of the few competitors who has not studied outside of his/her homeland, Hina Maeda lives every note she plays. Her passionate ability to invite the audience to her onstage home led us to believe that she was actually composing the music she played. Her passion and cantilena presage true greatness. An eight-year old sitting beside me whispered, "such a small girl, such a big heart."
A poet amongst the finalists, Qingzhu Weng showed his star quality in the most imaginative amongst the Wieniawski Concerto No. 2 performances. Beyond technical prowess, he expertly navigated between lyricism and showmanship, bringing a panoply of color to the forefront.
A master in a field of words, Rainer Maria Rilke reflected, "being an artist means, not reckoning and counting, but ripening like a tree." Long may these outstanding finalists continue to grow and grace our musical cosmos to leave their indelible mark on musical history. Diversity in terms of jury composition netted a result that rang true to all those who were privileged to listen to the exhilarating HWC 16.
Winners of the 2022 Wieniawski Competition were announced Thursday:
The other three finalists - Hana Chang, 20, of Japan/Singapore/United States; Jane Hyeonjin Cho, 25, of South Korea; and Dayoon You, 21, of South Korea - were awarded Distinctions.
Jury members for this year's edition included Augustin Dumay (Chairman), Daniel Stabrawa (Vice-Chair), Agnieszka Duczmal, Barnabás Kelemen, René Koering, Grzegorz Kotów, Bartlomiej Niziol, Mariusz Patyra, Miguel da Silva, Jian Wang and Christopher Warren-Green.
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