Finals Begin in the Montreal International Violin Competition 2016

May 30, 2016, 10:47 PM · MONTREAL -- Concert-goers walked into a sun-filled glass atrium on this gorgeous spring Monday for the start of two nights of Finals in the Montreal International Violin Competition at the Maison Symphonique de MontrĂ©al.

The competition has been in progress since May 23, and six finalists remain. On Monday, Ji Won Song (South Korea), Fedor Rudin (France/Russia) and Minami Yoshida (Japan) each played a full concerto with the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero. The remaining three finalists, Petteri Iivonen (Finland), Ayana Tsuji (Japan) and Bomsori Kim (South Korea) will perform Tuesday night. Though none of the six finalists is American, three studied and reside in the U.S.: Iivonen, Kim and Song. (Watch all the performances, past and present, here.)

South Korean violinist Ji Won Song, 23, who lives in Boston, began the evening with a committed and masterful performance of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto.

Ji Won Song
Ji Won Song. Photo by Tam Lan Truong, courtesy of CMIM.

She produced a rich and buoyant tone from the 1774 Guadagnini she plays. The first-movement cadenza was particularly arresting, bringing the audience to a moment complete still and quiet. Song tended to play on the forward edge of the beat, and this was particularly so in the second movement. It was beautiful but brisk. The orchestra seemed as though it was trying to breathe during its short interludes, but not getting time, like a rubato in which time is compressed but never restored.

If Song had a need for speed, the third movement provided an ideal vehicle. Here her playing sparkled, and her technique allowed her to push forward without ever tripping. Conductor Guerrero, highly animated, seemed to enjoy the balletic elements in tutti sections of Tchaikovsky's score. The audience clapped heartily and wanted her to come out a second time, but she did not.

Fedor Rudin, 23, showed his capacity for high-level pyrotechnics in Henryk Wieniawski's Violin Concerto No. 1, a work far less-often-played than the composer's Violin Concerto No. 2.

Fedor Rudin
Fedor Rudin. Photo by Tam Lan Truong, courtesy of CMIM.

Reasons why the average violinists might avoid it were readily apparent with the entrance of the soloist -- in a passage of 10th double-stops. Frankly, that's just diabolicial, but Rudin jumped in with just a few hairpin misses that I barely wish to acknowledge, due to the insane difficulty of picking these notes out of the sky. Along the way he showed us some great down-bow staccato as well as other tricks: artificial harmonics, more 10ths in up-bow staccato, rapid down-bow triple stops, octaves, etc. The second movement gave Rudin the opportunity to sing, and the third movement Rondo seemed like a dance. Toward the end he teased just the right notes out of a stream of what seemed like a million of them.

Minami Yoshida, 17, the youngest of the finalists, showed herself to be a powerhouse in her performance the Violin Concerto by Jean Sibelius.

Minami Yoshida
Minami Yoshida. Photo by Tam Lan Truong, courtesy of CMIM.

While Yoshida was capable of bursts of outright aggression and monster energy, she also created moments of quiet, with a mesmerizing cadenza in the first movement. That same movement culminated in a great storm of sound and energy. Yoshida showed her ability to create and sustain long musical lines in the second movement, which ended in an exquisite harmonic. Her awareness of the orchestra (and vice versa -- the Montreal Symphony and conductor were sensitive and capable partners all evening long) showed in the third movement, which is frankly a big rhythmic morass, but in the right hands, it gives us one of the best orchestral apotheoses in the repertoire.

I'm looking forward to more finals tomorrow night! Here is the video of the performance described in this review; please feel free to add your own observations in the comments.

Earlier in the evening, I stopped by the beautiful sun-filled lobby to hear a pre-concert talk by 2013 Gold Medal winner Marc Bouchkov.

Jury member Boris Brott and 2013 Montreal Competition Gold Medalist Marc Bouchkov. Photo by

He began with a treat for us, a performance of the first movement of Ysaye's Sonata No. 5 "L'Aurore" -- it's a musical depiction of a sunrise, and somehow it seemed right for this unusually bright day, those musical rays of sun shooting out everywhere by the end of it.

As is the case with Montreal in general, Marc spoke mostly in French, with some English here and there. I was reminded of the fact that though music is the universal language, French is not! (Beautiful though it may be!) Yet the very fact that I listened with rapt attention to an entire lecture in a language I don't speak, and that I felt I actually understood much of it, reminded me of one of the fundamental reasons why Bouchkov took first prize in the last Montreal violin competition: he knows how to connect with an audience.

A few of the things that I did catch: Many people win first prize in a competition, "and they don't get anything afterwards," Bouchkov said. Though a competition win can give you a push in the right direction, an artist will still need luck, circumstances falling into place, the ability to meet people. The artist will still have to build that career for himself or herself.

Asked how important it is for a performing artist to have a "signature," Bouchkov replied, "That's pretty much the most important thing." That is, having one's own voice, justified by one's own intellectual process -- not just doing what your teacher says.

An audience sees this, he said.

"I don't believe it when people say that the audience doesn't understand," Bouchkov said. Sure, the audience may not know the technical or theoretical details of a piece of classical music, "but the honesty and power brought by the player, this they understand."

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