Review: Shanghai Competition Day 1 Finals: Nancy Zhou and Yun Tang

August 30, 2018, 7:41 PM · SHANGHAI -- The first night of finals at the Shanghai Isaac Stern International Violin Competition highlighted a promising new piece for the violin by Chinese composer Qigang Chen while beginning the three-day round with performances by Nancy Zhou, 25, of the United States and Yun Tang, 26, of China, with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Michael Stern.

Nancy Zhou
Violinist Nancy Zhou, 25, of the United States. Photo courtesy of the SISIVC.

Zhou began the Finals Thursday with the first of what will be six performances of Chen's "La joie de la souffrance" ("the joy of suffering"), commissioned in part by the Shanghai competition. The new piece was premiered in October 2017 by Maxim Vengerov at the the 20th Beijing Music Festival with the China Philharmonic and conductor Long Yu. Competitors also each are required to play a major concerto, choosing between the Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Glazunov, Prokofiev 1, Dvorak concertos or Bernstein Serenade.

Chen's piece begins slowly, ascending from a long open G into a series of chords -- in Zhou's hands this opening was quite arresting. The orchestra paints a dark and shadowy picture, gloomy but with a few glimmers of light. When the cellos played soli I thought of something Chen said in an interview earlier today: that he actually considers the cello to be most like the human voice, not the violin. Zhou, however, certainly used the violin as a voice, with a lush vibrato. Having listened to some of Chen's other works such as Wu Xing and Iris devoilée I wasn't sure whether or not to expect traditional Western harmony or melody, but "La joie de la souffrance" had plenty of both -- with downright singable melodies, based on an ancient Chinese melody dating from the Tang Dynasty.

Chen throws in quite a few tricks for the violinist: an extended section with ricochet, many passages of rapid notes mercilessly and inconveniently spread across four strings, double-stops, notes that test how high a violin can actually go, as well as rhythmic challenges. Zhou met these challenges tidily.

The piece is not divided into three movements but is more episodic. Toward the end is a dizzying collage of notes, a kind of perpetual motion section, which Zhou played with energy and accuracy. That is followed by a slower and extremely high expression of the melody (the highest note being an F - I'll describe it as an octave higher than high) -- fingers have to be placed so closely, it's like walking a tightrope. Zhou made it happen, keeping a good sound and accurate intonation. The piece simply ends with this ascension.

For her major concerto, Zhou played the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, a piece that suits her well. The piece is an old friend to most orchestras, which can help in a situation such as a competition, in which there is limited rehearsal time that has to be divided among many different players. Zhou played the piece with lightning-fast fingers. During slow sections she sometimes fell forward, getting ahead of the orchestra. She showed impressive control and agility in the concerto's most difficult passages. Her first-movement cadenza was decisive and masterful; well-paced in a very individual way. In the second movement she did not chose to go up an octave where many do (following Tchaikovsky's original version, I believe). The third movement was, well, speed-of-light fast, with a ton of energy (this being at the very end of two arduous pieces) and very articulate. It was fast for my taste, but so well-played that I can't complain. In this live performance she hit maybe two wrong notes; she received very enthusiastic applause and a second ovation from the audience.

Yun Tang
Violinist Yun Tang, 26, of China. Photo courtesy of the SISIVC.

Next was Yun Tang, who began with a performance of the Dvorak Concerto in A minor, Op. 53. The Dvorak is an inherently energetic piece, full of beautiful melodies. Tang performed with great stage presence, but despite her outgoing playing, much of the time the orchestra covered her sound. The imbalance likely starts with Dvorak's rather thick orchestral writing, but a bit more sensitivity would have helped correct it. Orchestra and soloist also simply did not line up rhythmically, which took away from what could have been much more emotional moments in the second movement. Things improved in the rollicking third movement, which felt more coordinated and precise. Tang played this movement with punch and character, veering perhaps a little too fast for comfort toward the end.

To conclude the evening, Tang played her interpretation of Chen's "La joie de la souffrance," starting it with a nice long line, shaping the first melody nicely. Her pacing worked well to create a big picture with the many episodes, and she played the ricochet part quite fast. A melody started in the orchestra, sounding lush and old-fashioned, with the occasional Chinese ornaments. Her straightforward approach to the melodies worked well. During a solo violin section she was able to create a narrative that really made sense, starting simple, then growing hesitant, then gaining courage and moving, then emerging again as an echo. She created some wonderful moments in this piece. Toward the end of this 40+-minute piece, though, she seemed to lose some of that sure footing.

Friday's performances will include Diana Tishchenko, 28, of Ukraine, who will perform as her major concerto the Tchaikovsky Concerto for Violin in D major Op. 25; and Jia Yi Chen, 22, of China, who will perform the Dvorak Concerto in A minor, Op. 53. Saturday's performances will include Chang Yuan Ting, 18, of Canada, who will perform the Brahms Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77; and Olga Šroubková, 25, of Czechia, who will perform the Tchaikovsky Concerto for Violin in D major Op. 25

The jury for the SISIVC 2018 is co-chaired by conductor David Stern, son of Isaac Stern, and Vera Tsu Weiling, who is a professor of violin at both Shanghai and Beijing Conservatories. Other members of the jury include violinists Maxim Vengerov and Augustin Dumay; violin pedagogues Zakhar Bron, Dora Schwarzberg and Daniel Heifetz; leaders in China's violin scene Lina Yu and Siqing Lu; Shanghai Quartet violinist Weigang Li; Emerson Quartet violinist Philip Setzer; former NY Phil concertmaster Glenn Dicterow; Munich Philharmonic concertmaster Sreten Krstic; artist manager Martin Campbell-White and Philharmonie de Paris programming director Emmanuel Hondré.

The competition will award a first prize of $100,000. Second prize will be $50,000 and third prize $25,000, with a prize of $10,000 awarded for the best performance of the Chinese work, Qigang Chen’s "La joie de la souffrance." Winners in the 2016 Shanghai competition included first-prize winner Mayu Kishima of Japan, with Sergei Dogadin of Russia coming in second and Serena Huang of the United States third.

Winners will be announced Sept. 1.

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