Shanghai Isaac Stern International Violin Competition 2020/21 Semi-Finals: Day 1 Summary

August 18, 2021, 4:03 PM · The virtual semi-finals started on Wednesday in the 2020 Shanghai Isaac Stern International Violin Competition, with participants each contributing their performances from various corners of the globe. (The competition is keeping its "2020" designation because of Isaac Stern's centenary that year).

With this competition attracting some of the best young talent from across the world, it's always interesting to see their performances, which you can find on the SISIVC Youtube channel. I watched their performances, and below is my summary, along with video for you to watch as well.

For this round, violinists each played a Sonata (either Beethoven's Sonata No. 5 in F major, Op. 24 or Brahms' Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 1 in G major, Op. 78), followed by one of the two Beethoven Romances. Contestants included Yue Qian (China); Jingzhi Zhang (China); Rino Yoshimoto (Japan); Katherine Woo (United States); Thomas Lefort (France) and Marie Bégin (Canada).

The videos each capture three performers. Enjoy!

Something that I noticed immediately in these performances - and this is an overall observation and not a criticism of any particular player - was distressing omission of the names of most of the pianists who played in these rounds, and the fact that the pianists often were visually obstructed by the violinists who were performing, or they were nearly out of the picture. It's particularly jarring in a performance of a Beethoven Sonata -- urtext editions actually call these "Sonatas for Piano and Violin" - the piano is listed first because its role is so important (and at times primary!) in these collaborative works.

Of course, the nature of an online competition makes things more complicated, with every performer having to make his or her own video. I'm not sure if contestants were given guidelines for camera placement, but something that allows the viewer to see the pianist would have been preferable.

The first performer was Yue Qian, who began with Beethoven's Sonata No. 5 in F major, Op. 24. Despite the fact that her pianist was blocked from view, the two instrumentalists were well-synchronized musically, especially in unison parts. In fact, the third movement was a delightfully intricate dance, with detailed dynamics.

Qian is a native of China with quite an impressive academic record. Currently working on her DMA with Bing Wang at the University of Southern California, she earned her masters with Ronald Copes at Juilliard and undergraduate degree at USC with Midori Goto. Before that she studied at Interlochen with Yuri Namkung and at the Shanghai Conservatory with Binyou Zhou. Add to that, currently she also is teaching chamber music at the Tianjin Juilliard School Pre-college.

Qian played the Beethoven Romance No. 1, which starts with a series of double-stops. She did a great job of connecting these double-stops (no easy feat) as well as playing them with clean intonation.

Next was Rino Yoshimoto of Japan immediately made an impression with her well-articulated opening in Beethoven's Sonata No. 5 in F, Op. 24. Showing personality, she even danced a little when playing, and she was well aware of her partner at the piano, backing off when the piano had the melody. Together, their scale runs were very precise. In the slower second movement, Yoshimoto spun a smooth-flowing and coherent melody, and the buoyant spirit of the third-movement Scherzo came off well, also.

Yoshimoto, who is 18, studies with both Michael Frischenschlager at the University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna and Augustin Dumay at the Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel and has won prizes in a number of competitions.

She concluded with Beethoven's Romance No. 2, using long and well-sculpted phrases, dovetailing the violin's endings into the piano's beginnings.

The second session of the day began with a violinist from the United States, Katherine Woo, who is 22. Currently pursuing her Master of Music degree at Juilliard, Woo has studied with Sylvia Rosenberg and Masao Kawasaki. She also spent two years in the Columbia-Juilliard Exchange Program as a Neuroscience and Behavior major.

Woo also played Brahms Sonata No. 1 in G major, Op. 78, showing great ease with the instrument, like it's as much a part of her as her arm is. In the first movement she held the musical tension well, creating exciting and long phrases. The second movement was a bit fast, though that didn't get in the way of the music making, which seemed very intentional. She also did well making sudden changes in the music.

Woo played Beethoven's Romance No. 2, creating a melody with clear direction, intonation and details. Her trills clear and audible, and she played with confidence and mastery

Next, Thomas LeFort, 27, of France performed Beethoven Sonata No. 5 in F major, Op. 24, with Pierre-Yves Hodique, an impressive pianist with very clear rhythm and accurate runs. (LeFort did submit the name of the pianist who collaborated with him). These were two sensitive musicians, working together, and in the second movement particularly they created a sense of spacious time - not hurried nor dragging. The rhythmic interplay in the third movement was satisfying as well. Discovered at age 13 by Ivry Gitlis, Lefort has studied at the Conservatoire de Paris with Roland Daugareil, and with Salvatore Accardo and Renaud Capuçon. LeFort also played Beethoven's Romance No. 1.

Next was Canadian violinist Marie Bégin, who played beautifully, but the camera placement for her performance was problematic, placed so close to her that it exaggerated her physical movement as she played. I don't think her movement was actually out of normal range, but the camera angle made it seem so, added to the fact that her music seemed to be placed below her and to the right, rather than the left as usual. I hate to focus on such a thing, but in truth it distracted from an otherwise excellent performance. Again, this would not be an issue under normal circumstances, on a stage where every contestant was placed more or less in the same way.

Bégin is a graduate of the Conservatoire de musique de Québec, where she studied with Andrée Azar, Jean Angers, and Darren Lowe; and she also studied in Europe with Zakhar Bron.

Playing on a 1710-1715 Carlo Bergonzi violin (on loan from Canimex Group), she started with Brahms Sonata No. 1 in G major, Op. 78. There were moments in the second movement where she went down to nearly no vibrato, as an effect. She gave the third movement a smooth-edged interpretation, with a good sound and energy, and nice pacing that kept the music exciting toward the end. She concluded with Beethoven's Romance No. 2, which just kept getting better as it went along, as she drew a great sound and melody out of her violin.

* * *

The virtual semi-finals will continue for the Shanghai competition through Saturday, when Finalists will be announced. The SISIVC plans to hold the Finals in Shanghai in 2022.

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August 19, 2021 at 12:22 AM · Refreshing to see Beethoven Romances required in a top-level competition.

August 19, 2021 at 09:13 AM · thank you Laurie, for the interesting, high-quality reporting!

August 19, 2021 at 09:23 AM · Rino Yoshimoto is quite impressive, *and* she studies in Brussels! go Belgium! ;-)

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