Shanghai Isaac Stern International Violin Competition 2020/21 Semi-Finals: Day 2 Summary

August 20, 2021, 1:23 AM · While I was listening on my computer to the virtual semi-finals in the 2020 Shanghai Isaac Stern International Violin Competition, I suddenly heard applause coming from the other room.

It was my husband Robert, who could hear the Brahms Sonata floating into his office.

"There should be applause - it's so sad there's no applause!" he said.

And it's true, these talented young violinists from across the world deserve applause, as well as a nice big audience to appreciate their talents. It's just one of those drawbacks to a virtual competition, which was simply unavoidable during a global pandemic. But we can still applaud their talents by giving these musicians our attention.

In that spirit, I offer you Day 2 of the SISIVC semi-finals, which is a continuation of Day 1. 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 for violin. This session features violinists William Lee (Taiwan, China), Ruifeng Lin (China), Felicitas Schiffner (Germany), KayCee Galano (Philippines), Charlie Lovell-Jones (United Kingdom), Angela Sin Ying Chan (Hong Kong, China) and Shannon Lee (United States). You can find more performances, including quarter-finals, on the SISIVC Youtube channel.

Day 2 of the semi-finals began with Brahms Sonata No. 1, played by William Lee of Taiwan, who is currently a student at The Juilliard School with Masao Kawasaki. It was actually Lee who was playing, when my husband applauded from the next room! Lee produced a beautiful tone, with clean shifts and an extremely accurate left hand. The third movement was especially elegant, and he smiled as he played this music that so cleverly and frequently changes direction.

Lee opted to perform the first Beethoven Romance, and he seemed relaxed and at ease with the double stops that appear throughout, giving a smooth performance.

Next was Ruifeng Lin of China, who studies with Vera Tsu Weiling at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. He gave an energetic and committed performance of Beethoven's Sonata No. 5, Op. 24. For this video, the camera actually did not show the pianist at all, which does seem a major omission in a piece that so prominently features piano. Nevertheless, a Beethoven sonata requires a very artful approach on the part of the violinist, and Lin's dynamics were on-target, and the music was well-coordinated with the piano part.

Lin played Beethoven's Romance No. 2, and I started to notice that some violinists were beginning the piece on the E string and simply embracing the open "E," as Lin did, while others played up on the A string to avoid it. A few did both for contrast. Either approach works when done convincingly, as he did here.

Next, German violinist Felicitas Schiffner, playing on a 1863 Vuillaume violin, started the Beethoven's Sonata No. 5 with eye contact and clear communication with the pianist playing with her. A real highlight of Schiffner's performance was the second movement, which was full of beautiful melody-making, which even felt at times like story-telling. Dynamics were well-placed, with an awareness of the ever-changing balance between piano and violin, and she seemed to take real pleasure in playing it. Schiffner also opted to play Beethoven's Romance No 2.

I enjoyed seeing the familiar face of KayCee Galano, of the Philippines ( members may remember, she performed Paganini Caprice 21 last year on the first episode of's pandemic-project show with Gil Shaham, Gilharmonic.)

A student of Kurt Sassmannshaus at the University of Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music, Galano performed Brahms' Sonata No. 1 with pianist Rohan De Silva (one of the few pianists whose named was acknowledged!)

Galano played the Brahms with a warm vibrato, drawing a variety of colors from her violin. I enjoyed the wonderful coordination of the last note of the first movement, De Silva's hands leaving the piano keys exactly when Galano's bow left the string. For the beginning of the second movement she produced the kind of dark and weepy tone from the violin that pulls on the heartstrings. The third movement was energetic and accurate, with a nice push-and-pull of tempo changes.

Galano played Beethoven's Romance No. 2, with a sunny, singing tone,fearless nailing the high notes and playing her fast notes with the inevitability of flowing water.

The next Brahms Sonata of the day was so different - and that's what can make competitions so interesting: that there is so much room for interpretation within the same work, and so many ways to do play it artfully and effectively.

Violinist Charlie Lovell-Jones of the United Kingdom played Brahms Sonata No. 1 in very close collaboration with his partner at the piano, stretching, pulling and contracting the tempo in a way that isn't possible unless everything is absolutely under control. This rather non-metronomical approach might bother some, but I liked it. After all, one's heart does not beat at the same rate all day - or even for 10 minutes at any given point during the day. Lovell-Jones, a graduate of Oxford University and long-time student Rodney Friend MBE, was certainly driving this car, not just going along for the ride, and he liked to drive it fast and risky. No problem for the pianist. And then after all the excitement, they'd pull to nearly a stop, with so much stillness, one wondered about that heartbeat. The pianist seemed to be in a state of flow, throughout.

When they played Beethoven's Romance No. 2, they took a much more straightforward set of tempi, showing that this approach was also on the menu. Nice.

Next came more Brahms Sonata No. 1, this time from Angela Sin Ying Chan, a native of Hong Kong who is working on her master's degree in music at the Curtis Institute with Donald Weilerstein. She also has an impressive list of past teachers: Michael Ma at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts; Vera Tsu Weiling at the Central Conservatory of Music; and Aaron Rosand, Shmuel Ashkenasi and Pamela Frank at Curtis.

Chan plays her violin lovingly, with graceful movements and a nice variety of vibrato, which she put to good use. In fact, I noticed that even her slowest, narrowest vibrato was noticeably beautiful. For example, in the second movement, she started with a simple sound and nearly no vibrato, and as the movement unfolded she amped up the vibrato, to beautiful effect. She also created nice, long crescendos and satisfyingly in-tune double stops.

Chan played Beethoven's Romance No. 2, showing a wide palette of dynamics and creating smooth and flowing melodies throughout.

Violinist Shannon Lee of the United States concluded the day, also playing the Brahms Sonata No. 1. Actually a native of Canada, Lee grew up in Texas and currently studies with Jaime Laredo and Jan Sloman at the Cleveland Institute of Music. Before that, she studied at the Curtis Institute with Ida Kavafian and Arnold Steinhardt - and before that, she actually earned a Bachelor’s degree in computer science from Columbia University while taking violin lessons with David Nadien. Multi-talented!

Lee's interpretation of the Brahms was intense without being overbearing, playing with a clear tone. In the second movement she created a beautiful ending, full of energy and then releasing into a sense of resignation. For the third movement, she took a smooth and gentle approach, with an unhurried tempo.

But for me the real highlight of Lee's performance, and a highlight of the day, was her Beethoven Romance No. 1. Opening assuredly with double stops that were smooth, in-tune and enhanced by vibrato, she played with a real ease. The middle of the piece had nice energy and articulation - overall it was a beautiful and special performance.

Congratulations to all the performers!

* * *

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 20, 2021 at 06:54 AM · Top reporting, thank you!

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