REVIEW: 2023 Montreal Violin Competition Finals - Day 2

May 5, 2023, 10:41 PM · MONTREAL - The Montreal International Music Competition's 2023 Violin Edition wrapped up on Thursday with a concert featuring three of the six finalists, before winners were announced and prizes were awarded in a closing ceremony.

SongHa Choi, SooBeen Lee and Ruslan Talas
Violinists SongHa Choi, SooBeen Lee and Ruslan Talas. Photos by Tan Lan Truong.

You can find a list of award winners here, but in this review I will focus on the performances, which served as an important showcase for each of these fine young violinists. Each played a concerto of their choice -- and there were six different choices over two nights. They performed with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and conductor Rafael Payare at Maison Symphonique in downtown Montreal.

Thursday's concert featured violinists Songha Choi, SooBeen Lee and Ruslan Talas. Wednesday's concert featured Dmytro Udovychenko, Nathan Meltzer and Michael Shaham - read our review here.

To begin the evening, SongHa Choi, 23, of South Korea, gave a commanding performance of Sergei Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 63, an alternatively beautiful and thorny work. It's full of tempo changes - pulling back in one moment and then taking off in the next. Choi showed a strong sense of what she wanted and exactly how fast; when she looked at conductor Payare, one had the sense she was giving instruction, not receiving guidance. Her interaction with the orchestra felt very conversational, and she had the relaxed assurance of a confident soloist.

The second movement of the Prokofiev is famously gorgeous - a soaring melody that sounded strong and beautiful in the highest registers of Choi's violin. She also played it with nice variety in her vibrato. She found the dance swing in the third movement - always the driving the car and never riding as a passenger. Toward the end, the piece grew so fast and wild, it had the excitement and risky feeling of a runaway train - but Choi always kept it on the tracks.

Next was Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D major - one of the most-recorded, most-performed and most-loved pieces in the violin repertoire. No pressure there for 22-year-old SooBeen Lee of South Korea! Lee gave a very polished performance indeed, with great choices in tempi, reliable accuracy and easy speed in the piece's most difficult passages, and a gorgeous, ringing tone from the 1794 Guadagnini that she plays.

The final movement's many chords had all the energy they needed, without any scratch or grit from the violin. Soloist and orchestra aligned well - it seemed like an easy partnership.

Lee's was the kind of performance that sets a standard, something a teacher would show a student who is studying this piece. She made everything come alive with beautiful style, taste and nearly flawless execution.

The evening closed with Niccolò Paganini's Violin Concerto No. 1, Op. 6. - arguably a "show-off" piece written by the ultimate "show-off" violinist. But then, 24-year-old Ruslan Talas of Kazakhstan had a lot to show. Talas tossed off octaves and tenths, entire passages of artificial harmonics, up-bow staccato, ricochet, and more with apparent ease. This piece calls for one devilishly difficult technique after another, and Talas did it with panache and musicality.

Talas has wickedly fast and dexterous fingers, but occasionally the fast playing rushed, and soloist and orchestra did not align. Overall, though, Talas captured the operatic nature of the piece and gave an impressive and enjoyable performance.

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Here are videos of the performances described above:

SongHa Choi performs Sergei Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 2:

SooBeen Lee performs Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto:

Ruslan Talas performs Nicolai Paganini's Concerto No. 1:

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