The results and the decisions of the jury after the semi-final round can never please everybody, especially when the technical and artistic level of musicianship is as high as in this year’s violin competition. Hannu-Ilari Lampila has written and reviewed the competition for Helsingin Sanomat, the biggest newspaper in Finland, since 2000. He didn’t hesitate one bit, when his former employer asked if he would do it again, for the fourth time, in his third year of retirement.
Let’s ask the professional critic a straight forward question: Who in your opinion should have made the final round?
Rudin was such a talent, impulsive, so expressive, just a fantastic musician with creative power. I can’t understand why he didn’t make the finals. I wrote an article about them – Fedor Rudin, Kerson Leong, a wonder boy, only 18, and then there is Xiao Wang – they are the ones with the most experience of competitions. Wang has the most, and lots of first prizes. I was almost sure that Rudin would make it, and I felt Wang’s chances were pretty good, and even as a wonder boy, Leong didn’t impress me that much in the first round as he impressed others, but he is a top notch talent. I wasn’t surprised to see how he charmed the whole audience with his semi-final performance. He was amazing with so much variety. He played the Brahms sonata, and no one else had such broad orchestral colorful singing sound, also some tempestuoso, very versatile musician. Wang is the oldest in the semi-finals, and the judges didn’t seem to favor the older ones – Wang is already 28, so I wasn’t surprised to hear the result. Wang is very skillful, but not one of the big virtuosos even though he played that piece well, too.
The Young vs. the "Old"
The jury doesn’t necessarily want to reward the kind of players who’ve already taken away many first prizes from other competitions, they prefer new fresh names. That way the competition’s profile gets more international if the jury knows their value and wants to emphasize their independent conduct of criticizing. They don’t want to follow the patterns of juries elsewhere. But with this kind of momentum each one could have had a chance for the finals. And personally I am very happy that two of my favorites were chosen for the final round. I really liked Christel Lee, she is from the U.S. but her last name might point to the Korean direction, and then Mayumi Kanagawa, who has a Japanese name but is also American. Both were very fine musicians and sensitive artists, their balance was very much in control, they had excellent discipline yet great sensitivity. I am very happy to have the chance to hear both in the finals. I have a right to personal favorites and I was deeply hoping they’d make it to the finals.
It was exciting to see Nancy Zhou and Bomsori Kim, who were in the finals in 2010, return to the competition. I was writing reviews about the 2010 competition in Helsingin Sanomat. This time neither one truly stood out of the group of top notch talents, and the judges could have decided not to let either one into the finals, nobody wants to see repeats of old happenings. But I am happy for Nancy; in 2010 she was a very young girl from Texas, played in a rather free manner and it was quite charming, and the jury seemed to like her wild side and let her go into the finals. She has come a long way and her technique and style have matured, she played with great sensitivity and beauty and her violin was singing, and she is also a great virtuoso player, and so is Bomsori Kim, but her playing was a little too light and pretty, the soloistic glow was missing.
Fedor Rudin had many creative upbeat tricks in his playing, but those may not have amused the judges, who might value more the fact that one sticks to the written notes and discipline in a classic manner. A positive feature in the jury’s work is that they haven’t been punishing people for some minor mistakes, everyone is allowed to have a taste and limits of his own. The previous winner Nikita Boriso-Glebsky was very skillful five years ago, but his personality did not stand out of the norm, he wasn’t very generous in gestures, but that seemed to please the judges then. He was a classic violin player, somewhat of a stereotype, didn’t make a big fuss of himself.
We are wondering what the judges might think of Pekka Kuusisto these days, the Finnish winner of the Sibelius Violin Competition in 1995, who’s been known to expand his perception of classical music into whole new dimensions. The improvisatory touch is present at all times.
- Some people in the audience came to me during the intermission and I asked who their favorites were. Many mentioned the name Diana Tishchenko. I think she is a great talent but she didn’t impress me in any specific way at any time. She was a little careless in the first round, her control wasn’t totally in shape, but she had some spontaneous sensitivity. In the second round her virtuoso number was at full speed but things were not totally in control. Some people were at the peak points so very accurate in technique and each note was in full bloom, even in staccatos, fast runs and double chords. It was hard to believe that people could play like that. This was a very interesting competition in several ways, and the players this time were so good and talented, one after the other.
I liked Victor Li Zeyu in the first round a lot. I wrote that he was radiating and shining light in his playing. The music was very much alive especially in his Prokofjev Sonata number 2, but I didn’t expect him to make the finals. Xiao Wang was a representative of noble, classic style. His playing was very lively and full of colors, yet very balanced and clear. In the first round he was smiling inside, it was like Buddha’s smile which made me feel extremely content. After the first round I was certain he’d go on all the way to the finals, and in the second round his Bartok Sonata movement had this classic clear bright structure, very well proportioned. In the second round his Janacek Sonata was not moving enough. He is a very experienced musician with many top prizes from competitions. But the second round didn’t impress me enough, and the judges must have felt he is a little too old, already 28! He was the oldest to make it to the second round. the other even older ones were dropped out. The jury seems to favor the young ones.
Young yet Mature
And then the youngest – this little woman who appears to be one package full of temper. You rarely hear such a strong violin sound and glow and rhythmic energy and willpower. She is great talent, but after the second round I expected the even wilder virtuoso Kerson Leong to beat her on the way to the finals. But the judges decided otherwise and let Minami Yoshida continue. She is a future talent and I’m looking forward to hearing her in the finals.
At this level it is a matter of taste, and if somebody arranged a concert for Emmanuel Tjeknavorian right now, people would rush to hear it because he completely charmed the audience. He is a fantastic virtuoso who smiles and gives this carefree impression, but keeps everything under control and plays swiftly and beautifully. No matter how fast he was going with his virtuoso piece, he still kept smiling and seemed to thoroughly enjoy the ride. In the first round he received the longest applause, he was the last to play that night and the audience wasn’t tired at all, but more like in a trance. A huge burst of joy followed his performance. In the second round the audience still seemed to get very excited with his playing and it was no wonder, but Kerson Leong was even a bigger success among the audience. Tjeknavorian came back onstage three times, whereas Leong had to bow four times.
Also Sara Etelävuori gave a nice performance in the first round, but I was surprised that she didn’t get any bravos form the audience, like the other Finnish players. Maybe the audience gets tired, too, after shouting bravo all day long. In the second round she finally had all the support from the audience.
I was doing the math – in the first round two thirds of the competitors were women, one third were men, in the second round there were 12 women and eight men, the gap got a little narrower, but in the finals we see the domination of women – this is how it is today, lady power!
A Matter of Taste
This is the fourth Sibelius violin competition I have reviewed for the newspaper and I’ve noticed that it is wise not to utter out loud any winner preferences. In the past I might have referred to some as potential winners or my favorites, but this time I’ll just write positive things about my wagers and let people know who have made an impression.
The biggest surprise was that Rudin and Leong didn’t make it. The audience seems to be angry about Leong’s fate. Leong played on the last day of the second round and the audience went wild, which cast a shadow over Rudin’s violin magic.
About the pianists – in the first round they pretty much just accompanied and played along, to me they seemed a bit lame and I was wondering whether there was something wrong with the Conservatory grand piano, it sounded a little stuffy. But once they got into the second round, everyone got excited and played extremely well. All the violinists seem to have been very pleased about their pianists. The co-operation and interaction were working superbly. It was true chamber music, the violinists got many tips and reflections from the pianists, everybody listened carefully and the ends of all phrases were together. Very fine work, hard pieces and only one rehearsal!
The Serious Sibelius
Then there was Anna Göckel. She was born in Marseille, and I was told that she left for Paris already at the age of 14. A very delightful girl full of personality. Finnish people were surprised to hear her Sibelius Humoresques; they were so different from what we are used to. They were a little distant and pale without any trace of humor, didn’t move along too much – maybe that was her impression of Finnish people, that’s what we are like! She had done her homework carefully, though, but it’s just that we have this ideal about Sibelianic playing. Some others really seemed to enjoy playing the Sibelius Humoresques, which were good entertainment for the audience. Also the first round's Sibelius pieces were so charming that it was pure joy to listen to them. In the Sibelius pieces even the shyest players finally showed their romantic passions. There were so many pieces which are not very often played of heard. Souvenir Op. 79 seemed to be the most popular, but not for me – you really can’t get it out of your head soon enough; I was stuck with it every night in my sleep as well!