Sunday, September 21, 2014

IVCI wraps up with an awards ceremony, heaping honors upon gold and silver medalists

Everyone who headed into the Scottish Rite Cathedral Sunday afternoon knew the major results already. The six finalists had been placed in order after their final International Violin Competition of Indianapolis performances Saturday night, and announced about an hour after the concert ended.

The purpose was not only to celebrate their achievement, but also to distribute further prizes recognizing excellence in specific performancs over the competition's 17-day course. Moreover, there were lots of plaudits to be distributed, mainly by executive director Glen Kwok, to myriad volunteers and a few short-term hires that enabled the three-person fulltime staff to bring off the quadrennial competition.

Jury president Jaime Laredo saluted the participants, who he said (with slight hyperbole) came "from every corner of the earth," with the admission: "You really made it impossible for us." Nonetheless, the well-established judging procedure, which enjoins jurors not to discuss participants, basing rankings on the compilation of individual scores over the competition's three rounds, yielded results worth defending, though some online carping was soon to be encountered about the fact that first place went to a Laredo student.

Here are the basic awards announced Saturday night upon completion of the romantic/post-romantic concerto final round and bestowed Sunday:

Jinjoo Cho, gold medalist, 26, South Korea; $30,000

Tessa Lark, silver medalist, 25, United States; $15,000.

Ji Young Lim, bronze medalist, 19, South Korea; $10,000

Dami Kim, fourth-place laureate, 25, South Korea, $7,000

Yoo Jin Jang, fiftth-place laureate, 23, South Korea, $6,000

Ji Yoon Lee, sixth-place laureate, 22, South Korea, $5,000

The new  gold medalist was also honored for concerto performance.
Cho picked up another $5,000 for best performance of a romantic or post-romantic concerto, based on the way she played the Erich Korngold Violin Concerto Friday night with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. She also earned $1,000 for best performance of a Bach work and $500 for placing third in the "best Paganini caprice" category; two Paganini caprices were required in the preliminary round, which began Sept. 7. (The top prize for a Paganini performance went to semifinalist Nancy Zhou [$1,000]; the second-place award was presented to semifinalist Ayana Tsuji [$750].)

Lark, the highest-ranked American in the competition since Ida Kavafian also won the silver medal in the first competition (1982), won two special awards: for best performance of the commissioned required work, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich's Fantasy for Solo Violin, and best performance of a Eugene Ysaye solo sonata. Her reprise performance of No. 5 was among the musical selections presented as part of the awards ceremony Sunday. Ysaye was the most influential teacher of Josef Gingold, Indiana University distinguished professor and founder of the competition.

Fifth-place laureate Yoo Jin Jang won the $1,000 award for best performance of a sonata other than Beethoven for her playing of John Corigliano's Sonata in the semifinal round. The award for best performance of a Beethoven sonata went to fourth-place laureate Dami Kim, shared with pianist Nelson Padgett ($1,000 each).

In the preliminary round, a two-movement Mozart sonata was required of all participants. The award for the best performance went to bronze medalist Ji Young Lim and pianist Rohan De Silva ($1,000 each).

The $2,500 award for best performance of a classical concerto (all by Mozart this year) went to Kim for the Concerto No. 5 in A major, K. 219 as played Thursday at the University of Indianapolis with the East Coast Chamber Orchestra accompanying.

Cho also received a gold-mounted Tourte-Voirin model Berg bow from Michael F. Duff and the use for four years of the 1683 ex-Gingold Stradivarius violin.

The 10 semifinalists not passed on to the final round received $1,000 each.

Other recognitions included the Alice M. Ross Award for  Distinguished Volunteer to Maureen Purcell, who was  credited helping to solve problems "ranging from wardrobe failures to water leaks."

At the reception that followed, Cho told me that her competition highlight was her performance of the Korngold concerto, because "I felt relaxed by then, and I could just play it without feeling any stress."

I missed that performance, but Cho had shown few signs of being nervous or in any sense constrained in her earlier appearances. Her performance of the Zwilich Fantasy was one of the most passionate I heard, freely imagined and given the sort of abandon that made it seem almost improvised. Her first Prokofiev sonata had as much individuality and brooding intensity as any of the non-Beethoven sonatas I heard.

Her performance of Paganini's eleventh caprice in the preliminary round was my second favorite in the abundant renditions of that piece, behind semifinalist Stephen Kim's.  She seems an artist fully formed and capable of extending the reputation of the IVCI over the next four years.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The International Violin Competition of Indianapolis concludes with the announcement of the gold medal, five other awards

The moment everyone has been waiting for: the announcement of the awards in the 16-day competition. Names and award titles are followed by age, country, and cash prizes:
2014 IVCI gold medalist Jinjoo Cho

Jinjoo Cho, gold medalist, 26, South Korea; $30,000

Tessa Lark, silver medalist, 25, United States; $15,000. (She is the highest-ranking American in nine competitions since Ida Kavafian won the silver medal in 1982, the IVCI's first year.)

Ji Young Lim, bronze medalist, 19, South Korea; $10,000

Dami Kim, fourth-place laureate, 25, South Korea, $7,000

Yoo Jin Jang, fiftth-place laureate, 23, South Korea, $6,000

Ji Yoon Lee, sixth-place laureate, 22, South Korea, $5,000

 [The following review of Saturday's concert was written before I knew the competition results]

The second night  of romantic/modern concerto finals at the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis presented three young South Korean women to a large, enthusiastic audience at Hilbert Circle Theatre.

The exclusivity of national origin in Saturday's final simply carried through a theme evident in the initial field of 37 participants: Women were dominant, and South Koreans were heavily represented among them.

With Joel Smirnoff, an eminent violinist-turned-conductor on the podium, all three contestants enjoyed sympathetic, knowledgeable support by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. That presumably accounted for the generally superlative level of these performances, along with, of course, the thorough preparation and conscientious study that enable a participant in this competition to get to the final stage.

I was most impressed with Ji Young Lim's account of Brahms' Concerto in D major, op. 77. Momentary burbles in the violin's initial statement were soon put behind her. The performance gained confidence, leading to an incisively played cadenza and a strong finish well-coordinated with the orchestra. She made the second-movement melody her own, projecting the attractive personality I first became aware of in the preliminaries, where her Bach and Paganini selections were among the most individualized I heard.

The finale had the jollity suggested in the tempo indication. Lim's playing was resilient, bouncy and bold. The exciting switch to triple meter near the end brought forth heightened playing that was both vigorous and sweet.

Just as much personality was invested by Yoo Jin Jang in her performance of Tchaikovsky's Concerto in D major, op. 35.  Her darker tone, compared to Lim's, immediately suited the first movement.  Her phrasing was flexible but not so far as to make her partnership with the orchestra challenging. She came close, however, rushing some of the phrases the violin sets against pulsating staccato woodwinds.

Nonetheless, she told a story, even in passagework. The varying speeds with which she dispatched the cadenza made it particularly interesting.  In the second movement, she sank wholeheartedly into its concise song, then effected a teasing introduction to an incredibly fast finale. She made the contrasting theme slow and heavy, peasantlike. But every time the main material returned she was off to the races. Her agility never flagged in this sizzling performance.

After intermission, Dami Kim played Sibelius' sometimes dour, sometimes intensely high-spirited Concerto in D minor, op. 47. Her first-movement cadenza had the same heightened characterization as Lim's had in the Brahms concerto.  The haunted lyricism of the slow movement seemed to suit her well. The orchestra provided a fine setting for this Adagio di molto, with Smirnoff drawing a well-managed crescendo at the movement's emotional peak.

Her manner in the finale sort of spoiled the performance for me. There was some off-pitch playing, perhaps related to the soloist's frenetic manner.  The passion in this music has a cool side that didn't seem to interest Kim. This was a forceful interpretation, seemingly coaxed out by the predominance of dark orchestral colors, that made of this exhilarating music an Arctic tragedy.

(Photo credit: Denis Ryan Kelly Jr.)

Functioning well through music: Tom Harrell adds to the bounty of Indy Jazz Fest

A major figure in post-bop trumpet- and flugelhorn-playing, Tom Harrell appeared with his quartet at the culminating point of Indy Jazz Fest Friday night. He proved to be well worth waiting for.

Tom Harrell, 68, has made his mark on jazz since the '80s.
Well-known through several decades for his artistic triumph over day-to-day struggles with incurable schizophrenia, Harrell presents a startling figure on the bandstand — standing stock-still when he's not playing and never lifting his eyes. Not a word issued from him except counting off the tempo to start a program of mostly originals until he introduced the band by name and instrument at the end of his second set.

The band consisted of three excellent players, all prominently displayed during the set: Luis Perdomo, keyboards; Ugonna Okegwo, bass, and Johnathan Blake, drums. Though Harrell brought both trumpet and flugelhorn onstage, he stuck to the latter instrument through seven tunes. The last of them, the standard "It Could Happen to You," included a wonderful duo between Harrell and Okegwo, in which the lyricism and punch of both players were exhibited.

Blake took several lengthy solos. They were intricate and powerful. He achieved quite a large sound while keeping his hands low, close to the surface of drums and cymbals. That maximized his quickness and kept extraneous gestures to a minimum.

Perdomo had a free-flowing imagination in his solos to match the leader's. He sounded equally bonded to piano and electronic keyboard, moving back and forth as needed. His touch is even and well-controlled, though his soloing never seemed too calculating to sound spontaneous.

About Harrell, much more cannot be said that has already been observed about his fine tone, which is amazingly large without also being loud. His troubled mind yields beautiful results as it lends him a constant stream of ideas to put through his horn. Without effort, he can get around the instrument's entire range, making every sojourn, whether high or low, feel like a seamless part of the melodic line.

His sidemen are all adept at giving immediate rhythmic punch to a phrase, and you could tell they are used to picking up inspiration from their leader. Harrell several times finished off a mellifluous phrase with a rhythmically charged figure that gave extra vigor to his solos. We were hearing a master of both form and content show once again how indissoluble the bond between the two can be.

[Photo credit: Mark Sheldon]

Executive director announces unprecedented change in judging the finals of the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis

With criticism of the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis coming from a prominent blogging voice abroad, who then got terse support from former jury member Aaron Rosand, the judging for the finals has been changed.

Glen Kwok
Executive director Glen Kwok early Saturday morning issued a statement announcing the change: Juror Miriam Fried has been requested to recuse herself from voting in the two stages of finals because half the finalists are or have been her students. Fried, formerly on the faculty of the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, now teaches at the New England Conservatory.

Competition rules already prohibit judges from evaluating their own students, past or present, but allow them to score performances by other participants. The new change essentially reduces the size of the jury from nine to eight for the final stage, which began Wednesday and concludes tonight.

In his  statement, Kwok cited the competition's historic commitment to integrity, which is reflected in the 2014 IVCI as well: "From a strict no-discussion policy amongst the jury members, to abstentions by any jury member who has a student in the competition, to a sophisticated computerized scoring system which eliminates any possiblity of score manipulation, multiple safeguards have been implemented to ensure a fair, honest and transparent process."

Here is the list of finalists, as annotated by Laurie Niles, founder of, with asterisks indicating 2014 jury members:

Tessa Lark, 25, United States
Miriam Fried*
Lucy Chapman
Kurt Sassmannshaus

Jinjoo Cho, 26, South Korea
Jaime Laredo (present)*
Paul Kantor
Joseph Silverstein + Pamela Frank

Ji Yoon Lee, 22, South Korea
Kolja Blacher (present)

Ji Young Lim, 19, South Korea
Nam Yun Kim

Yoo Jin Jang, 23, South Korea
Miriam Fried (present)*
Nam Yun Kim

Dami Kim, South Korea
Mihaela Martin (present)
Miriam Fried*
Aaron Rosand

Having heard Lark play the Walton Violin Concerto Friday night with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, I could easily put aside the controversy to admire her choice of this concerto — its first performance in nine quadrennial Indianapolis competitions  — and the way she played it. The score has a mercurial nature that seems to appeal to her. Her earlier playing in the IVCI, starting with the preliminary round, showed her to be a forthright, well-prepared, self-confident artist, solid technically and persuasive interpretively.

The flashes of brilliance in the orchestral scoring — the swelling of brass and percussion, the underlining of moods established by the soloist, especially in the Presto capriccioso alla napolitana — were duly brought out by the ISO under the baton of Joel Smirnoff.

Lark's place among the finalists seems well-earned. Tonight, Lim, Jang, and Kim will be heard from, playing the concertos of Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Sibelius, respectively. Then the final standings will be announced, though it is doubtful that the criteria for choosing winners in this or any other competition will be universally applauded.
Don’t put teachers or professors in the jury. Put people who can support a young career: conductors, orchestras’ managers, journalists. - See more at:
Don’t put teachers or professors in the jury. Put people who can support a young career: conductors, orchestras’ managers, journalists. - See more at:
Don’t put teachers or professors in the jury. Put people who can support a young career: conductors, orchestras’ managers, journalists. - See more at:
Don’t put teachers or professors in the jury. Put people who can support a young career: conductors, orchestras’ managers, journalists. - See more at:
Don’t put teachers or professors in the jury. Put people who can support a young career: conductors, orchestras’ managers, journalists. - See more at:
Don’t put teachers or professors in the jury. Put people who can support a young career: conductors, orchestras’ managers, journalists. - See more at:

Friday, September 19, 2014

Indy Jazz Fest presents a saxophonist-singer without borders: Grace Kelly comfortably straddles the pop-jazz divide

The first set by the Grace Kelly Quintet in its Indianapolis debut was spectacular, but after a brief intermission, the group leaned heavily on the rapport it had unmistakably built up at Apparatus, 1401 N. Meridian St.

Grace Kelly and her music show signs of future stardom.
The 22-year-old musician who leads the ensemble was quick to connect with the audience both musically and in remarks from the stage. She's a charmer, no doubt about it. In a program composed largely of originals, Kelly leaned heavily on her vocals.

She's got a distinctive voice, I believe, though I'm not an authority on current pop vocalism. Her style is compounded of singer-songwriter intimacy, some pop-diva belting and a country-music heartbreak earnestness that pulls a few tricks off the yodeling shelf.

On the alto sax, she has drawn upon the r&b heartiness of Hank Crawford and David Sanborn as well as the mainstream, blues-inflected lyricism of Phil Woods and Cannonball Adderley. In opening with a standard, "The Way You Look Tonight," Kelly presented her instrumental credentials. Every time she applied herself to the horn, she went all-out. She was articulate and adventurous in all registers, including way down low in a range not often exploited by jazz altoists.

She often had stories to tell behind her songs. For one who has accomplished so much in so little time, she turns readily to disarming defensiveness ("Please Don't Box Me In") and salutes to mentors ("Touched By an Angel") to introduce herself to listeners. If another artist's style suits her, she is prepared to  "Gracify" (her term) anything that appeals to her receptive muse. The arrangement of Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" was a particularly successful adaptation for her sax-guitar-bass-trumpet-drums ensemble.

Kelly is both up-to-the-minute and deeply rooted.  She knew how to make "'Round Midnight" sing of nocturnal longings in her own way, with the band pared down to sax and guitar (played by the protean Pete McCann). Throughout, the guitarist was virtually a front-line player, flanking Kelly on one side with the trumpeter on the other. About him there's not much to say, given his splintery sound and tendency to be most effective only when muted.

The second set was more pop-oriented, despite the show-closing "Summertime," which was marred by a hyperactive arrangement. Original songs like "Cold, Cold Water" and "Eggshells" (with backup vocals) indicated that Kelly's gold embossed calling card to the wider world is just as likely to be her singing as her saxophone-playing. It's hard to imagine her leaving the instrument behind, but she does live in California now, and one thinks back to the precedent of Nat King Cole.

A pioneer of the drumless jazz piano trio, Cole allowed his career to become wholly absorbed in singing, and why not? That way lay fame, fortune and being the first black man to host a network television show.  Jazz fans were aware that his piano chops were a matter of record. But show business tends to tweak careers in the direction of commercial success.

Will music-lovers 10 or 15 years from now get in conversations like "Oh, yeah -- Grace Kelly, man, she used to be quite a saxophone player!"  "Really? With that voice and those songs? Easy to see why she gave up the horn."

What a vision, particularly given the touches of Nashville in her voice! Can we someday expect to see a Kelly vocal backed by liquescent strings and crooning chorus?  Do we have the Kelly equivalent of "Ramblin' Rose" to look forward to?

Thursday, September 18, 2014

First night of IVCI classical finals: Three faces of Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major

By intermission Wednesday, any fears of a certain sameness to the first night of Classical Concerto Finals had been banished. There was no need to worry about sitting through three performances of Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major, K. 219, based on the first two.

By the end of the concert, the audience in Lilly Performance Hall at the University of Indianapolis' DeHaan Fine Arts Center had received three distinct perspectives on the work from Tessa Lark, Jinjoo Cho, and Ji Yoon Lee, accompanied by the East Coast Chamber Orchestra.

Participants in the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis had the choice of five Mozart concertos, the last four of them written in 1775, and Joseph Haydn's C major concerto. As often happens, certain selections dominate in each of the repertoire categories. This year, that means that among the finalists, four chose K. 219, sometimes called "the Turkish," and two of them prepared the Mozart D major, K. 218.

Tessa Lark's performance had the pluses and minuses associated with first impressions: She had the
advantage of setting the tone for the evening's interpretations, with the drawback that her fellow competitors could be viewed as offering a corrective.

Tessa Lark
Jinjoo Cho
Her playing was powerful and straightforward, but not routine.  Repeated phrases were tastefully varied in articulation, and her ornaments were restrained. There was vigor and freshness in her cadenzas, which were new to me, perhaps original with her. She seemed to have thought thoroughly about the work. It was an astute, generously expressive, and well-balanced rendition. The touches of novelty in the finale that make this concerto so attractive — including the "Turkish" episode that brings wildness to the Rondo — were suitably acknowledged by soloist and ensemble alike.

Revelations of a not entirely welcome kind entered the concert with Jinjoo Cho's performance. She had strong ideas, too. In comparison with Lark, the violin's Adagio entrance was slower, the succeeding Allegro aperto a mite faster. She stumbled at one point before the cadenza — the predominant one (since Mozart left none of his own) by Joseph Joachim. This had more pauses, more lingering phrases than usual, and I began to feel a haze of distortion descend over her performance.

She detached from each other the two-note units that make up the main phrase of the second movement's theme, an affectation that impeded the melody's flow. Scholars say that the "Adagio" indication is rare in Mozart, so it's not a sin to dawdle, perhaps.  But too much of a dawdling feeling characterized Cho's performance, dreamy and delicate to a fault.

In the finale, her cadenzas tended to finish awkwardly. There was otherwise considerable polish to her playing, but I didn't think the movement's expressive variety was fully felt. Mozart biographer Maynard Solomon has written about the "serenade style" that influenced these concertos — the composer's evolution of the social music of divertimentos, cassations, and serenades into something more searching. "He cannot help probing," Solomon writes,  "beyond the gentle longings of the serenader, who keeps his darker passions at bay, hidden within the lulling  rhythms of the simulated lute accompaniment."

More understanding of what the 19-year-old composer, exercising his genius within the forms and norms of provincial Salzburg, was doing in this concerto was needed in Cho's performance. Something of this understanding became evident with Ji Yoon Lee after intermission. For one thing, she reined in the anachronistic aspects of Joachim's cadenzas, making them idiomatic to the 18th century, and she always finished them gracefully.

Ji Yoon Lee
She exemplified the odd quality called for in the first-movement tempo designation — aperto, meaning "open" — with a dancing, optimistic approach. Her own youthful vigor, joined to the composer's, led her to several "pushed" phrases that came close to running ahead of the orchestra. On the whole, however, Lee seemed to inspire the easy-to-inspire East Coast Chamber Orchestra to even more rhythmic resilience and definitive sparkle. Together, they attained what Michael Steinberg described as hearing in this music — "Beechamesque swagger" (referring to the ebullience characteristic of the 20th-century English conductor Sir Thomas Beecham).

The serenade style's roots in dance and accessible melodies prevailed. Lee's second-movement playing didn't segment the solo line as Cho had done. Her slow playing never plodded. In the finale, she and the orchestra didn't wait until the "Turkish" section to emphasize the music's richness of invention, including the "darker passions" Solomon alluded to in the serenade style Mozart inherited. The finale's minuet basis was both honored and transformed.

In sum, Lee's performance of this piece is the sort I prefer to hear in concert, ignoring the competitive context. Lark's was the sort that wins competitions; it had "victory" written all over it, and its violinistic display was impeccable. Cho's, while not unprofessional, seemed wrongheaded on several counts.

This astonishing three-way contest was introduced by ECCO's winsome playing, conductorless as always, of Jennifer Higdon's "String."  The work distributes some lively pizzicato phrases among the sections until a flowing episode takes over. Before long, it's off to the races with a kind of saltarello in an easy-on-the-ears gallop to the final measure. This amounted to a zesty curtain-raiser for three intriguing ways of looking at a single Mozart work.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Precise, bountiful strings are just the thing for in between the semifinal and final rounds of the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis

With the dust settling from the initial whirlwind of the Ninth Quadrennial International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, Tuesday's concert at Butler University's Schrott Center offered more than a few lung-filling breaths of fresh air.

A showcase concert by the East Coast Chamber Orchestra, making its Indianapolis debut, whetted the appetite for hearing it in accompaniment duties during two evenings of Mozart concertos, starting tonight at the University of Indianapolis.

On Tuesday, the 16-piece conductorless ensemble offered two works on its own: Grieg's Holberg Suite and Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings. Both are among the great 19th-century works for string orchestra, and the way they were played in this concert seemed entirely fresh and remarkably detailed.

The vigor and unity of ECCO in the Praeludium gave a foretaste of the precision evident under particularly demanding circumstances in the concluding Rigaudon. With its episodic nature comprising abrupt contrasts of tempo and articulation, the finale also must seem to be tossed off in order to make its folk-dance character sound authentic. All the requirements were met in this  exhilarating performance.

There was beautiful dialogue between upper and lower strings in the Gavotte, and heart-rending lyricism from the cellos in the Sarabande. The good fortune of Butler University in having a new acoustical paragon on campus was demonstrated time and time again here and throughout the concert.

The four-movement Tchaikovsky piece not only puts forward a host of fine melodies, but in a performance as fine-tuned as this one reveals the Russian composer's contrapuntal gifts as well. The ensemble's dynamic control gave extra life to the first movement, and in the third-movement "Elegie," the little one-note tags at phrase ends were delicately placed, leading to anticipation of a poised transition to the finale, which takes off on a pulse-pounding Russian theme.  That expectation was, of course, gloriously fulfilled.

Soloist Clara-Jumi Kang
Astor Piazzolla's "Four Seasons of Buenos Aires,"  the concert's centerpiece, brought to center stage the 2010 IVCI gold medalist, Clara-Jumi Kang.  The guest soloist projected unstintingly the seductive charms and aggressive declamation of Piazzolla's tango-rich style, which in this work folds in reminders of the original Vivaldi concertos that inspired the Argentine composer.

Kang's convincing characterization was fully supported by the orchestra, which contributed vivid shrieks and scratches as well as incisive rhythms and winsome tunes across the four movements. Only the most comfortable rapport among musicians could result in a reading of this difficult work as cohesive and flamboyant as this one.

ECCO presents itself in different configurations to reflect the excellence of its members, many of whom are conspicuous in other musical contexts. The best-known ECCOista hereabouts is probably Nicolas Kendall, who's enjoying more attention than ever as one-third of the popular string trio Time for Three.