Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Preliminaries launch 2022 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis

Pressed by family issues to  settle for spot coverage of the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis' preliminary phase, I will highlight some of the salient points in the recitals I heard on the live stream, from Sunday morning into Tuesday morning.

 The 37 participants who remain on the schedule from the registration total of 39 will each have completed their presentations by early Wednesday evening. Thursday will be a day to reflect on the jury's choice of 16 semifinalists, and to prepare for the next phase, which comprises their more substantial recital performances starting Friday.

What a wealth of good Bach playing I heard, often the participant's choice to open with! Movements from the foundational 18th-century master's unaccompanied repertoire for violin — three sonatas and three partitas — provide a baroque field of dreams for adept fiddlers. 

There were competition years when the Bach elephant in the room — the Chaconne from Partita no. 2 in D minor — was almost dominant. Nine of the 15 preliminary recitals I heard early in the 1990 contest wrestled with that mighty monster. It holds a special place in violinists' hearts. Competition founder Josef Gingold said at the time: "If I were put on an island with coconuts and monkeys and just my violin and one piece of music, it would be the Bach Chaconne."

I admired Hiu Sing Fan's measured, exacting interpretation of the piece. The meditative episodes had the intended effect, and the majestic quality of the Chaconne's peroration was complete. Fortunately, participants of the quality the competition has attracted over four decades ensure capable performances of any Bach selection. The Chaconne deserves its out- of-context elevation as a repertoire choice, though even its greatest enthusiasts are probably grateful for most contestants' selection of multi-movement Bach.

There were quite a few performances of the Adagio and Fugue from Sonata No. 1 in G minor. The fugue needs to have at least the careful regulation of phrasing and harmony shown by Ria Honda; no "scraping" should be heard in the enunciation of harmonies that accompany the horizontal lines. Jung Min Choi's performance of the same fugue was faster than some I've heard, but it didn't sound rushed, and settled into a steady pace. Her good tone was displayed across the sustained phrasing of the Adagio.

Sometimes I'm amazed about how my period of callow youth extended well into middle age. In 1994, the fugue from Sonata no. 3 in C minor struck me as tedious, no matter how well it is played, as it was then. The mellowing effects of age, perhaps, have for several years put this ten-minute fugue for me at the summit of the three instances of this form in the sonatas. I now find it inherently interesting throughout, Bach of such ingenious craftsmanship that it ascends to a high plane of inspiration. That's how it struck me when KayCee Galano played it on Monday; it's an inherently interesting piece of music that needs to be played with a reciprocal show of interest, and Galano brought that to bear on it.

No Bach I heard — and remember, I missed quite a few exhibitions of it — impressed me

Minami Yoshida offered a fine prelim recital.

more than Minami Yoshida's  Grave and Fugue movements from Sonata No. 2 in A minor. The slow movement was expressive without dawdling, carefully paced. And she really seemed to feel the harmonies in the fugue; the notes from which the line bounced off were not just stabbed offhand. 

I want to use her Bach to suggest the great things in the rest of her recital. There might be some "recency bias" at work here, because Yoshida's was the last prelim I listened to. Boldly, she put in second position the virtuoso showpiece, Heinrich Ernst's Variations on "The Last Rose of Summer," the last of "six polyphonic etudes." The polyphony is fleeting, as no secondary voice is sustained in parallel to the familiar melody. It's at the farthest possible remove from the supreme polyphonic (contrapuntal) textures and structures in Bach.

But the decoration is substantial and extensive, and Yoshida always honored the filigree while keeping the melody foremost, most memorably when it's showcased by left-hand pizzicato blooms in a garden of arpeggios. The Ernst showpiece is an innovation this year in a section dominated by Paganini Caprices.

These fiendishly challenging works can sometimes benefit from a straightforward approach, responsive to every demand but internalizing a lot of the flash. Joshua Brown's interpretation of the most famous Caprice, No. 24, was direct in expression. He made another kind of choice as a companion to the Paganini; the other Ernst piece, the Grand Caprice on Schubert's "Der Erlkönig." Brown delivered a properly demonic interpretation throughout; yet I found Jung Min Choi's account more involving because more than the demonic came through —  something of the child's plaintive terror that is so gripping in the Schubert song.

Mozart sonatas were well played in every instance, but I must single out Cherry Yeung's performance of the Sonata in E-flat, K. 302, especially in the second movement, in which she made transitional and secondary material as interesting as the melody. This seems related to what I might call her feeling for the rhetorical meaning of the Adagio in Bach's G minor sonata: the music is trying to convince us of something, and Yeung was right there advocating for that message.

Other participants also made typically outstanding aspects of their playing count in music of contrasting character. For Nathan Meltzer, it was his staccato: accurate and laser-sharp in Paganini Caprices 2 and 4 and also outstanding in  the first movement of Mozart's Sonata in A major, K. 304. And in her Mozart (Sonata in G major, K. 301), Yue Qian was exceptionally sensitive in working with the piano: echoing phrases and exchanges with the keyboard had a matching character. She was also sensitive to fusing expressively with the piano  in Sibelius' "Romance."

The Sibelius is part of an extensive group of short encore pieces in the prelims. The category was added in 1994 to bring forward the violin's gift for being purely charming. Such bonbons were features of the classic violin recitals of our grandparents' time, as programs tended to follow a heavy to (at the very end) light trajectory. It was a wise choice to thus showcase via competition an aspect of performance that doesn't come readily to hand among young fiddling wizards. Similarly smart, though it moved new music a little away from making a strong impression among masterpieces, was to shift the commissioned piece (this year by John Harbison) away from the prelims into the semifinals. 

So I must end with one of the best-played, and least-chosen, of the encore pieces I heard: Elgar's "Romance," his opus 1, was Yoshida's choice. And it made a perfect complement to the Bach, Ernst and Mozart she played so well in rounding out the last of the 14 prelim recitals I heard. There will be some keen sifting of this excellence in the semifinals to come on the way to the concerto finals, then the gala announcement of winners just over a  week-and-a-half from now. The excitement I sampled so sporadically in the prelims can only build from here on out.


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