La Scena Musicale

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Four Competitors Reach Seniors' Section Finals at Menuhin Competition Austin 2014

by Paul E. Robinson


Senior Finalists in Menuhin Competition Austin 2014
(Left to right): In Mo Yang (18, Korean); Stephen Kim (18, American); Stephen Waarts (17, American/Dutch); Christine Seohyun Lim (19, American/Korean)

The excitement is mounting as the Menuhin Competition Austin 2014 heads towards the finish line. In the senior division (16-21 years old) nine young violinists competed yesterday in the semi-finals; each one performed brilliantly, but by late in the evening only four remained in the hunt for prizes.
In these semi-finals each performer was required to take the first violinist’s chair in the Miró Quartet and lead several movements of a Haydn quartet. Then followed an unaccompanied piece called “Black-eyed Suzy” written especially for the competition by Donald Grantham. Finally, in this 35-minute mini-recital, each violinist presented a showpiece with piano. It was a challenging test.

The string quartet segment, which was presumably intended to show how well the competitors could lead a small ensemble and interact with each of the other players, as well as a test of each player’s command of classical style, is an admirable contest and demonstrates that this competition is not just about technical virtuosity but about true musicianship.

The Grantham piece. “Black-eyed Suzy,” was, in the words of the composer, “inspired by a famous old fiddle tune played in Appalachia and the American south for the past 100 years.” While there is some country fiddling in the piece, Grantham also introduces more academic devices. For a competition taking place in the American south, this composition was an inspired addition. The country fiddling style was obviously "foreign" to many competitors who missed much of the fun of the piece as a result; others, however, got right to the heart of it and gave it a convincing rendition.

Throughout the day I was struck by the high calibre of each of contestant’s performance. I was also struck by the fact that six of the nine competitors are students at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, and eight of the nine are studying in the United States. Does this reflect the fact that the competition is being held in the United States? Surely not! This is an “international” competition - where are the students from schools in the U.K., France and Germany, not to mention Juilliard (New York), Jacobs School of Music (Indiana University) and the Shepherd School of Music (Rice University) in the United States? 

It is undoubtedly a coincidence that the chairman of the Menuhin Competition Austin 2014 jury is Pamela Frank, also a teacher at the Curtis Institute. On the basis of this year’s competition, one might conclude that Curtis is the center of the world as far as the training of violinists is concerned.

It is interesting to note that many students from Asia or with Asian heritage take advanced violin training in the United States at schools like Curtis. This observation is borne out by the Menuhin Competition Austin 2014 in which seven of the nine semi-finalists have Asian heritage.

The four competitors who made it through the semi-finals to the finals yesterday were Stephen Kim (American, Curtis student, age 18); Christine Seohyun Lim (American-Korean, Curtis student, age 19); Stephen Waarts (American-Dutch, Curtis student, age 17), and In Mo Yang (Korean, New England Conservatory student, age 18). Three of the four are Curtis students and three of the four are also Asian or of Asian heritage. These four Senior finalists will next appear in competition playing a concerto with the Austin Symphony at the Long Center on Saturday night. 

While each of these four Senior finalists played well in the semi-finals, in my opinion In Mo Yang and Christine Seohyun Lim stood out. In Mo Yang (Korea) sat in Daniel Ching’s first violin chair in the Miró Quartet and showed beyond any doubt that he deserved to be there. His execution of  the elaborate solos in the slow movement of Haydn’s Op. 76 No. 2 was remarkably mature and authoritative. He deserves the special prize for quartet performance. He probably also deserves the prize for best performance of the Grantham piece, which he instilled with a literally "toe-tapping" energy coupled with a convincing sense of its bluesy elements. In Ysaÿe’s Caprice d’après l’Étude en forme de Valse de Saint-Saens his virtuosity was jaw-dropping. 

As first chair in the Miró Quartet, Christine Seohyun Lim showed strong leadership and attentiveness to her colleagues. In Wieniawski’s Variations on an Original Theme Op. 15, she was simply dazzling. Ms. Lim’s stage presence was confident and graceful - important qualities for any young performer aspiring to a career as a performing artist. I look forward with great enthusiasm to performances by each of these extraordinary young violinists - In Mo Yang  playing Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1 and Christine Seohyun Lim playing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto - with the Austin Symphony on Saturday. 

The Senior 1st prize winner will be announced after the concert on Saturday night, and then appear the following evening as soloist with the Cleveland Orchestra at the Long Center. The winner will also receive US$10,000, and the 1-year loan of a fine Italian violin, courtesy of Christophe Landon Rare Violins.

Anyone interested in following the Menuhin Competition Austin 2014 should know that the current competitive rounds are available for live streaming at www.menuhincompetition.org. On the same site one can also access performances from earlier rounds via YouTube.




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