La Scena Musicale

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Menuhin Competition Austin 2014 Opens with UT Symphony Concert


Berlioz: Roman Carnival Overture
Mendelssohn: Concerto for Piano and Violin in d minor
Ilya Gringolts, violin/Anton Nel, piano
Waxman: Carmen Fantasy
Kevin Zhu, violin
Schwantner: Someday Memories
Dutilleux: Sur le même accord
Olivier Charlier, violin
Stravinsky: Firebird Suite (1919)

The University of Texas (UT) Symphony Orchestra
Gerhardt Zimmermann, conductor
Long Center for the Performing Arts
Austin, Texas
Friday, February 21, 2014

I guess it’s fate that a mere conductor in a violin competition should have his name left off the program; sad to say, that was indeed the case for Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann at the Opening Concert of the Menuhin Competition Austin 2014. But it wasn’t quite as bad as all that. Although missing from the program insert, Zimmerman’s name, bio and photograph were all duly accounted for in the main program book. Well they should be; he did a magnificent job leading the UT Symphony Orchestra through a long and difficult concert. Neither orchestra nor conductor performs often at the Long Center – they do most of their work in the Butler School of Music on the UT campus – and it was a pleasure to see and hear them in such great form at the Long Center on the opening night of this internationally renowned competition.

As good as they were, however, this concert was primarily about violinists and we heard some phenomenal playing. Thirteen-year old Kevin Zhu played like a virtuoso in the Carmen Fantasy. Two years ago Zhu won first prize in the Junior Division at the last Menuhin Competition, held in Beijing. This youngster is a great talent and I look forward to hearing more from him. 

Two members of the Menuhin Competition Austin 2014 jury were also featured in this concert: Olivier Charlier from France made a very strong impression in Dutilleux’s Sur le même accord, written for Anne-Sophie Mutter. From his first ringing pizzicato notes. Charlier projected his sound and his personality to the back rows of this large hall.

Jury member Ilya Gringolts had the rather thankless task of playing the violin solo part in Mendelssohn’s early concerto for violin and piano. The piano gets all the fun stuff in this curious work and UT faculty member Anton Nel made the most of it. His role may have been more dominant than I liked, but then, that’s the way the piece is written.

On the whole, this was an evening of fine music-making. Bravo to Maestro Zimmermann for including a work by a contemporary American composer; Schwantner’s Someday Memories is dedicated to the conductor and it is remarkable for its rhythmic life and orchestral ingenuity.

The competitive rounds begin tomorrow. Forty-two young violinists from around the world will compete in junior and senior divisions. The senior and junior first prize winners get to perform with the Cleveland Orchestra at the closing concert on March 2.

I’ll be blogging every few days during the course of the festival. 

Paul Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music. For friends: The Art of the Conductor podcast, “Classical Airs.”

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