La Scena Musicale

Monday, 3 March 2014

Menuhin Competition Austin 2014: Closing Gala Concert

Maestro Giancarlo Guerrero and members of the Cleveland Orchestra

Dvořák: Carnival Overture Op. 92

Kreisler: Praeludium and Allegro
Rennosuke Fukuda, violin (1st Prize Winner, Junior Section)

Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 2 in g minor Op. 63 (1st movement)
Stephen Waarts, violin (1st Prize Winner, Senior Section)

Ravel: Tzigane
Arabella Steinbacher, violin (Menuhin Competition Jury Member)

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5 in e minor Op. 64

The Cleveland Orchestra
Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor

Long Center for the Performing Arts
Austin, TX
Sunday, March 2, 2014

It is not often that the city of Austin sees one of the “Big Five” orchestras; to conclude the Menuhin Competition Austin 2014, the organizers brought in the Cleveland Orchestra, recognized as one of the finest in the world today. Since the tenure of George Szell (1946-70), the Cleveland has been ranked with the best and its’ over 600 recordings are often cited as reference versions.

The current music director of the Cleveland Orchestra, Franz Welser-Möst, was unfortunately, otherwise engaged leading a North American tour by the Vienna Philharmonic. In his place for this Menuhin Competition Austin 2014 “Gala Concert” was Giancarlo Guerrero, the orchestra’s principal guest conductor for its Miami residency and music director of the Nashville Symphony. Mr. Guerrero is a fine conductor and under his direction the Cleveland Orchestra played superbly, as always.

The participation of this distinguished orchestra added greatly to the importance of the Menuhin Competition Austin 2014, in which forty-two outstanding young violinists from around the world participated; it is no small thing for the 1st place prize winners in Junior and Senior sections  to put on their resumes that they have performed with the Cleveland Orchestra.

The very well-organized Menuhin Competition Austin 2014 slacked off a little in this final event; neither prize winner was listed in the program insert nor was either introduced from the stage. Many in the audience had probably followed the proceedings of the competition closely throughout the week but I am sure many others in the audience were seeing and hearing these young performers for the first time. Is not the point of the competition to give the prize-winners a launch worthy of their talent?

1st Prize Winner (Senior Section)
Stephen Waarts
I would also venture to suggest that it would have been better to give the 1st Prize Winner (Junior Section) something more substantial to play than the tired Kreisler Praeludium and Allegro. Fourteen-year-old Japanese violinist Rennosuke Fukuda won his prize playing Waxman’s fiendishly difficult Carmen Fantasy; had he played it again at the Gala concert, the audience would have had a much better indication of his phenomenal talent. 1st Prize Winner Stephen Waarts (Senior Section) should have been given the opportunity to play Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in its entirety. In my opinion, at the Senior level and on such an occasion, the 1st Prize Winner should be playing complete concertos rather than single movements. 

I would also question whether it is fair to either competitors or to jury members to have them give performances at the same concert. A jury member who is a well-established soloist of international reputation may well make the performances of the prize-winners, however gifted, pale by comparison. Another possibility is that the guest soloist might have an off-night, in which case his/her performance may pale in comparison to those given by the contestants he/she has been judging. Competition organizers have made the argument that by having winners and jury members perform on the same program, they are encouraging an atmosphere of collegiality between judges and competitors, but perhaps this does not really work.

Cleveland Orchestra Concertmaster
William Preucil
In the Dvořák and the Tchaikovsky orchestral works, the Cleveland Orchestra gave us playing that was finely detailed and exciting. As I listened I was reminded of an often-quoted remark made by a member of the orchestra in Szell’s time: “We start to rehearse where other orchestras leave off.” I was reminded also that, for many years, concertmaster William Preucil was the first violinist of the Cleveland Quartet. Let me state unequivocally that if any orchestra in the world has a finer string section than the Cleveland Orchestra, I haven’t heard it; much of the credit for that reality must go to Mr. Preucil. This man has a legendary reputation for attending to detail and we heard it in the unanimity of attack, the minute care taken over dynamics and phrasing and the total commitment of each man and woman in the string section. Watching Mr. Preucil is, in and of itself, worth the price of admission. He scarcely seems to look at the music on his stand and much of the time he seems to be looking over his shoulder to make sure the troops are in good order. The results speak for themselves. The surge of string sound at appropriate moments in the Tchaikovsky was extraordinary, and even the softest and most delicate phrases had exquisite shape and color.

Under William Preucils leadership, the strings of the Cleveland Orchestra are a marvel. His approach, which reflects his chamber music background, is to perfect minute details with the kind of tenacity that is usually reserved for the finest string quartets. What Preucil has instilled in the strings is shared as an approach by the other sections of the orchestra; note, for example, how the orchestra is seated. There are no risers on stage. If I am not mistaken, Cleveland Orchestra members have always sat at floor level, in the belief that such close seating produces the best possible sound -  blended and balanced. The thinking is that brass and percussion, for example, are loud enough without giving them an unfair advantage by being seating them at a higher level than the strings and woodwinds.

Of course, there is a downside to the chamber music model for a symphony orchestra. In a work like the Tchaikovsky Fifth, there are moments when nothing less than searing trumpets and thundering timpani will do. I have a live performance of this work by Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic still ringing in my ears that had these qualities. But this is not the kind of performance you will hear from the Cleveland Orchestra. I say this not so much as a criticism, but to point out that for all the homogeneity among orchestras today, there are still valid differences. The Cleveland Orchestra has its own style of playing, and it is both well-considered and deeply satisfying in a very wide repertoire.

It has been a great week of music-making in Austin. Heartfelt thanks are due to the Menuhin Competition and to the Butler School of Music at the University of Texas as the host organization. The next Menuhin Competition will take place in April, 2016 in London, England. 

Robert F. Smith, Chairman & CEO
Vista Equity Partners
Special thanks are also due to Robert F. Smith and Vista Equity Partners for sponsoring the Austin concerts by the Cleveland Orchestra. Mr. Smith has also used the occasion of the Menuhin Competition Austin 2014 to join with the Butler School of Music in launching COMP (Children’s Opportunities for Music Participation). The purpose of this new program is to provide instruments and music education to Austin-area young people who have historically been underserved in access to the arts. To learn more about COMP and to make a contribution to its endowment fund, visit the website of the Butler School or contact Dan Seriff, Outreach Coordinator at 512-471-5496, or  

Canadian classical music lovers, take note: Among Stephen Waarts’ upcoming engagements is a recital at the Orford Festival, Orford, Québec, Canada (August 15, 2014). 

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Menuhin Competition Austin 2014: And the Winner is...Stephen Waarts!

by Paul E. Robinson

(Left to right): Gordon Back (Artistic Director of the Menuhin Competition);
Stephen Waarts (Winner); and Jury Chair Pamela Franks 

Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in e minor Op. 64
Finalist: Christine Seohyun Lim (Age 19; American-Korean)

Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major Op. 19
Finalist: Stephen Kim (Age 18; American)

Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 2 in g minor Op. 63
Finalist: Stephen Waarts (Age 17; American-Dutch)

Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major Op. 19
Finalist: In Mo Yang (Age 18; Korean)

Austin Symphony Orchestra/Peter Bay
Long Center for the Performing Arts
Austin, Texas
March 1, 2014

After eight days of grueling competition, four young violinists between the ages of 17 and 19 faced off at the Long Center in Austin, Texas in concertos by Mendelssohn and Prokofiev. Each one of them well deserved to be there and the jury’s task was by no means an easy one. As jury chairman Pamela Frank said afterwards: “If there had been a different jury the results might have been different. And if the same jury had made a decision tomorrow the results might have been different.” Sitting in the audience I felt the same way; it was especially difficult trying to compare a performance of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with a performance of one of the Prokofiev concertos.

As we all know, there is no easy way to compare performers at this level. There are standards, of course, relating to whether a violinist is playing in tune or playing all the notes in a demanding passage. But the criteria are by no means solely technical. Yehudi Menuhin himself was a child prodigy and an amazing technician in his youth. As he got older, his technique became much less reliable; nevertheless, he was still regarded as one of the great violinists of his time for his other musical qualities. He had integrity, he had emotion and he had a rare insight into the interpretation of a vast range of pieces.

In the earlier rounds of the competition all four violinists who played tonight had shown that they could meet almost any technical challenge. Their musicianship was tested in other ways, for example, when they sat in the first chair of the Miró Quartet to play Haydn. In this final round of the competition, they were called on to perform a complete concerto with orchestra. The set concertos from which they made their choices each demanded a combination of technique, tonal beauty and variety, emotion and maturity of interpretation, and all four finalists played well.  

In the end, First Prize went to Stephen Waarts, who had given a superb performance of Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2. No doubt about it; in every sense, this was a real performance and would be heartily applauded in any concert hall in the world. 

Mr. Waarts plays with technical perfection and great beauty of tone. Although undemonstrative, he nonetheless has a presence on stage that commands attention. His playing soars over the orchestra when it needs to and is capable of reaching the back rows of the auditorium, a power that any musician considering a career as a soloist must have.

Waarts is already well on his way to building a major career and this victory in the Menuhin Competition will certainly add to the momentum. He is currently studying with Aaron Rosand at the Curtis Institute of Music, but he seems to be everywhere giving public concerts and winning competitions. Just last year he won the Montreal Symphony Orchestra’s concerto competition playing the Brahms Violin Concerto with Maxim Vengerov conducting. In 2010 he won the Junior Section of the Menuhin Competition. To learn more about this exceptional young man and to keep up with his career visit his website at

In addition to the hours he spends playing the violin and learning its repertoire each day, Mr. Waarts is also playing a great deal of chamber music repertoire, studying the piano and mathematics - a phenomenally gifted and energetic young man.

In Mo Yang
While Stephen Waarts distinguished himself at this competition, so too did some of the other competitors. Second Prize was given to Korean violinist In Mo Yang. I must say that I found his performance in the Final Round even more compelling than that of Mr. Waarts. Yang projected an individuality, without exaggeration, that is very rare in competitions. In Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1, he had an uncanny ability to get to the essential character of virtually every episode in the piece. I found myself learning a great deal about the piece from listening to Mr. Yang play it. Mr. Waarts will surely make a big career; Mr. Yang may not be far behind.

Christine Seohyun Lim
Finalist Christine Seohyun Lim studies at Curtis, and like Mr. Waarts, has done well in competitions around the world. She gave a beautiful performance of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto and fully earned her Third Prize selection. I suspect that some jury members might have ranked her even higher.

Throughout the evening, the Austin Symphony gave very sympathetic support to each of the soloists and Peter Bay affirmed yet again that he is an accompanist of the first rank. The soloists are the stars in such an evening but as they will learn during the course of their careers, playing the great concertos is a collaborative effort requiring excellent orchestras and conductors as colleagues.

There is one more event left on the Menuhin Competition Austin 2014 schedule: the Closing Gala Concert. Both Junior and Senior Section First Prize winners will be featured as soloists, and one of the distinguished jury members, Arabella Steinbacher will play Ravel’s Tzigane. Giancarlo Guerrero will conduct the Cleveland Orchestra in Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. I’ll report on this event in my final blog from the competition.

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,

Menuhin Competition Austin 2014 Declares: "The Composer is Dead!"

by Paul E. Robinson

Maestro Giancarlo Guerrero

Dvořák: Carnival Overture
Kreisler: Praeludium and Allegro
Rennosuke Fukuda: 1st Prize Winner, Junior Section, violin
The Cleveland Orchestra
Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor

Stookey: The Composer is Dead
The Cleveland Orchestra
Brett Mitchell, conductor
Giancarlo Guerrero, narrator

Long Center for the Performing Arts
Austin, Texas
March 1, 2014

As the Menuhin Competition Austin 2014 nears its conclusion, its’ organizers paused to remind listeners that the competition, founded in 1983 by Yehudi Menuhin (1916-1999), is all about children.  Menuhin believed that music should be about more than talent and competition, that it should produce “ambassadors of goodwill, for they come with pure hearts and music in their souls. It is in these younger people that we invest our future.” In this spirit, yesterday afternoon, the Menuhin Competition presented a family concert for Austin-area school-children . Thanks to the generosity of donor Robert F. Smith, Chairman and CEO of Vista Equity Partners, who bought all the tickets and distributed them, the Long Center in Austin was packed.

For this occasion and for the Closing Gala Concert tomorrow night, the Cleveland Orchestra was imported to add to the luster of the final weekend of the Competition. The Family Concert, an excellent addition to the Competition activities, was a delight from beginning to end.

One of the purposes of the concert was to feature the young man who had been chosen the night before as the First Prize Winner in the Junior Section of the Competition. Rennosuke Fukuda (photo:right) is a fourteen-year-old Japanese violinist who has been playing the instrument since the age of three. He now studies with Machie Oguri. Throughout the various rounds of the Competition, Fukuda displayed a technique astounding for his age, as well as poise and maturity in performance. At the Family Concert he thrilled his (mostly) young listeners with Kreisler’s Praeludium and Allegro.

The main work on this concert program was a 2006 composition by Nathaniel Stookey based on a story by Lemony Snicket. The piece is in the tradition of such pieces as Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. It is meant to introduce children to the instruments of the orchestra in a “fun” way.

The conductor for most of this Family Concert was Giancarlo Guerrero, the Cleveland Orchestra’s principal guest conductor for its annual Miami residency. For this piece, however, Guerrero was narrator – and an exceptionally funny and engaging one he was too. On the podium was the new assistant conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, Brett Mitchell. Mr. Mitchell studied music at the University of Texas and served for several years as assistant conductor of the Houston Symphony.

The Composer is Dead begins with the death of a composer and continues with a police inspector’s attempts to determine who might have done this dastardly deed. Naturally, each of the sections of the orchestra is suspect. It is a delightful piece and narrator, conductor and orchestra all contributed to its success on this occasion.

Incidentally, during his bows Mr. Mitchell managed to get in a “Hook ‘em Horns” hand signal for any Texas Longhorns fans who might be in the audience.

The Senior Section finals follow later in the day and I’ll report on that event in my next blog.

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

Cette semaine à Montréal : le 3 au 9 mars

Parmi les concerts de février de l’OSM, il y aura la 7e Symphonie de Mahler, dirigée par Kent Nagano. Nos artistes québécois seront également à l’affiche aux mois de mars et d’avril, à commencer par Marc-André Hamelin qui jouera le Concerto pour piano no 2 de Liszt, accompagné par l’OSM. Karina Gauvin chantera, quant à elle, Britten dans son cycle de mélodies intitulé Les Illuminations. L’orchestre sera dirigé par le chef français Michel Plasson. Maison symphonique, 15 février; 4 & 5 mars; 3 & 6 avril.
 - Justin Bernard

Après La Bohème de Puccini cet automne, la compagnie lyrique Opéra immédiat lancera sa seconde production de la saison. Deux représentations de Lucia de Lamermoor de Gaetano Donizetti sont prévues pour le mois d’avril. Le rôle-titre sera tenu par Sophie de Cruz et Gaëtan Sauvageau chantera celui d’Edgardo. Le pianiste Dominic Boulianne sera l’homme-orchestre, comme pour les précédentes productions d’Opéra immédiat. Théâtre Rialto, samedi 5 (19h30) et 6 mars (15h).
 - Justin Bernard

Au 18e siècle, certains compositeurs ont délesté la contrebasse de sa fonction d’accompagnement pour lui confier un rôle soliste important. On se servait à Vienne d’une contrebasse à cinq cordes, sorte d’hybride entre la contrebasse actuelle et la viole de gambe. Sous la direction de Francis Colpron, Les Boréades présentent des trios et quatuors de Sperger, Toeschi, Albrechtsberger et Haydn avec Francis Palma Pelletier, contrebasse viennoise. Le Quatuor Franz Joseph se joint à l’ensemble. Salle Bourgie, 6 mars, 20 h.
 - Renée Banville

La série Dominica a lieu le dimanche à 15 h 30 à la salle Bourgie. On y entendra la pianiste Marika Bournaki le 23 février et la harpiste Valérie Milot le 7 mars.
 - Renée Banville

Les Violons du Roy seront de retour en mars avec Una Follia di Napoli, où le virtuose de la flûte à bec Maurice Steger sera à la fois soliste et chef d’orchestre. Salle Bourgie, 7 mars, 19h30.
 - Renée Banville

Directeur artistique de huit ensembles, Louis Lavigueur dirigera en mars quatre d’entre eux dans six lieux différents à Montréal et aux États-Unis : l’Orchestre symphonique des jeunes de Montréal (OSJM) à Annapolis (1), à Baltimore (2) et à la salle Claude-Champagne (8), l’Orchestre à cordes du Conservatoire (CIMM) à la salle Jean-Eudes (22) et au Conservatoire (23), l’Orchestre et le Chœur du CMIM à l’église Saint-Jean-Baptiste (29 et 30). Un chef qui possède sans doute le don d’ubiquité. ;
 - Renée Banville

Labels: , , ,