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The 7th SIMC Review ④

Music Critic:NUMANO Yuji

The catch-all remark, “Mozart pieces are challenging” is in most cases intended in the sense that they are revealing of the performer’s weaknesses, all the more because of their simplicity. However, during the 7th Sendai International Music Competition (SIMC), the works of Mozart impressed me as tough in a different sense—put simply, they are quite demanding, technically. This is something we often fail to appreciate, especially when listening only to professional performances, but their demanding nature sank in as I took a fresh look at the scores upon witnessing the Contestants struggle with the pieces. The same can be said about the works of Brahms, and Mendelssohn, too. Many parts of their pieces beg the question, “Can this even be done?” For me the fresh realization of just how technically demanding these pieces were was among the greatest rewards of attending the SIMC because otherwise I very rarely have the opportunity to listen to competition contestants.

Before sharing my own views on the performances of the six Violin Section Finalists in ascending order, I feel I must comment on the excellent conducting by Ken Takaseki. I was hugely impressed throughout the entire period of the competition by his mastery—it is no mean feat to stay perfectly in time with the Contestants and their individually unique performances, control the volume of the orchestra so that it doesn’t drown the Contestant’s performance, yet make orchestral music that is fascinating in itself.

The first thing that struck me about the Mozart (K219) by the 6th prize winner Rio Arai was the heavy use of vibrato. I also felt that the “Turkish” section could have benefited from greater variation in timbre and expression. The Brahms, too, was characterized by deep vibratos, and the alternation of “noisy” notes and ample, clean notes sounded to me rather “digital.” However, the occasional haunting high notes had intriguing appeal.

Strong willpower permeated the Mozart (K219) by Ko Donghwi, who was also awarded the 6th prize. The compelling expression in the 2nd movement had me carried away momentarily, but overall, the overwhelming sense of exertion may have left a monotonous impression. Likewise energetic was his performance of the Sibelius concerto, which headed straight into a world of very intense sound as early as halfway through the opening monologue, something that struck me as somewhat over-exerted.

Though still in his teens, 5th prize winner Elias David Moncado gave a highly original performance. His Mozart (K216) was excellent. He had perfect mastery of the now mainstream hybrid between period and modern styles as if it were a natural part of himself, and was capable of giving double stops in admiringly true pitches, punctuated by crisp vibratos. For the Mozart repertoire alone, I gave Mr. Moncado and Ms. Kitada the highest marks. Mr. Moncado’s Tchaikovsky, on the other hand, could have been less confined to conventional chamber music language (though this may be viewed as part of his individuality), and it was a pity that fast passages sounded slightly rushed.

I was astonished by the Mozart (K219) by Chihiro Kitada, the 4th prize winner. Notes were soft but not without inner strength, and above all, each and every moment had fresh character. The 2nd movement, in particular, was exceptionally beautiful. I was equally enthralled by her Mendelssohn concerto. She introduced delicate modulation right from the very first phrase in a performance that seemed to be constantly breathing with life. Pitch became precarious a number of times, but her choice and control of intricate vibratos were spot on, resulting in a highly accomplished performance. In my view, Ms. Kitada was the winner when judged on the two Final Round repertoire pieces alone (there is more on this below).

The Mozart (K219) by 3rd prize winner Mayu Tomotaki was commendable for its resounding high notes. However, once one goes through the whole piece the lack of variation in the way notes were stretched and sung do become an issue. The Brahms, on the other hand, was delivered with powerful volume, dynamism, and gusto. It may have been over-assertive in parts, but the delivery was nonetheless in keeping with the scale of the work. Of all the Final Round performances, Ms. Tomotaki’s Brahms generated the most enthusiastic reaction from the audience.

The highest prize (2nd prize) winner was Shannon Lee. Her Mozart (K218) was consistently mellow in tone. Although delivered without any flaws to speak of, the expression of her performance may have suffered from a lack of bite—could K219 have been a better choice, one wonders. Her rendition of the Tchaikovsky, however, was charming, with the melody sung to the full. There was an appealing character to the fine figures, making the audience look forward to what was to come next. There were instances where she appeared to be on the verge of going out of tempo but these were saved from doing critical harm by the successful support of Mr. Takaseki and his orchestra.

My personal preference after listening to the Final Round alone was Ms. Kitada, followed by Ms. Lee, followed by Ms. Tomotaki. Ms. Lee ultimately emerged at the top, however, with many jury members commenting on how wonderful her Bartók was in the Semifinal. At the Prizewinners’ Gala Concert, where the repertoire of each performing prizewinner is set by the Managing Committee Chairperson, Ms. Lee played the Bartók, and runner-up Ms. Tomotaki played the Prokofiev, also her Semifinal piece. It can therefore be deduced that the results of Ms. Lee and Ms. Tomotaki were largely due to highly-rated performances in the pre-final rounds, which in the end made perfect sense as outcomes of competitions such as SIMC should be the aggregate of each and every stage.

Throughout the competition, I was constantly awestruck by the attention given to every detail in running the competition, and by the luxury of having an orchestra—the Sendai Philharmonic Orchestra—performing and lending their passionate support the entire time. In this respect, I wish to express my unreserved admiration to competition organizers. The only very minor issue I found had to do with the two women Morinomiyako Shinzen Taishi (lit. Sendai Friendship Ambassadors), who were made to just stand in a fixed pose looking straight ahead throughout the award ceremony, which struck me as both anachronistic and not in keeping with SIMC’s status as an international competition. I do hope organizers will reconsider this practice.