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The 7th SIMC Review ③

Music Critic:MATSUMOTO Manabu

The Violin Section of the 7th Sendai International Music Competition (SIMC) took place from June 15 to 30, 2019. Unlike previous editions of the event, which had been held in May, and had opened with the Violin Section, this year the event opened with the Piano Section, followed by the Violin Section, and the event was scheduled so as not to coincide with the unusually large number of other international competitions taking place this year. These included the Concours musical international de Montréal (May 29 to June 5, 2019), which had in the past been held at around the same time as SIMC; the Queen Elisabeth Competition (Belgium, April 29 to May 25, 2019); the Michael Hill Violin Competition (New Zealand, May 31 to June 8, 2019); and the International Violin Competition Leopold Mozart (Augsburg, June 1 to 7, 2019). It was unfortunate, though, that despite these measures, the date of the International Tchaikovsky Competition, which was finalized late in 2018, fell at exactly the same time (July 17 to 27). Having regular contestants scattered across competitions is not ideal, not just for SIMC but for competitions in general. It also reduces the number of competitions each contestant can enter.

Less than ideal circumstances, however, did not prevent SIMC from fully asserting its uniqueness, underpinned by its highly original outlook and concept. Its identity as a concerto competition was intact, while innovation characterized the repertoire requirement. Particularly unique was the Semifinal Round of this competition—after performing their respective concertos, Contestants took to the concertmaster’s seat to perform the solo parts of Brahms and Strauss. This setup was highly original, though the flow did require some getting used to. It was highly intriguing to witness the dramatic change the orchestra sound underwent depending on who the concertmaster was, and how the dialogue between Contestant and orchestra changed significantly as the same Contestant switched from soloist to concertmaster. But in the end, the determining factor as both soloist and concertmaster was whether or not the Contestant had completely internalized the score—not just their own part but the entire score—in detail.

I would like to look back briefly at the performances of our six Finalists.
Shannon Lee, who chose to enter SIMC after winning the 4th prize at the Queen Elisabeth Competition, delivered a very solid performance for her Mozart. Though her very first note felt somewhat thin and metallic, this eventually gave way to greater stability. The performance gained in joyousness toward the latter half, in keeping with the mood that typifies Mozart’s work. This composer demands exuberance and joyfulness in addition to exactitude, a sense of stylization, and cleanness of sound, which makes his work all the more challenging. The Mozart repertoire apparently proved a tough challenge for half the finalists, and I could not but sympathize with them for having to grapple with this composer not in the Preliminary or Semifinal Round but in the Final Round. Ms. Lee chose the Tchaikovsky concerto she also performed at Queen Elisabeth, delivering it with exquisitely singing tone and beautiful timbre, the only slight snag being the timing with the orchestra.

The music of Mayu Tomotaki, who had entered SIMC for the second time, impressed me as highly conscientious. The sound she produced was beautiful, coming from any string or range, which contributed to the remarkably high purity of her Mozart. She very slightly lost control midway through the finale, but this did not constitute a major flaw. Greater dynamism could have added to the overall impression. The Brahms was somewhat unstable during the 1st movement, but gained in stability from the 2nd movement onward, resulting in a solid performance. The performance would have benefited from a greater sense of scale.

Chihiro Kitada performed the Mendelssohn without undue exertion but with sufficient volume. She very slightly lost control during the second half of the 1st movement, but all in all gave a very clean, model performance. Having said that, persuasiveness may have suffered as a result of the somewhat relaxed tempo and slightly over-meticulous delivery.

The Mozart by our youngest Contestant, Elias David Moncado impressed me favorably with its sophistication. He dropped his shoulder rest during the Tchaikovsky just before the 1st movement cadenza, but this mishap did not prevent his notes from gaining richness, and resulting in an excellent performance that was full of vigor and good concentration.

Perhaps because her nerves got the better of her during what was her first attempt at an international competition, Rio Arai’s pitch lacked stability throughout. Her Mozart suffered from flatness, with the character of her music undergoing little change even after reaching the allegro halfway into the finale. Instability was present in the Brahms as well. I look forward to witnessing the future progress of this very talented musician.

Ko Donghwi was commendable for his gutsy and daring assertiveness and expressiveness. However, the somewhat over-dramatic, pronounced agogics and dynamics resulted in a series of exertion after exertion, leading to disruption in pitch, and crushed sound, compromising the overall listening experience. Because he is a technically accomplished violinist capable of performing with charisma, a reexamination of his performance style may be a good idea.

The Audience Prize chosen from each day of the Semifinal Round was awarded to Kaori Furusawa on Day 1, Shannon Lee on Day 2, and Andrea Obiso on Day 3. To comment briefly on Mr. Obiso, whose Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 1 I had the pleasure of listening to at the ARD International Music Competition 2017, I found that he had since further developed his interpretation of this work, and his aggressive, stimulating session with the orchestra was more than enough to win audience sympathy. The performance of this young Italian violinist was highly praised by many members of the co-performing Sendai Philharmonic Orchestra, who clearly enjoyed the exciting, jam session-like exchange. However, perhaps indicative of the judging policy of SIMC, an attitude that may have been construed as an attempt to directly guide and control the orchestra, overriding the conductor, apparently did not go down well with the Jury.

Having witnessed how the individuality of each Contestant was well demonstrated in the cadenza and eingang of their Mozart repertoire pieces, I felt that it may be helpful for Contestants if SIMC made public each Contestant choice of the cadenza and eingang of which composer in advance (current rules merely say, “Successful applicants will be notified”). Another suggestion is to consider hosting feedback sessions for the Semifinal Rounds as requested by Contestants.

A commendable development in public relations was the long-awaited opening of SIMC’s social media accounts, which together with the longstanding volunteer blog must surely be effective in promoting SIMC to music fans beyond Sendai.