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The 7th SIMC Review ①

A Suggestion Pertaining to Concerto Repertoire Choice

Music Critic:UMEZU Tokihiko

It is widely known that the Sendai International Music Competition (SIMC) is unique in the world for its focus on concertos. Making the most of this feature and its appeal requires constant hard work on the part of SIMC, and it has done admirably in this regard, as attested for instance by the choice of a very early Mozart piano concerto—which demands greater mastership of chamber music from performers—for the required repertoire of the previous SIMC.

Having said that, in this report on the most recent edition of SIMC, I would nonetheless like to draw attention to one aspect of the competition that warrants scrutiny and possible improvement, namely that the combination of concertos chosen for their repertoire by the six Piano Section Finalists turned out to be very similar.

Finalists were asked to choose two works: one from five Mozart piano concertos, which were, K450, 451, 453, 456, and 459; plus one from sixteen other piano concertos, which were, Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 5; Chopin Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; Liszt Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; Schumann Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; Brahms Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1; Rachmaninoff Piano Concertos Nos. 2, 3, and Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini; Ravel Piano Concerto No. 3; Bartok Piano Concerto No. 3; and Prokofiev Piano Concertos Nos. 2 and 3.

For the Mozart piece, four out of six Finalists chose the Piano Concerto in G Major K453, one chose K459, and one chose K450. For the other repertoire, four chose Tchaikovsky, one chose the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2, and one chose the Liszt Piano Concerto No. 2. Moreover, three out of six Finalists chose the exact same combination: the Mozart Piano Concerto in G Major K453, plus the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1.

Of course, Contestants had made and notified SIMC of their choices well in advance. It was by sheer chance that the choices of some turned out to be identical. But still, I feel that the competition organizers need to examine the factors contributing to this occurrence. To take a look at the repertoire choices indicated by the thirty-seven applicants who passed the DVD screening but did not make it to the performing rounds, seventeen chose Mozart’s K453; eight chose the Tchaikovsky; seven chose the Prokofiev No. 3; and five chose the Rachmaninov No. 2, revealing great unevenness in distribution. None opted for the Ravel No.3, the Bartok No. 3, or the Prokofiev No. 2. Here I would like to put aside the argument that identical repertoire choices that provide a level playing field for all make comparison and judging easier—because if that is the case, we can simply ask all Contestants to perform an identical, fixed repertoire. We ask them to choose because we see the choices as expressions of their characters and individuality. As it turned out, however, there was no significant assertion of individuality as far as repertoire was concerned.

Contestants may have had perfectly valid reasons for their choices: Mozart’s K453 is dramatic, and easily engages the audience. Prokofiev No. 3 is likewise considered a strong piece for competitions. And once they start pursuing professional performing careers, Tchaikovsky No. 1 and Rachmaninov No. 2 are exactly the kind of pieces they would be asked to perform time and time again. So, the choice was quite natural on the part of the Contestants. But then again, that would not be making very good use of the wide choice available, and the reason choices are available in the first place. What can we do to improve the system of repertoire choice? As someone who has been involved in SIMC for many years, I would like to make a suggestion.

Because diverse repertoire choices would probably result in a competition truer to the aim of a competition requiring two concertos from each Contestant, my suggestion is to offer a wide choice of two-piece combinations set by the competition organizer. An example could be an early Mozart concerto for assessing the performer’s interpretation of chamber music, paired with a Tchaikovsky concerto. Another example could be a dramatic, later Mozart concerto combined with a delicate Schumann concerto. If the competition can offer Contestants a choice of say thirty such combinations, it will probably bring out far more fresh facets of the performers than the current set up, which has resulted in half the Finalists playing identical repertoire combinations. There must be other ways as well, but the question of repertoire choice remains an urgent issue.

I believe the outcome of the Final Round was a reasonable one to many audience members. The top three were clearly above the others, and among them the competition was so tight that any one of them could have won the 1st prize. Scope for future improvement common to all three lies in the Mozart. Had we based our judgement on the Mozart alone, the order of the top three could have been reversed. The 3rd movement of K453 performed by the 1st prize winner, Choi Hyounglok (South Korea), sounded to me somewhat formal and wanting in notes inégales. The 2nd prize winner, Baron Fenwick (United States), who also performed the K453, offered an interesting comparison between the delicate, lyrically sung 2nd movement, and the 3rd movement with its distinct beat. The 3rd prize winner, Daria Parkhomenko (Russia), who also played the K453, had an excellent sense of timing, and exquisite light and shade in the cadenza.

Although I felt that the orchestra could have been less eloquent, especially when it came to the Mozart pieces, I would like to express my greatest admiration for the Sendai Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Junichi Hirokami, which co-performed the major repertoire pieces throughout the three-day Final Round.