This week sees the climax to the 2015 Michael Hill International Violin Competition, a biennial event and one that has gained attention and importance around the classical music world. The semi-final rounds in Auckland, consisting of the six remaining competitors, are split over two nights as they perform a Beethoven piano trio together with New Zealand musicians Ashley Brown and Michael Houstoun at the Auckland Town Hall. Of the six, three will be chosen for the grand finale on Saturday which will involve a concerto performance with the Auckland Philharmonia.
The competition proper commenced last week in Queenstown. Of the 158 entrants, 18 were selected for the recital programmes which was held at the Queenstown Memorial Centre over last weekend. Thanks to the excellent live and podcast coverage of the recital rounds from Queenstown by Radio New Zealand Concert, everyone could get some idea of the quality of the playing of the competitors.
Based on performance order after the recital sections, the lucky six to advance to the chamber music round were Marie-Christine Klettner (Austria), Natsumi Tsuboi (Japan/USA), Timothy Chooi (Canada), Eunae Koh (South Korea), Elly Suh (USA/South Korea) and Suyeon Kang (Australia).
On Wednesday evening we heard the first three in announced order. Marie-Christine Klettner chose the Trio in G major Op 1 No 2 and gave a solid , if a little bit safe, account of this early Beethoven work. I say safe as there seemed to be a definite emphasis on achieving balance and matching dynamics above all else without projecting individual lines too much.
Natsumi Tsuboi was next to feature with the Trio in D Major Op 70 No 1, nicknamed the “Ghost” due to its eerie slow movement. This was a highly polished and extremely well balanced performance from the start and gave the impression of an ensemble that was both comfortable with each other which, given the lack of rehearsal time, made it more remarkable. No problems with projection here and particularly notable was the near-perfect balance between violinist and cellist as well as the general co-ordination between the three musicians. While one needs to give due weight to the simplicity of the earlier trio and differences in style with this later one, for me, this was by far the strongest performance of the evening.
After the short interval, Timothy Chooi, the brother of 2013 MHIVC winner Nikki Chooi and the only male semi-finalist, performed the Trio in c minor Op 1 No 3. Chooi started aggressively, perhaps a touch too much, and at times, you might have formed the impression that this was more a violin sonata rather than a trio. While the third and fourth movements showed more balance and synchonicity between all instruments, the theme and variations was a touch unbalanced which was a pity as this could have been a standout performance.
But my impressions and opinions count for nothing – the final decisions are up to the international jury which include the likes of Pierre Amoyal, Jospeh Lin, Helene Pohl and Benjamin Schmid to name only four, each of them experienced and distinguished musicians and teachers in their own right.
On Thursday night, we will hear the remaining three competitors and the judges will announce the three finalists for Saturday’s grand finale. All sessions of the competition are being live streamed through the competition website and through Radio New Zealand Concert. It is definitely worth listening to !