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Baffling results in Brussels

Jury places audience favourite in fifth place at Queen Elisabeth Violin Competition in Belgium

Music competitions get a lot of bad press these days. How can musical talent be judged and ranked? How can any expert jury member be objective? I’ve defended the concept several times before here and here and I believe they can have an important role to play in today’s musical landscape. But yesterday’s results at the prestigious Queen Elisabeth Competition were baffling to me and made me question my judgement. For me there was a clear winner in terms of sheer musicality, imagination, range, sensitivity, expression, humility, maturity and chamber musicianship. However, he came fifth in the prizes awarded by the jury. He did, though, win both the Flemish and French television audience prizes, which at least comforted me that I wasn't alone in my opinions.

I will preface the following observations by expressing awe and respect at the phenomenal achievements of all the finalists. I arrived for the second of six days of finals, by which time they had gone through several gruelling rounds. The consistency, dedication and concentration required to get to this point already puts them all in a special category of player and personage. For the finals, they had to perform one of the warhorse concertos and a modern piece (two players each evening), which they were given to learn a week before the final round. They were locked away in the Chapelle Musicale Reine Elisabeth with no phones or access to the outside world (no Facebook – what greater trial?), to learn the piece. From this point of view, they all deserved medals.

The new piece, …aussi peu que les nuages… was written by Michael Jarrell specially for the competition. It certainly presented technical challenges for the players, demanding competitors race out of the starting blocks with a brutal moto perpetuo requiring the swiftest of fingers and bowing arms, followed by a slow middle section with harmonics and disjointed phrases, and then a final fast section. It may have offered a chance to show off technical characteristics and sheer nerve, but there was little to be gleaned of musical imagination, such was the bombardment of notes and the blur of elbows – give me a phrase by Mozart or Haydn any day to work this out.

Contestants’ choices for concertos clustered around Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Brahms and Bartók, each of which has advantages and disadvantages for competitions. The challenge the players all shared was negotiating with an orchestra as rowdy and undisciplined as the Orchestre National de Belgique. Marin Alsop did her best to corral its members, with graceful and clear instruction, but I’ve heard better brass playing in the amateur orchestras I frequent, and the time lag between the violin and cello sections became more obvious the further forward I sat in the hall, all of which must have added an extra level of stress for the performers. At least this was a level playing field.

The standard of playing seemed to get better as the week progressed, although I had missed the performance by Tobias Feldmann, from Germany, which people were raving about, marred though it was by a memory slip and a broken string. Things started hotting up with Bomsori Kim’s Jarrell, which went like the clappers right from the start, technically secure and with a fulsome sound throughout the challenging passagework. She looked like she might throw up with nerves during the introduction to the Brahms Concerto but her playing was anything but timid – towering in projection and vision, if a little undermined for me by her tendency towards bulging notes and a frenzied vibrato.

Xiao Wang, born in China, may not have had the sheer force of previous players but I enjoyed his playing for that – there was a sense of breathing and a gentleness in both the new piece and his Sibelius, which came as a relief after some of the earlier performances. He created long lines in the concerto and found the musical logic of the composer’s many sequential passages, his cadenza one arching musical thought. There was sincerity to his playing, and a variety to his vibrato and characters, and he has a personable stage presence (although the elderly gentleman next to me thought ‘he didn’t show much’, which shows the prejudice that Asian players are up against).

William Hagen, from Utah, gave a clear though unobtrusive performance of the modern piece, and his Tchaikovsky was hard to fault. Since I last saw him in Austin at the Menuhin Competition he seems to have developed more flexibility – there were moments of great subtlety. His phrasing and sound were impeccable, with some tasteful portamentos, and although he had some problems with the orchestra in the third movement, this was beautiful playing, and the audience responded with a roar.

Ukrainian Oleksii Semenenko approached the Jarrell in battle stance, with front foot forward and bottom lip pursed. Whether it was his stage presence or his musical understanding, he certainly managed to communicate the piece as no one had yet done, finding a clarity to the lines and a sense of direction in the slow section that others had merely tried to play. I wanted to like his Sibelius. His opening phrase started remarkably simply and blossomed beautifully until a nervous vibrato got in the way. This veering between extremes continued, with the sequential passages either played completely plainly, almost like a study, or with counterintuitive accents and phrasing, as if he really didn’t know what to do with them. It was powerful playing, and his presence conveys his own strength of feeling, but close your eyes and you don’t always hear it in the music, and I could have done with more delicacy and poetry.

Come the last night, there seemed all to play for, and Ji Young Lim offered a strong performance of the Jarrell, although veering towards the rough. This carried into her Brahms, which felt overly aggressive to me. Maybe it was because I was sitting nearer the front than for previous players, but there was a lot of crunch to the beginning of her notes, although a beautiful warm body to the core sound. She seemed to rush through the cadenza of the first movement without really letting it breathe, and in the third movement particularly, she seemed to have problems turning musical corners, sometimes leaving gaps between phrases and starting the next phrase in a slightly different tempo, rather than thinking of the continuity of the piece. The overall effect of this was unsettling for me.

The last player was Dutch-American Stephen Waarts. Traditionally the final slot is supposed to favour the player, as their performance sticks in the jury’s mind, but any benefit might have been countered by playing Bartók’s Second Concerto, risky given that it’s a less frequent staple for most orchestras. There was a complete clarity to Waarts’s modern piece, his left hand fluid and nimble and his lines sweeping in the moto perpetuo. He created a beautiful landscape in the slow section, between all the harmonics and disjointed notes, and made structural sense of the finale, although after ten listenings to this piece, and the different insights into it, I still hadn't warmed to the work and its gratuitous technical challenges.

This was the third time I’ve heard Waarts. The first two were when he was coming second in the Junior Menuhin Competition in 2010, aged 13, and winning the Senior Menuhin Competition in 2014. In 2010 I was blown away by his preternatural intuition of the depths of Brahms and his sonata writing, a young child perfectly capturing the composer’s spirit. In Austin I worried that he had lost some of that sensitivity, and gone the way of some American players in terms of consistently beautiful and powerful but unvaried sound. My fears were allayed on Saturday, with a Bartók that was full of beautiful colours and contrasts, by virtue of a large palette of vibratos and bow speeds. He was certainly the first player all week to find a real pianissimo sound.

Waarts was sensitive to the full range of the composer’s moods and influences, whether gypsy rhythms, painful longing or joyous aspirations, and was able to switch between them in the blink of an eye, and to allow ebb and flow. The cadenza of the first movement was spell-binding – quiet in a way that none of the other performers dared, forcing the audience to listen; the simplest of phrases in the slow movement belied a gratefully received old-fashioned musical taste; and his rhythmic impulse in the last movement was infallible. One was also aware of a true chamber musician, in touch at all times with Alsop and trying to galvanise the orchestra, whether leading the winds with his violin or playing with the cellos.

So imagine my surprise when the prizes were announced, some time after midnight. First prize went to Ji Young Lim. For one unbearable moment, Ji Yoon Lee thought she had been announced as winner and came out: truly the stuff of nightmares. The correction made as graciously as possible by the jury chair Arie van Lysebeth, Ji Young Lim came out to collect her prize. Her teacher (and jury member) Nam Yun Kim burst into tears and high-fived her, barely able to contain herself, which, though understandable, didn’t do much to bolster the impression of impartiality, even if we know that the complex rules of the competition stop teachers from voting for their students. Second prize went to to Oleksii Semenenko. Third prize to William Hagen. Fourth prize to Tobias Feldmann. It wasn’t until fifth prize that we got to Stephen Waarts. Later it was announced that he’d won the audience prizes from both the Flemish and French television audiences, as the competition is broadcast across the country, and has a strong foothold in the culture. One can only look on in envy from the UK, where the BBC Young Musician of the Year gets shorter and shallower each outing.

It wasn’t just the fifth place for Waarts that baffled me. If it was the case that the jury was geared more to the power players, Bomsori Kim seemed to me to be stronger and more musically logical and persuasive than Ji Young Lim, and ready for a career, and likewise William Hagen more than Olekseii Semenko. I’d also pegged Xiao Wang, and he didn’t even make the top six.

What can we conclude? Music is subjective – we know that. The audience members either side of me during the announcements liked different performers – the one on my left, a non-musician, accurately predicted the top two winners; the one on the right placed Waarts number five. Maybe my observations were incorrect, or I was focusing on the wrong aspects. Maybe my musical tastes are out of time, or different from those of the jury. My colleagues from the press and I sometimes disagreed, and more interestingly, often focused on completely different aspects of each performance. Magnify that variety of attention by a jury of eleven, and apply complicated algorithms designed to get rid of any biases, and maybe the results come out as they did. Magnify them even further in the popular audience vote and you find the player who communicates best at some sort of gut level beyond knowledge.

Whatever the outcome, all the young players had an intense but vital experience in the world of music and exposure unimaginable through any other means. I have no worries for Waarts’s career – he’s already been picked by Young Concert Artists and if he’s feeling down about it, he can look at he past winners to see that the likes of Gidon Kremer, Joseph Silverstein, Arnold Steinhardt, Julian Sitkovetsky and Victor Picaizen didn’t make first prize. He's in special company.

First Prize: Ji Young Lim, 20, South Korea

Second Prize: Oleksii Semenenko, 26, Ukraine

Third Prize: William Hagen, 22, United States

Fourth Prize: Tobias Feldmann, 24, Germany

Fifth Prize: Stephen Waarts, 18, United States/Holland

Sixth Prize: Fumika Mohri, 21, Japan

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