MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Artistry and Humanity at the 2019 Concours Musical International de Montréal: Violin Edition

My report on the 2019 Concours Musical International de Montréal:

The 2019 edition of the Concours musical international de Montréal (CMIM), devoted this year to the violin, started off with added pressure – for the organisers, that is. Because of the convergence of several of the most high-profile violin tournaments elsewhere this spring – from Auckland to Augsburg, from Sendai to Brussels – the recently completed CMIM also had to compete with the competitions.


Filed under: competitions, music news, violinists

1st Prize Winner in Montréal: Hao Zhou

Hao Zhou

Hao Zhou for the first time playing the brand-new violin and bow handmade by the Maker’s Forum — gifted to him as first prize winner

Heartiest congratulations to U.S. violinist Hao Zhou, who won first prize at the 2019 Concours musical international de Montréal, as well as the Radio-Canada People’s Prize. And to second prize winner Johanna Pichlmair, who played the Brahms concerto, and Fumika Mohri, who took third prize for her account of the Sibelius concerto.

Mr. Zhou’s prize includes $30,000 from the City of Montreal, the Joseph-Rouleau career development grant of $50,000 from the Azrieli Foundation, a violin and bow handmade by the Maker’s Forum (valued at $20,000), an artist residency at Canada’s Banff Centre for the Arts, and a concert engagement at the New Generation Festival.

The distinguished jury was presided over by Zarin Mehta and included Pierre Amoyal (France), Kim Kashkashian U.S.), Boris Kuschnir (Austria), Cho-Liang Lin (U.S.), Mihaela Martin (Romania), Barry Shiffman (Canada), Dmitry Sitkovetsky (UK/U.S.), and Pavel Vernikov (Israel/Switzerland).

Here is Hao Zhou in his prize-winning performance last night of the First Violin Concerto by Dmitri Shostakovich (with the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal conducted by Alexander Shelley):

Here is Johanna Pichlmair’s soulful Brahms Concerto:

And the remarkable Fumika Mohri plays the Sibelius here:

Filed under: competitions, music news, violinists

Patricia Kopatchinskaja Comes to California

ojai-at-berkeley@2xPatricia Kopatchinskaja is an ideal choice to be this year’s music director of the Ojai Festival. In advance of the festival’s northern edition, Ojai at Berkeley, here’s my profile of this incomparable artist for Cal Performances:

Matters of technical proficiency are well accounted for in the arsenal of words that critics have at their disposal to describe what sets a musician apart. What is sorely lacking is …

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Filed under: Cal Performances, Ojai Festival, Patricia Kopatchinskaja, profile, violinists

Stefan Jackiw Portrait


Stefan Jackiw. Photo by Sophie Zhai

My profile of the violinist Stefan Jackiw is on the cover of Strings magazine’s February 2018 issue — and available online:

A sense of modesty may seem incompatible with the drive required to remain successful in the highly competitive realm of classical performance. Yet violinist Stefan Jackiw has made it central to his artistic credo..

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Filed under: profile, Strings, violinists

Patricia Kopatchinskaja in Lucerne

More musical revelations at Lucerne Festival: thrilling Bartók Violin Concerto No. 2 featuring Patricia Kopatchinskaja in an unimprovable program of Bartók and Haydn by Mahler Chamber Orchestra led by the impeccable François-Xaver Roth.
The Haydn (Symphonies 22 and 96) was sleek and proto-Modernist in Roth’s interpretation, overflowing in invention and brought to life by the exquisitely fine-tuned playing of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra.

The Bartók Second — nicely complemented by the Dance Suite — spurred all Kopatchinskaja has to give: from her feistiest, most earth-rooted playing to star-drunk lyricism.

And then there was a post-concert treat in the “Interval,” from Kopatchinskaja plus her parents (dad Viktor on cimbalom and mom Emilia playing violin), with Venezuelan double-bassist Johane Gonzales: incisive Kúrtag and wonderful folk music arrangements.

Last night brought out still another side of Kopatchinskaja’s all-embracing artistry, in a Late Night concert with the Lucerne Festival Academy Orchestra led by Matthias Pintscher.

It’s clear that the Moldovan soloist regards Ligeti’s Violin Concerto as one of the ultimate masterpieces of the repertoire. Hearing her play it, you feel this is the only music in the world that matters, a world within world of where the concept of  virtuosity itself is reimagined from the ground up.

Kopatchinskaja is the perfect violinist to advocate Ligeti’s wildly imaginative ideas, but also the formal ingenuity and, yes, melodic grace of this score. She also brought out the best from the incredibly gifted young Academy musicians. I can’t wait to hear the full ensemble shine in Monday’s all-Cerha concert.

The program also included fascinating performances of composer-in-residence Michel van der Aa’s Hysteresis for clarinet, ensemble, and tape, with Martin Adámek  as the soloist and Ligeti’s Piano Concerto, with pianist Dimitri Vassilakis.

Filed under: Bartók, Haydn, Ligeti, Lucerne Festival, violinists

Kavakos and Wang on Tour


kavakos-wangOn Friday Leonidas Kavakos and Yuja Wang come to Seattle as part of their current tour. My interview with the Greek violinist for The Seattle Times:

Forget about art for art’s sake.

The virtuoso violinist Leonidas Kavakos staunchly believes that artistic creativity is vital for a fully human life — and even for our survival.

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Filed under: pianists, Seattle Times, violinists

The Healing Bach

bach-violin-partitas-strings-magazine-e1477009169612A link to my feature story, in this month’s Strings magazine, on the inexhaustible appeal of the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin:

Bach’s works for solo violin and cello are the Shakespearean monologues of the string world: The indefinable balance of technical mastery and interpretive insight they require is the touchstone of a great artist.

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Filed under: Bach, violinists

Shimmering Color and Incandescence


Here’s the link to the complete piece.

My profile of violinist Augustin Hadelich and his Grammy Award-winning interpretation of Henri Dutilleux with the Seattle Symphony and Ludovic Morlot will appear in the August 2016 issue of Strings magazine. A brief sample:

Augustin Hadelich just missed being in Los Angeles to receive his first-ever Grammy Award. He had even traveled to LA for a chamber concert the day before the ceremony but was already en route to his next engagement — with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in Poole on England’s coast — when congratulations for winning the Grammy Award for Best Classical Instrumental Solo starting pouring in via social media.



Filed under: Henri Dutilleux, profile, violinists

Noah Bendix-Balgley in Seattle


photo © Nikolaj Lund

Among this year’s lineup of newcomers at Seattle Chamber Music Society’s 2016 Summer Festival was American violinist Noah Bendix-Balgley — which gives you an idea of the level of luxury casting to which chamber music lovers have been treated.

The North Carolina native switched from his position as Pittsburgh Symphony concertmaster  to become first concertmaster with the Berlin Philharmonic in 2014 — and he’s currently only 32.

For this edition of the Summer Chamber Festival, Bendix-Balgley took part in four programs, and I made sure to catch all of them. He made his debut here with Dvořák’s Op. 87 Piano Quartet in E-flat, joined by violist Jonathan Vincour, cellist Bion Tsang, and pianist George Li (I’m not exaggerating about the “luxury casting”).

This was the kind of playing that can change your attitude toward Dvořák, make you realize that we need to hear more and more of him, not just the warhorses. They sustained their intensity across the generous arc of the piece, not merely settling for its lyrical pleasures: the Piano Quintet as a page-turner epic novel.

For appearance no. 2, Bendix-Balgley joined Bion Tsang and Yura Lee (on cello) for Mozart’s Divertimento for String Trio in E-flat (K. 563), which made for a fascinating contrast with the overbrimming Romanticism of the Dvořák: the graceful restraint of his phrasing revealed emotional depths and the power of implication.

During his third concert Bendix-Balgley teamed with fellow violinist David Chan for Prokofiev’s remarkably far-ranging Sonata for Two Violins in C major, Op. 56. Along with expertly sounding its acoustical surprises and trompe-l’oreille effects, I admired how the musicians explored Prokofiev’s independence of line — of musical thought — from two similar voices, interrogating notions of “harmony.”

Beethoven was the focus of Bendix-Balgley’s final appearance (July 25), when he convened with SCMS artistic director James Ehnes (on first violin), Beth Guterman Chu and Rebecca Albers (violas), and Raphael Bell (cello) for the “Storm” Quintet in C major, Op. 29.

The Summer Festival is known for its mix of musicians who have regularly played for years as partners and ad hoc ensembles working together for the first time, and their account could have easily fooled listeners into taking this particular group for the former. By that I don’t mean only the level of risk-taking and involvement in the playing, but the conviction they seemed to share about the “Storm” Quintet’s emotional landscape and structural quirks.

Here’s a sample of Bendix-Balgley’s captivating, richly characterful playing:









Filed under: Seattle Chamber Music Society, violinists

Grammy-Winning Augustin Hadelich with the Seattle Symphony and Jesús López-Cobos


Last night’s Seattle Symphony concert featured two guest artists of genuine distinction: Jesús López-Cobos, Conductor Emeritus of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and former music director of Madrid’s Teatro Real, and the violinist Augustin Hadelich.

The latter is especially familiar to Seattle audiences as a longtime regular at the Seattle Chamber Music Festival. This time he returned with a fresh crowning of laurels from last month’s Grammy Awards: he won Best Classical Instrumental Soloist for his recording of L’Arbre des Songes, a violin concerto by Henri Dutilleux. (So fresh, in fact, that, as Hadelich later mentioned, he still hasn’t received the gold-plated trophy he accepted in absentia.)

Hadelich recorded the Dutilleux with the Seattle Symphony and Ludovic Morlot on their new in-house label, and the SSO and audience welcomed him back with obvious warmth, cheering before he’d played a note. (A couple days before, Hadelich had recorded a shorter Dutilleux piece for violin and orchestra — Sur le même accord — which is due for future release on the SSO label.)

But from the moment he did start playing — the vehicle was Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto — Hadelich cast an absolutely irresistible spell. I kept trying to dissect his secret. There’s no shortage of flawlessly virtuosic young violinists, and being able to showcase your technique on the Kiesewetter Strad from 1723  doesn’t hurt.

Still, what made his performance unique was its authenticity. I mean that not in the sense of HIP, of period instrument ideology, but quite simply as a matter of musical and emotional honesty. Too often technique and sincerity (“playing from the heart”) are set up as opposite poles; operating from a stance of modesty, Hadelich grounds his technique — and it’s jaw-dropping fabulous, above all his masterful intonation and dynamics — with  sheer love of the musical message.

In the process Hadelich succeeded in dusting away the clichés, phony sentimentality, and sense of routine that frequently accompany the Tchaik. He kept his distance from the lapel-grabbing emotional sensationalism performers know guarantees excitement, but by the same token there was nothing cool or unduly “objective” here.

Overall Hadelich seemed to have in mind Tchaikovsky’s abiding affection for Mozart — always a tempering influence on his own tendencies toward excess. The violinist shaped the first movement’s main theme with a tasteful classicism. When deep pathos emerged, in the minor-key Canzonetta, it resonated powerfully.

Hadelich’s interactions with the players underscored his intense engagement in this music as a present-tense affair. I’d forgotten how beguiling Tchaikovsky’s woodwind lines are here. The clarinet — featuring the expressive work of guest player Gabriel Campos-Zamora — becomes virtually a second protagonist.

Throughout,  López-Cobos was interpretively in sync with Hadelich, encouraging clarity of shape and timbre from the players. He set a leisurely pace in the first movement but was able almost imperceptibly to quicken and then moderate it again, in accord with Hadelich’s phrasing choices. The finale was thrillingly breakneck, a rousing conclusion to a work in which Tchaikovsky seems to regain purpose and joie de vivre.

Hadelich returned for an encore: the Andante from J.S. Bach’s Second Solo Sonata in A minor. It was the epitome of this artist’s gift for fusing marvelous technique with incandescent expression: an early-21st-century version of what used to be called “the sublime.”

There was likewise a great deal to admire in Jesús López-Cobos’ work from the podium in this all-Russian program. It seemed to be connected by a “travel” theme (remember that Tchaikovsky wrote his Violin Concerto soon after his disastrous attempt at marriage while he was sojourning in Western Europe). As an opener, the Spanish conductor led a charming account of Glinka’s Summer Night in Madrid, rhythmically vivid and awash in cheerful colors.

It turned out to be a pretty accurate trailer for the characteristics he brought to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade in the second half. Particularly in the wake of John Adams’s new masterpiece, Scheherazade.2, last week — I admit to approaching another encounter with Rimsky’s crafty Sultana with some skepticism. It bored me the last time I heard the SSO play this score (three years ago).

This time, I couldn’t get enough of it. López-Cobos coaxed a uniformly high-quality performance from the SSO. Magisterial and majestic, he crafted a beautifully proportionate interpretation of Rimsky’s score, giving just the right amount of time and emphasis to its components.

So rewarding were the musical allurements that he tempted the audience to forget about the half-hearted Arabian Nights program, for which the composer in any case expressed ambivalence. The narrative that mattered was how one texture and melodic idea gave way to the next. Threading this story together was the impressively phrased, gorgeous playing from Elisa Barston, the evening’s concertmaster.

–(c) 2016 Thomas May. All rights reserved.




Filed under: conductors, review, Seattle Symphony, Tchaikovsky, violinists

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