My Augsburg Confession

Augsburg, June 8, 2019, Leopold Mozart Violin Competition—After a week with five long days of trials, amounting to some 35 net hours of intense Mozart-, Paganini-, Bach-, and Mendelssohn-listening, the 10th Leopold Mozart Violin Competition is in the books. It will conclude tonight with the Prize Winners’ Concerts.

In yesterday’s finals, three candidates out of initially 24 in the first round and then a dozen in the second, got to play two concertos with the Munich Radio Symphony Orchestra – the Bavarian RSO’s little sister symphony. One concerto had to be Mozart, the other a romantic concerto out of a list of the usual warhorses. As luck would have it, the three finalists – Kaoru Oe (Japan, *1994), Joshua Brown (USA, *1999), and Karisa Chiu (USA, *1999) – had all chosen different Mozart concertos; Oe and Chiu meanwhile had both opted for Brahms whereas Brown went with the much easier to navigate (and impress with) Tchaikovsky.

When the performers started to play, it seemed as though it would be a clear-cut affair: Namely for the favorite Joshua Brown to win it, with a largely faultless performance in the finals that was, on sheer technical and executive merits, a cut above Chiu and certainly above Oe’s. Unfortunately Oe, perhaps the dark-horse favorite of several jury members, was suffering an off-day and maybe had nerves get in the way. Whatever it was, it didn’t allow him to bring his bow to bear on the violin or get into anything like a groove. After having been impressive – sneakily and outright – in two rounds, this was only enough for a cut-and-dried third place.

A cynic might consider Brown’s performance to have been one that was bent on cruising safely through the concerto, letting the others make the mistakes and come out the winner on the other side, by default. A more generously inclined soul might suggest that that’s merely his style: old-fashioned soloistic excellence without much interpretive muck; an empty canvass still free to grow and develop; a performance free of gimmicks. Perhaps–although also free of any expressiveness, I thought.

You can play a Tchaikovsky concerto without mistakes, which is undoubtedly impressive and an achievement I envy greatly. I can’t even write three paragraphs without a typoo. But that doesn’t mean it already qualifies as excellent music-making or even excellent Tchaikovsky when you do. Dynamically, this was not an overly accurate or impressive performance and the third movement, which the critic Hanslick so famously described at the premiere as “reeking of booze”, didn’t in this case so much as smell of hand-sanitizer. Here’s my Augsburg Confession: Young Mr. Brown impressed but bored me three rounds long and that grimace he is making while playing the violin (as if he had just bitten on a sour and very, very sad pickle – or something along those lines) doesn’t help in terms of endearment.

That something was missing here, apart from evident excellence, was not just my opinion, either. After all, Karisa Chiu – the outsider in the finals (and certainly a surprise-presence to me) – came pretty darn close to challenging Brown for that First Prize. Hers was a performance not nearly as polished or technically accomplished on that evening as Brown’s, but one that suggested a spitfire violinist underneath the occasionally botched phrase or odd stroke–a tenacious fighter who just doesn’t quit. Was it put-on interpretive superficiality or genuine musicality? Not everyone was certain but I thought it was rather the latter, both in moments of real intensity and struggle as well as in moments where she took the power out of her playing. In the latter case, for once, it didn’t just sound like accidental timidity (as it so often did with most other candidates whenever they didn’t go all out on their instruments), but like a conscious and controlled choice. Alas, Brahms isn’t nearly as grateful as Tchaikovsky to play to a crowd and there are more pitfalls that lie within and the mistakes, mostly minor but too many, might have been very easy to ignore as a listener, but harder to overlook for someone in the jury.

Interestingly enough, the fault lines in the jury along several slightly divisive decisions – Brown vs. Chiu, or whether Julen Zelaias (the Spaniard who couldn’t be bothered to accept a special prize if it meant having to stay an extra three days and was thus stripped of said prize) was quite excellent or anti-musically dreadful (my view) – didn’t run along violinists / non-violinists divisions in the jury, or along those of musicians / non-musicians, but right through the middle of the diverse field. Still, the fact that Joshua Brown had decidedly won over several jurors with his particular brand of playing became clear when he further collected two special prizes: One from the Jury’s President, Benjamin Schmid (himself a Leopold Mozart Competition winner in 1991), where Brown will get to play a recital at a Schmid-run festival – and a scholarship to the Kronberg Academy from Friedemann Eichhorn. Similarly no jurors who voted for Chiu entertained any notions of objecting to the winner in the least. They may just have felt a little wistful pang. Still: Court cases regularly have minority opinions written by the dissenting judges. Perhaps that would also be an interesting idea for music juries? It might add further depth and nuance to the results, even when they were achieved as transparently and harmoniously as here.

There was one other special prize handed out at the Leopold Mozart Competition that might have gone some way in doing just that: The three critics and journalists among the members of the jury (Remy Franck, Anna Picard, and myself), were privileged to bestow a Critics’ Prize to one participant. After hearing a fascinating variety of ways in which a performance can be persuasive and enlightening (or not, frankly), it was clear that there were sufficient qualities present that are not necessarily those that ensure success in a traditional competition.

This brings us to two violinists we found especially worthy of mention – neither of which made it to the finals. First honorary mention of the semi-finalist Issei Kurihara from Japan, whose internality, quiet confidence, subtle touches, and distinct individuality did much to suggest great and intriguing depth. He’s a strange cat, for sure, not bent on communication in the conventional sense. Partly he was hampered by the language gap – but he didn’t exactly act very chummily with his fellow Japanese competitors, either. But for whatever wasn’t externalized, there seemed to be a lot going on, on the inside.

Our choice for the Critics’ Prize also combines many musical qualities and still greater hopes that pricked our ears in special ways. Simon Wiener’s consummate passion for conversing through music, his musical and expressive intelligence, his unique approach to the composers, and his choice of repertoire made him an easy choice to rally around. And although he did not make the finals (just), the fellow jury members seemed pleased with that choice, too, because there are few or none who are not also looking forward to hearing much more of him in the future.

“A bit like Zehetmair without the technique” might describe him well, and it’s all meant as a compliment. His best moments in the Bach Sonata were among the most touching. His Mendelssohn rehearsal (which went into the consideration for the special chamber music prize he also won) was solely poignant, and his choice (firstly) and performance (secondly) of the Bernd Alois Zimmermann Sonata inspired. If only his Beethoven sonata had been better (including but not limited to a more inspired accompanist), he might well have been able to showcase his deeply thought-through (arguably even overwrought) brand of musicality in the finals again.

That listening to so many developing musicians and sharing impressions with fellow jurors in such a relaxed and convivial atmosphere would be a great learning experience might have been expected: How do others listen and perceive music and why; what details to they perceive that would have eluded me; what do they focus on and what are their priorities as opposed to (or in perfect harmony with) mine–that sort of thing. But that it should also have been as much fun as it was might not have been so predictable. Especially for the “professionals” – the violinists and other professional musicians – to be entirely lacking in attitude or ego or haughtiness toward the non-musician ears; for them to be nothing but collegial, that made this week of hard-core music listening perfectly rewarding. If I don’t say that it reflects well on those who choose the jury, it’s only because it would really come out more as a not-so-humble brag than the compliment it is intended to be.