Friday, 22 August 2008

Singapore National Violin Competition 2007: Grand Finals

Singapore Festival Orchestra conductor Chan Tze Law
applauds violin finalists Cao Qi and Lee Shi Mei.

Violin Artist Category Final (13 December 2007)

Having taken an early return flight, I was able to catch the Grand Final of the Violin Artist Category. There were two finalists, a straight play-off between Singapore and the People’s Republic of China. Singapore’s Lee Shi Mei studies in Oberlin, Ohio and had the guts and gumption to participate in both the Violin and Piano Artist Categories. As it was, she was admitted to the semi-finals of both categories. Probably sensing a better chance in the Violin competition (which had far fewer contestants), she dropped out from the Piano competition. Her rival was China’s Cao Qi, a student at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory.

This is the first year that the finals of both Piano and Violin Artist Categories were held on separate days. As with the past three editions of the competition, concertos were performed with orchestral accompaniment. By this year, the generically-named Competition Orchestra of 2005 had become the Singapore Festival Orchestra, Singapore’s third professional orchestra, led by its founder conductor and music director Chan Tze Law. If the look of this young orchestra seemed familiar, that is because some of its members are SSO musicians: Concertmaster Chan Yoong Han, Principal cellist Yu Jing, violinists Nikolai Koval, and violist Marietta Ku are already Esplanade regulars. More importantly, some of the violin chairs are occupied by former winners of the National Piano & Violin Competition – notably Grace Lee (1st Prize 2001), Ye Lin (1st Prize 2005), Lim Hui (2nd Prize 2003), Loh Jun Hong, Edward Tan and Seah Huan Yuh. Quite an impressive alumni, isn’t it?

Credit must also go to the Maestro, Chan Tze Law, who kept a tight ship throughout, providing the most helpful of accompaniments to the young soloists despite what must have been very limited rehearsal schedules. Let’s see what unfolded over both evenings:

The opening of Bruch’s First Violin Concerto was sensitively shaded by the orchestra, allowing Lee Shi Mei’s solo entry to shine. Despite her slight frame and somewhat stooped demeanor, Lee displayed no shortage of confidence and produced a healthy, robust sound which helped transcend the orchestral textures. Her intonation was not always flawless but she managed to maintain a high voltage throughout. Even in the lovely slow movement, where some latitude in dynamics could have been exercised, she remained highly strung, almost to the point of being on the manic edge. This nervous tension however worked to her advantage in the finale’s romp, where there was fire and passion in bucket-loads. The frisson she generated was from her quite fine technique as well as a certain degree of nerves. No performance should be without an element of walking a tight-rope, and Lee Shi Mei’s commendable showing was evidence of that.

All too often in competitions like these, the orchestra keeps an anonymous profile: play well but stay in the background at all costs. The Singapore Festival Orchestra however believed in a genuine partnership, by exerting itself without fear nor favour whenever the music called for it. There was a concern that the young and overawed soloist might be cowed into submission by overpowering tuttis, as in the case of Paganini’s First Violin Concerto. The opening tutti was very loud, almost overstating its credentials, but Cao Qi was very much up to the task of fending for herself.

She is an altogether more confident personality, with a physical stature to match. Her intonation was more secure and she seemed to coax a brighter and more brilliant sound from her instrument (this has to be a member of the famed Rin Collection, often loaned out to conservatory students). Also displaying more latitude in tempi and dynamics, she was able to shape a more convincing case for this often banal music, culminating with an astonishing degree of control in the fiendish Sauret cadenza.

The give-and-take between Cao and the orchestra was judged perfectly in the droll slow movement, and this set the stage for a most unfettered finale imaginable. This young lady knows how to milk Paganini for best effect, and what is Paganini without the risk, without the wildness? Straddling between high jinks and vulgarity, the showboating came to a head in the passage of thirds in harmonics, something which even troubled the great Salvatore Accardo in his famous DG recording. No such fears for Cao as she and the orchestra raced to a grandstand finish.

My verdict (as were many in the audience) was shared by the violin jury:

1st: Cao Qi (by a furlong)
2nd: Lee Shi Mei

The first prizewinners of the Violin Junior and Intermediate Categories also performed. Jaz Loh Wan Zhen stole the evening with her altogether enthralling performance of William Kroll’s Banjo and Fiddle. She is a portrait of self-assurance, confidence and cuteness (another cute with a capital C!), from an age-group that still does not know the meaning of nerves. The older Davin Ang Kai Jie is more serious, and brought out the feeling and nostalgia of Smetana’s From the Native Country. These are names to watch out for in the future.

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