Report from ARD Competition 2023, 3rd Round (Semifinals)

The prestigious ARD music competition 2023 (ARD Wettbewerb) for Viola is ongoing these days in Munich (D). Karin Dolman reports exclusively for the DVS her personal impressions day-by-day until the Final on Sunday, Sept. 10th.

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Round 3, Semifinals (Sept 8th, 2023):

When I arrived with my ticket to the concert hall it turned out that my seat didn’t exist. I had a ticket for the middle of the hall so I just looked for and found another nice place to sit.

The first candidate of this Semifinal round was Kyungsik Shin. He plays the Hoffmeister concerto with the Kammerorchester vom Bayrischen Rundfunk. The orchestra plays without conductor, which is very interesting. He moves very well and plays with a nice open sound and open strings flageolets. He plays one of the standard cadenzas, which I had hoped would not be the case. Here is an opportunity to present your “business card” to your audience. But on the positive side, Kyungsik is wearing a traditional suit from South Korea.

The second movement was a bit aggressive. But in the third movement, the rondo was very clear and joyful. Communication with the orchestra was good as well.

Njord Kårason Fossnes

Njord Kårason Fossnes played second, and chose the Mozart clarinet concerto. Great opening by the orchestra, especially the horns. They play on natural horns and sound very good in the orchestra. The concerto is more difficult than the Hoffmeister or Stamitz, but it’s all about the style and brightness, and only a perfect performance impresses. Njord is doing a great job to make the concerto more popular in the viola repertoire. But I’m not sure if it fits in a competition. The concerto is also much longer than the two others. In the recapitulation of the first movement he feels more comfortable, and dares to turn to the orchestra more. This concerto is filled with more themes, characters and harmonies than the Hoffmeister. And there are no standard cadenzas, so you have to make your own.

The second movement starts with the viola (I am unconsciously hearing the clarinet) but it suits the viola as well. In the orchestra bits I keep listening to the horns. Njord conducts very well. The rondo has a nice tempo. It can sometimes be played too quickly. He gets a lot of bravos from the audience, so clearly many liked it very much.

Coming on stage with a beautiful red dress is Haesue Lee from South Korea. The dress is well tailored with a touch of a traditional Asian look. She plays Hoffmeister. Her viola is not very bright, but the effort she takes to make it as clear as possible works better than just playing on a bright instrument. Ah, such a pity, again the same cadenza (as Kyungsik Shin). That makes it harder for the jury to judge. On the other hand she plays it with more patience.

The second movement is really exciting. And the cadenza in the second movement was more interesting ending with the high flageolet! The third movement was really funny with many more nice small details. And she enjoys playing with the orchestra.

Haesue Lee

The commissioned piece for this semifinal is called ‘Doryphóros’ for solo viola, by Alberto Posadas. I had a chance to look into the score:  Wow, 16 pages and 16 difficult pages. With a lot of double stop flageolets. After that I decided not to take the score into the concert, but just to listen. The three candidates that we just heard now will play this piece, one after another, which improves the comparability.

Kyungsik Shin comes on stage to play the piece first. It works really well, all the high flageolets. And the kind of perpetuum mobile, disturbed again by flageolets, creeps up to your neck. In Kyungsik’s hands it looks very easy, he has fabulous technique. The largo part in the middle sounds like wind and sounds from all kinds of objects moving in this atmosphere. It goes again into the perpetuum mobile. The passages of chords sounds as if we are heading for a great ending. Yes!

There is a lot of talking after the performance. I think for the ordinary public the piece is a bit too much to deal with.

Next is Njord Kårason Fossnes: The beginning of the piece sounds much more friendly in his hands. The perpetuum mobile is a bit slower. The disturbing interruptions in between are less, which makes it all a bit more like one thing. The middle part as well is friendlier. He takes the piece as if it were written in a classical time, which is very good. I think it is a great performance!

Let’s see what Haesue Lee does with this piece. I have high expectations of her. As I already thought, she is even more clear. She plays the whole perpetuum mobile spiccato and the interruptions more legato, which makes it sound as if played by two players. The middle part in her hands has a more timeless feeling.

After a 20 minute break, unfortunately there is a smaller audience that returns, although we go back to the “safe haven” of classical concertos.

Today’s first Stamitz concerto is heralded by the replacement of the oboe with two clarinets. Luckily my favorite horns are still in it. The entrance of the solo of Brian Isaacs from the USA is a bit soft. It is a pity he plays on a (no doubt very expensive) mumbling viola. I hope the jury and public will listen through.  He is a great player. Because I was a bit disturbed by the sound, I forgot to listen to his entrance.

As I had expected, he wrote his own Stamitz cadenza! Yeah! Funny as well, sometimes a bit out of context, but nevertheless, he gave his personal touch to the piece.

The second movement suits the instrument, softer in the orchestra and leaves us more together with Brian. The second cadenza was more a walk through of harmonies in which we could walk with him. Good tempo choice. Surprising bits in between the themes. The orchestra has to pay attention. They are sitting on the edge of their chairs. The last quick passages are perfectly played!

Next is “our own” Takehiro Konoe, playing the Hoffmeister. Great playing in the first movement. Very clear. Unfortunately not a self-written cadenza 😳 That could have made the difference with the other Hoffmeister played by Haesue. A very romantic played second movement. His vibrato is great! I do not hear enough personal elements in the third movement, this is something that I miss, only his timing is more personal.

Last candidate, my favorite musician, Ionel Ungureanu, with the Stamitz concerto. Let’s see if he does what I expect. Yes yes!!! Great self written cadenza!!! So good! He will be a great composer as well, mark my words! On stage he is so One with the orchestra! The applause he got was overwhelming. We had to laugh even in the last movement.

But now again the commissioned piece by Posadas, played in succession by Brian, Takehiro and Ionel.

We start with Brian Isaacs. O wow he starts off so beautiful and so quick and soft in the perpetuum mobile. Also the middle part great playing. In his hands the piece is even more beautiful. So far for me the best performance.

Next comes Takehiro Konoe, he plays the piece again a bit sharper, nearer to spiccato. He takes more time and it sounds more easy. The flageolets in the middle part are not an effect anymore but more of a melody. The last part is much slower and he loses his place once, which was a pity.

The last candidate today is Ionel Ungureanu, and again he is great. Well deserved applause!

So my personal favorites are: Ionel, Haesue and Brian

Editorial note: The jury selected the following players for the Final on Sunday:

  • Haesue Lee, South Korea
  • Takehiro Konoe, Japan (& the Netherlands!)
  • Ionel Ungureanu, Germany

Note: The competition is Livestreamed on the ARD website, and also on YouTube, (Semifinal session: here); where you can go back and listen (if you missed it) and make up your own mind of the performances!

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