The Strad – That festival feeling: postcard from Odense


A cold arctic wind bit my cheeks as I arrived in the sleepy town of Odense, about 100 miles west of Copenhagen, for the final round of the Carl Nielsen International Competition (which took place from March 31 to April 10). The competition is a celebration of the disciplines of violin, flute and clarinet (the instruments for which Nielsen wrote concertos), and the first violin edition was held in 1980. Past category winners include Johan Dalene , Liya Petrova and Jiyoon Lee, and the current president of the contest, Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider, winner in 1992.

One thing that strikes me as making this competition unique is how it strives to create an inclusive environment for all competitors, demonstrating how those who have been eliminated in previous rounds could still benefit from continuing to attend, rather than to go straight home. This was achieved through the inaugural edition of Espansiva! – a series of workshops and conferences that encourage professional development and offer players the opportunity to meet industry experts (including creative coaches and representatives from orchestra management companies, record labels, PR and media agencies and services) and to socialize with other competitors.

This networking took place at a microbrewery called Anarkist, near downtown Odense. It was here, amid wooden pallets and trendy indoor plants, that we were treated to a laid-back concert on my first night by Danish folk violinist Harald Haugaard and his band. As I held a glass of hazy New England IPA in my hand, it felt like a rare pleasure to listen to live music and drink beer while traveling overseas after the last two years of restrictions. This festive and friendly atmosphere extended to the eliminated competitors who chose to stay after their performances, all under 30, and many still students or recently graduated from a conservatory.

The inclusive and supportive goals of the competition were exemplified by Szeps-Znaider: “Why would an expanded platform or the ability to grow and develop by being part of the competition only apply to the top three competitors? Instead of the usual contest procedure, where you quit if you don’t advance to the next round, we thought: let’s make it more tangible, and provide real opportunities to interact and build meaningful relationships. It is these interactions with other people – your peers, your colleagues, your counterparts in various musical institutions – that will carry your career for the long term.

The networking took place in a microbrewery called Anarkist, amid wooden pallets and trendy indoor plants

It was also something explored in a panel discussion I took part in with Matthew Trusler (director of Orchid Classics) and Alex Taylor (artistic planner of the Oslo Philharmonic). As three musicians who had ‘turned to the dark side’ and taken on non-performing roles, we had the chance to shed some light on some of the young contestants on the breadth of career opportunities in the music industry. .

Away from the Anarkist social hub, the musical tours took place at the Carl Nielsen Salen in Odense Koncerthus. I was there for the pre-final concert (April 8), during which the three finalists – selected from 24 candidates selected by a pre-jury jury – played their choice from a wide range of romantic and 20th century concertos century: one played the Tchaikovsky and two played the Sibelius. The competitors were accompanied by the Copenhagen Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Szeps-Znaider.

The first was Estonian Hans Christian Aavik, 23, playing Tchaikovsky. There was no evidence that the piece was difficult for him – he weaved lyrical passages with direction and performed the fiery virtuoso passages with flair and spontaneity. His sound is sometimes swallowed up by the lush symphonic writing, which could be partly linked to his approach: one that favors face-to-face with the orchestra as if he were playing chamber music.

Next came 24-year-old Korean Eun Che Kim, who provided the first Sibelius concerto of the evening. Maybe I still had beer in mind, but the rich, robust tone in her low register reminded me of a sweet, chocolatey stout – not once did the sound crack under pressure and she went projected with ease. However, there were some tempo gaps between soloist and orchestra at the end of the first movement and the beginning of the third which caused her to play less energetically, and I found myself wanting more of the raspy character suggested by Sibelius writing.

For the second Sibelius of the evening, 17-year-old Ukrainian Bohdan Luts had a very different style to that of previous competitors. His playing was bold, courageous and hard-hitting, and sometimes I wondered if he was capable of delicacy and subtlety. The first movement was a showcase of fast and furious playing, the intonation in the double-stopped octave passages suffering somewhat. I wanted him to let the music breathe and take up more space, but he had my full attention during the energetic last move.

0404 Violin semi-final 22_04_04 © Morten Kjærgaard FOTOgrafik

With three very different styles of high-level performances, how did the judging panel choose a winner? “It’s the most difficult thing,” said Noah Bendix-Balgley, concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and president of the jury, between the pre-final and the final. It is rarely absolutely clear. Maybe a few favorites emerge, but as a jury you have to prioritize. Is it more important for me to put forward a more mature and masterful violinist, but having less “wow” effect on our audience? Or do I want to hear from someone with incredible potential but not quite polite? He concluded: “The most important thing is that it is a convincing and musical performance. I’m happy to hear a piece performed with a different take on how I would like to do it myself.

I’m happy to hear a piece performed with a different take on how I would want to do it myself – Jury President Noah Bendix-Balgley

For the finale, each musician had to play the 35-minute Nielsen Violin Concerto (just as the finalists for flute and clarinet had to play the Nielsen concertos for their respective instruments), accompanied by the Odense Symphony Orchestra under the direction by Daniela Musca. My pre-final impressions of each player extended to those performances as well, which made me wonder how the judging panel would choose a winner.

It turned out to be a tough decision. To everyone’s surprise, joint first place went to Aavik and Luts – two players with such different styles. As the first prize winner was entitled to a Duncan Emck bow donated by Ulf Eriksson Violins, there was an awkward realization on stage that two were now required. ‘Fortunately, I have another bow!’ proclaimed the bow maker. Kim was awarded third prize and I still look back fondly on her controlled and strong tone.

The two big winners each received a recording contract with Orchid Classics worth €13,000, a cash prize of €5,000, solo appearances with top Nordic orchestras and the aforementioned bows. The third prize winner received €7,500 in cash. It was smiles and satisfaction for all at the party that followed the ceremony in the hall of the concert hall. As I chatted with Eun Che Kim, she expressed how much she enjoyed the competition, despite the challenges – including learning the Nielsen concerto in just over a month and breaking her spike plate. bow during the last orchestral rehearsal!

Several of the other contestants I spoke to were still buzzing with the festive energy of the competition, as well as the sense of togetherness and friendship with their peers. It gives me hope that these young musicians will continue to be ambassadors for this new style of competition, where toxic rivalry is replaced by the cultivation of meaningful relationships, initiated by the love of music and lifelong human bonds. .


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