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Posted at 01:43 PM ET, 03/26/2012

Johansen Competition: young at art

Attending a competition is, like any marathon, a kind of endurance test; it takes a special kind of stamina to keep your focus for the whole thing, but going to part of it feels like cheating.
The 14-year-old violist Ziyu Shen, first-place winner of the viola division of the sixth Johansen Competition held in DC this past weekend, with the former Guarneri Quartet's violist, Michael Tree, who was one of the judges. (Photo by Paul Silverman) (Courtesy of Johansen International Competition) (Paul Silverman - Paul Silverman)
I was therefore tempted to pass on the sixth Johansen Competition, the Friday Morning Music Club’s international competition for string players 13 to 17 years old, held every three years, which took place in Washington this weekend. And I was really glad, after hearing a few of the competitors, that I looked in after all.

I am periodically moved to diatribes about the joys of listening to music in rehearsal rather than in a polished but less vivid performance. Let me extend that diatribe to encompass hearing music played by committed, talented young artists full of idealism and fire, as opposed to hearing it played by gifted older artists who have to fight perils like routine and jet lag in a career that is, if you’re an international star, pretty grueling. (I remember Yefim Bronfman telling me about the challenge of learning the concerto Esa-Pekka Salonen had written for him; he was on tour in Asia, and the only time he had to practice it was after concerts, at 2 in the morning.)

Above: A 2010 video of Gallia Kastner, who, now all of 15 and no less poised, won the violin division of the Johansen Competition this weekend.

Obviously, it’s a privilege to hear the best players in the world show their stuff. But I have seldom had as many chills in as short a period of time as I did on Friday afternoon listening to some of these teenagers play -- like the solid young violinist, serene to the point of phlegmatism, who matter-of-factly tore into Bach’s 3rd, C Major sonata; Beethoven’s 4th sonata in A Major; the Tchaikovsky concerto; and Wienawksi’s Op. 15 Variations on an Original Theme in quick succession, and brought something special to each. “I’m sorry to stop you,” said the violinist on the three-judge panel, Hiroko Yajima, and sounded like she meant it.

The Johansen Competition this year began with 149 CDs, which were winnowed down to a field of 33 finalists by a patient five-member preliminary audition committee that included Robert Battey, a frequent reviewer for the Washington Post. Auditions were completely blind; one result was that for the first time in the six iterations of the competition, all of the violinists in the semi-finals were women. (Take that, Vienna Philharmonic.) Of the six semi-finalists I heard, only one was male, a cellist identified solely as #31. The one required element, for all the performers, was a three-minute Chaconne by the Baltimore-based composer Jonathan Leshnoff, a short suite of variations that traversed a lot of technical challenges in a short space. It clearly took some of the performers out of their comfort zone, though not #32, a violist whose blue gown matched the jewel-colored tone she got from her instrument.

You haven’t, of course, heard of the winners yet, but you may: as I said on Friday, the 2011 winner of the Tchaikovsky Competition, Narek Hakhnazaryan, was a former Johansen Competition winner. The violinist I so liked was the 15-year-old Gallia Kastner, from Illinois, and she won the violin division; the violist #32, winner of the viola division, was 14-year-old Ziyu Shen, from China. I didn’t hear 17-year-old Brannon Cho, #16, who won the cello division; nor Taeguk Mun, #24, from South Korea by way of Westbury, New York, who was awarded a prize for the best performance of the Leshnoff.

I often poke fun at our field’s tendency to romanticize the beautiful, the idealistic, the idea that Mozart makes you a better person, or the holier-than-thou attitude that anyone who tampers with the purity of the music is sullying it and deserves castigation. (We frown on Charlotte Church and Jackie Evancho and say that they’re being robbed of their childhoods, but isn’t a 13-year-old violinist who sits in a practice room for 8 hours a day being robbed just as much, if not more? So why is one OK with classical music purists, and the other not?)

But the naked honesty of many of Friday’s performances awakened in me all of that gee-whiz, ain’t-classical-music-amazing sentiment I so often seek to combat. Bravi to all the participants, and may they keep that spark for as long as possible.

By  |  01:43 PM ET, 03/26/2012

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