The title “Olympic Challenge Competition” may seem to suggest athletics rather than the more subjective field of music, but the name does suit the heroic efforts showcased recently in a concert of its young winners, ages 5-18, presented by the “You Need Music” Educational and Performing Enterprise. Offering a great incentive to practice and a much-needed chance to perform, “You Need Music” has been growing, according to the director, to draw students from all over the country. As the presenter’s website itself states, ”’You Need Music’ offers the unique opportunity to play at Carnegie Hall for children who put their effort in learning music without a goal to become professionals, but for the sheer love of performing.” Whether or not on a professional track, the twenty-five soloists on violin, cello, and piano (selected from DVD screening and live audition) had clearly invested tremendous energy and discipline to reach levels that were in some instances of a professional quality. Several players, as one would expect for the age range, experienced struggles with technique, focus, intonation, and other matters, but the level was generally high and in all cases was promising. Their concert at Weill Hall, as well as being a “victory lap” of sorts, was to further select three top winners to continue to a February 24th recital at Merkin Hall, with monetary prizes. As it turned out there were two Special Mentions (without monetary prizes) as well. I would have added several more, or exchanged one or two, but such is the nature of competitions. Having adjudicated for four hours for a different organization on the same day, I came to this event with many contest-related issues already in mind.
First of all, this audience at Weill Hall was not told the individual ages of performers, though one could hazard some guesses (and there were no college students allowed). It was also not clear whether the three judges were privy to age information, and one was uncertain whether awards were being made based on current development or potential for later success. Knowing numeric ages can be prejudicial – as in the psychologically misleading single-digit 9 versus double-digit 10 (with perhaps a birthdate difference of only a few months), making one child seem comparatively precocious; there can be equal misjudgments, though, on a visual premise, for instance assumptions based on height. The ideal solution may be a single artistic standard, but how is that really possible within a 13-year age range? One hopes for true discernment, but the cited Olympian “criteria” from the contest’s website, comparing musical qualities to attributes of Zeus, Poseidon, and Athena, seemed not to be terribly relevant or helpful in this case. It may add to the administrative work, but I would recommend a few separate age categories. It would also make possible eliminations more palatable for the older players.
Among these more mature players, William Hume, pianist, would have been one of my choices as a winner. He delivered Kapustin’s very difficult Concert Etude Op. 40, No. 1, with the fluency and ease of a veteran performer. He could certainly have a musical profession in his future, so I was disappointed that he was not chosen for something. Also among the teenagers, Mika Lin, violinist, gave an account of Bach’s Sonata No. 1 (Adagio and Presto) that was commendable for a pre-college-aged student. Pianist Orcin Akman handled the challenges of Liszt’s “Gnomenreigen” with such spirit and clarity that I had her in mind for the top winner, while pianist Deniz Akman savored and explored every ounce of drama in his rendition of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C# minor.
Several players were outstanding among the (seemingly) much younger set, including pianist William Chen, performing Liszt’s La Leggierezza, and violinist Matthew Ho, taking on the challenging Praeludium and Allegro of Kreisler. Also impressive were very young pianists Joy Xu (the first I’ve ever beheld playing Debussy’s Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum with the aid of a pedal extender meant for the tiniest players), Annie Gu, who opened fearlessly with Chopin’s Polonaise in G minor, and Dylan Wang, highly self-assured for one so young in Bach’s Concerto in A Major, BWV 1055. Amid the concert’s torrent of notes, young pianist Darina Korneeva played a relatively simple Sarabande (by a composer listed as “Lak”) with genuine tenderness of feeling. One has years to learn octaves and scales, but this little one saw that no note was wasted.
In the end, the First Prize went to William Chen and the Second to Orcin Akman, both mentioned above. Third Prize went to Eugenia Zhang, a violinist who had bravely tackled Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole (first movement). Special mention went to Deniz Akman and Joseph Maldjian, the latter who had played Shostakovich’s “Hurdy-Gurdy” from “Dances of the Dolls.”
Judges were Ilya Kazanstev (piano), Aisha Dossumova (violin), and Slava Znatchenii (oboe). It was a refreshing touch to have them precede the children’s recital with performances of their own, setting a high bar. Opening was the Solo de Concert for oboe of Émile Paladilhe, followed by Kupkovic’s Souvenir for violin (think Vaudeville meets Paganini). Both works were admirably accompanied by Dmitri Korneev at the piano. Closing the jurors’ performances was Mr. Kazantsev (whom I reviewed favorably about five years ago), tossing off the Kreisler-Rachmaninoff Liebesfreud beautifully.
-Rorianne Schrade for New York Concert Review; New York, NY