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Ionarts-at-Large: From the 2010 ARD Competition, Day 15 - Flute, Final

Winning Prizeless

Ivanna Ternay (Ukraine), who turned in the best concerto performance of the competition with her Mozart in the semi final. In the final on Sunday night, too, she emerged as the most promising, most satisfying of the participants, which was (at last) meaningful in the flute finale, because all four competitors were very good.

Competitors like Sooyun Kim, who started with the Penderecki concerto (written in 1992) with the Munich Radio Orchestra under Marko Letonja accompanying. Except that Penderecki’s work is not mere accompagnato, it’s really a concerto grosso with embedded woodwind concertino plus obbligato flute. The soloist blends seamlessly in with the woodwind chirping, once airborne he or she is then left alone for a bit before echoes of strings catch up with the flute again. Sparse textures with a little percussion include the flute more as part of its virtuosic tapestry rather than having the soloist in front of mere background music. It’s a difficult concerto to win an audience prize with, because it doesn’t go for effect, but musically it’s terrific. Sooyun Kim’s performance made the concerto come across nicely, but perhaps with the flute part just a wee too incidental and her style a little mechanical. Sooyun Kim came third and won the prize for the best interpretation of the commissioned work by Bruno Mantovani.

Le petite Rampal?

Loïc Schneider—a recurring regular at competitions, which goes to show how hard it must be to establish a successful solo career with that instrument, when only one, two top players per generation are needed—doesn’t know the word mechanical. He also doesn’t know the word restraint, as his showy, entertaining, but borderline flamboyant performances show. That 1970s sized white collar carefully arranged over his suit jacket made him look less the hipster flutist or cool cat than it made him look like he got stuck in a little sailor suit. [The photographer evidently reigned it in in the picture to the left.] The concerto he picked, Rodrigo’s (a Galway commission from 1978), is equally flashy, with many large jumps of an octave and more, and in every way the opposite from Penderecki’s piece. Take away the soloist from Penderecki’s concerto and you are left with a neat little concerto grosso. Take away the soloist from Rodrigo’s concerto and you are left with empty musical phrases and simplistic (if effective) string arrangements that barely come to life with some solo flute pasted on top. The music-per-minute ratio of the work is shockingly low, but the appeal to the audience undeniable. (Leave it to Galway to know what moves the masses.) The critique of the concerto is not to take away from Schneider’s awesome control he has over the instrument, or how admirably he articulated and navigated the empty phrase-cliffs. Only his tone, too airy for me, leaves room for some criticism. Mr. Schneider won the first and audience prize.

The youngest participant in the finale, Daniela Koch, choose another different work, one by Jindřich Feld. This one—which I had never heard before—was commissioned by Jean-Pierre Rampal, another flute-lion and it’s quite pleasing… a sort of mild-mannered Bartók-meets-Martinů, with a slow movement that sounds like the opening of Brahms First symphony looped. The finale has its stretches, seemingly incorporating two more slow movements, and if Koch couldn’t excite me here, I was perfectly willing to place blame on Feld more than the soloist, especially since her tone was particularly beautiful. And while Mlle. Koch might be eight years younger than Schneider, but with her technique she was hardly an outsider in the finale, having just last year left him behind herself as winner of the Kobe International Flute Competition. This time she came second.

ionarts-Coverage of the
ARD International Music
Competition 2010

Semi Final

Semi Final
First Round

French Horn
Semi Final

Piano Duo

At last came Ivanna Ternay, and thankfully she, too, performed the wonderful Penderecki concerto—and not entirely unexpectedly a notch above Mlle. Kim’s performance. A tone easily as solid as that of the orchestra’s clarinet, air-free and pure gives her an inviting quality that is even through all registers and dynamic gradations, but never employed in the service of sameness. She put the flute just a little further up front in the concerto, without changing the collaborative character of the concerto. Dynamic gradations were rich and varied; everything seemed even more alive. When I noticed that she performed with the music (I almost hadn’t, and my colleague didn’t at all, so absorbed was he in the music), I was delighted: What a gutsy move, what a wonderful nod to the realities of performance and memorization.

Music-Rules. Not.

As early as after the first round of cellists I had wanted to write a piece about how the ARD Competition could root out the idiotic habit of not playing from the score by requiring that notes be used, and in a way Ternay's performance seemed the answer even before I got to write about it: the sure-fire winner of the competition showed that having the notes in front of oneself could be a plus; showed that she wasn’t afraid of being mis-judged for using them. From Sviatoslav Richter to Alexandre Tharaud—great artists who insist(ed) on avoiding the circus trick of playing ‘from memory’—I sensed an air approval surrounding Ivanna Ternay. Alas, I didn’t count on the jury (who all ‘needed’ the score to follow all three concertos) and the rules of the ARD Music Competition. “No score may be used in the performance of a concerto.” Consequently, Ivanna Ternay got no prize at all. We learn from this the following: It is better to perform a work badly from memory (I’m not referring to Mlle. Kim, but a hypothetical bad performance) than to perform a work absolutely wonderfully… from the notes.

This, of course, is perverse. Sure, they love their rules, those Germans. Obviously more than music. But that much more than music? If the rule had been put in to prevent some amateurish, insecure performance of a concerto (hello, cello semi finals!), then it might be vaguely understandable. But as it is, isn’t it just the dead-on confirmation that music competitions are about everything, just not music?! How can perhaps the most musical, most successful performer be excluded on grounds of using the music? Rules have been bent in the past at the ARD competition; when the organizers didn’t like the jury’s decision, for example, they created a new special prize to suit their own purpose. It would be hard to believe that the rules could not have been bent here, too.* More importantly, the rule should be changed. Not only is it not at all desirable that people need to perform works—new or old, accompanied or solo—from memory. It is actually undesirable that they be taught this post-Liszt glamorama circus trick as somehow being essential to proper music etiquette. I doubt that any competition, not the ARD or any other, will any time soon go the desirable step and suggest their participants use music under all circumstances, but I do have some hope that the organizers here (a wonderful bunch, really) realized the mistake that the current rules on their books have ‘forced’ the jurors to make.

As far as Mlle. Ternay is concerned? May her no-prize be something akin to Ivo Pogorelich’s no-prize at the Chopin Competition (without the eventual descent toward total dysfunction, of course). As for the rest of the players, it’s almost unfair that no-prize should overshadow their achievements, seeing how they—all six flutists that got as far as the semi final, really—were the elite of the 2010 Competition.

All pictures courtesy ARD International Music Competition, © Sigi Müller (modified where deemed necessary)

* Edit. Two further points: In last year’s violin final, the performers also played from the notes, upon explicit request from the conductor (smart man). So far, so good, but someone in the audience saw fit to launch an official complaint with the federation of music competitions, which in turn officially admonished the ARD Competition.
And Mlle Ternay was given that same BR Klassik prize I mentioned as having been created specially to suit their purpose. That redeems the competition on two counts: namely that they obviously felt they really could not bend the rules this time and that they obviously tried to ameliorate the situation with their own prize. Still, now I we can wonder why the anti-musical rule wasn’t changed last year, when they knew it could be potential trouble.


Anonymous said...

I liked the first version of beginning better. It was more dramatically.

Anonymous said...

The only thing that was unfair about the flute competition was how Ternay was allowed to even perform in the finals while bending the competition regulation. In the previous rounds, all the competitors that could not perform required repertoires from memory were not allowed to perform at all. Yes, she was disqualified, Yes, she did not win a prize. AFTER ALL, IT IS A COMPETITION AND EVERY CONTESTANT HAS A RIGHT TO BE ABLE TO COMPETE UNDER A SAME CONDITION. Ternay should be grateful she was given the opportunity to perform in the finals;an exception that other contestants did not receive.I find it quite unfair and misleading to not credit the impressive accomplishments of the three prizewinners who courageously accepted and fulfilled their difficult challenges.

jfl said...

I understand that--in Germany not the least--there will always be people who care more about rules than music. I'm just not one of them. When I want to experience "courageous impressiveness" for its own sake I'll go to a circus show. For me, Penderecki was the point and that point was most persuasively made by I.Ternay.