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Ionarts-at-Large: From the 2009 ARD Competition - Extra

Artistic competitions may seem like an oxymoron. But for musicians aiming to be stars, they're the key to a successful career. DW follows young hopefuls as they brave the jury that could decide their future.

The Deutsche Welle article can be read here, below is the hazy version that hasn't seen professional trimming.

Johannes Brahms’ father, in his time Hamburg’s foremost double bassist, is said to have pointed out that a correct note on his instrument is a crapshoot—at best. That rings true, if you listen to bass players struggle, but I had always wondered why that was. After all, they have so much more space to hit the right note—inches, seemingly—than violinists. A German first-round participant at the ARD International Music Competition, now a double bassist in the Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra and formerly a violinist, finally explained that incongruence to me: “We don’t have more space for the right note. The right note is just as precise a point on the fingerboard as on the violin. But we have two inches of wrong note between each right one. And we have to move our arms inches, not our fingers millimeters, to get from one note to the next. In essence we have to have the delicacy and lightsomeness of the violinist’s wrist in our elbows and navigate tiny islands of proper pitches amid some two feet of off-key treacherousness.” That’s good to keep in mind when listening to a first round of double bassists in any competition. Right notes are indeed exceptions to a cacophonous rule.

19 year old Ha Young Jung, born and raised in Seoul and now London-based, was one of the 40 bassists who were accepted and made the trip to Munich. She was excited to participate because it involved learning so much new repertoire in relatively little time. “Competitions and concerts a very different, of course, but I think competitions are very good because we have to play and prepare for so many pieces in such a short period. The experience is great. But doing only competitions wouldn’t be good, either, because it can get a little bit tense when you think about how to play without making mistakes or that one needs to be perfect all the time. Fortunately, I don’t think too much about what the jury would like to hear. I go out and play what I can play. At the end of the day, music is so personal that I can’t possibly know what it is the jury really likes. So I do what I like. Or”, she giggles with a view to her regular Russian pianist who fulfils a role somewhere between ersatz-mother and drillmaster, “what my accompanist wants”.

Ten, fifteen years ago women playing the double bass were still a rare sight, which is changing now. But it’s still a popular topic to ask musicians like Alexandra Scott, the very petite blonde English double bass player of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra who made it to the second round of the ARD competition—and few questions annoy her more. So she rolls her eyes, instead. Ha Young Jung finds that the funny looks she gets, rather than being a woman playing the double bass, come from her being—or wanting to be—a solo bass player.

“Many people don’t consider the bass a solo instrument. Its register is low, its sound difficult to project when you play with an orchestra. But I think it depends on how a player brings out the qualities of the instrument, rather than on the instrument itself. Not that I’d want to limit myself just to ‘solo bass’. I love playing chamber music, I love playing with chamber orchestras… well, I just love playing bass, really. I’d like playing in an orchestra, too, but when I play orchestra for a few days, I get very, very ill, because I just give out everything. Even though I look very healthy” she says with a waggish smile, referring to her hearty physique, “my physical health isn’t very strong.

There’s something about the very big picture that’s part of playing in an orchestra and I enjoy it very much—and some aspects are even more demanding than playing solo. But three Mahler symphonies in as many days and I’d have to rest for a month. I’ll need to work on my health if I ever wanted to be able to play in an orchestra.”

I picked Ha Young Jung out of the double bassists because among the players of the first day, only she and Frenchman Olivier Thiery’s glorious “Arpeggione Sonata” by Schubert impressed me thoroughly. Playing Bottesini’s “Elegy and Tarantella”, every phrase made musical sense and her unbridled energy was like someone opened the windows in the (windowless) Studio 1. “There isn’t a lot of repertoire for the bass anyway, compared to other instruments anyway. But Bottesini is one of the few composers who really tried to expand the repertoire and I think he’s very musical, very much fun to play, and fun to listen to” said Jung, and it sounded just like that. Except only with her.

But when I knocked on her practice room’s door after the second round of the competition, I found her dissolving into tears, deeply unhappy with her own performance. Not that her Adolf Mišek sonata or the Serge Koussevitzky concerto performances were outright bad; any mistakes or squeaks were the acceptable price for recklessness in the name of musicality. But her instinct was right, and she didn’t advance. The trouble probably started with her rendition of the specially commissioned composition of Nicolas Richter de Vroe “Atlas Textures”. It begins with heavy heaving, inhaling and exhaling. At the heart of the matter is a “Gravity Dance” preceded and followed by a “Gravity Song”, a song interrupted by threatening intrusions of indefinite low notes. The strings are allowed to resonate richly in the pointed pauses, moments of respite, distant cousins of silence.

Before getting there, the work sounds like an old steel bridge slowly folding, or an ocean liner’s death song. Richter de Vroe has the players elicit sounds from the instrument in almost every way for which the double bass was specifically not intended. That can be great fun, but when applied gratuitously or not well integrated by the interpreter, it loses the novelty aspect. When Ha Young Jung dug into the work, the sinking ocean liner changed into a warped didgeridoo, and her effort was always audible. There was more sense to be made of “Atlas Textures” in Olivier Thiery’s quicker interpretation: he made the spiky trial sound downright elegant. And Thiery, the latest addition to the bassists of Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw Orchestra, went on to the finals and won a third prize with his smoothly sensitive playing of Nino Rota’s Double Bass Concerto.

Ha Young Jung was upbeat again, a day after her moment of tears, waiting for the ride to the airport and looking forward to a recital at Wigmore Hall with famous violinist Sarah Chang. “It would have been nice had I gone on, of course, but based on what I played the other day, I felt it wasn’t coming. If I can play ‘100’, I felt that was ‘2’ or ‘3’. I’m disappointed because I was really looking forward to going to the final and play with the orchestra: I love Rota’s concerto that I’d have gotten to play and I’ve never had the chance to play that with an orchestra. But now I’m not going to stress too much about the result. Had I played my best and failed to go through to the semi final then maye I should think there is something wrong with me and that I don’t play well enough or don’t practice hard enough. But it was a worst case of me, so in that sense I’m not too disappointed.”

Before she parts I ask if she ever feels stuck with the double bass and so little music to be grateful for? “Well, there are many ways to look at this. For me, I don’t envy pianists or violinists, because no matter what music, I just try to play musically. I don’t envy the particular repertoire they have, even if it is so much bigger and, well, better. I’m happy playing bass and I like it. But”, she perks up, looking at colleagues hauling basses about “what I envy is the size of other instruments!”

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