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Last Exit Rota
Ionarts-at-Large: From the 2009 ARD Competition, Day 9

ARD Competition. Day 9. Violins, Second Round. Double Bass, Finale.

A whole different Nikita Borisoglebsky showed up for the second round of the violin competition; the quality of his Ravel and Beethoven (op.96) and especially Bartók sonatas were much improved from what I heard (or thought had heard) in his first round performance. Especially the pulse with which he drove the Bartók sonata in the third movement was astonishing. Now that I might have thought he performed well enough to advance, he didn’t… but then I heard so little of the other violinists that judging is even more difficult than it already is just having ‘amateur’ ears.

Haruka Nagao (Japan) looks like exhibit A at a precious doll show, her Beethoven (op.30/2) was of an altogether rougher, even senseless nature. She never communicated why she was playing those notes in the Brahms Sonata (op.100/1) and she de-musified Bartók in the process of being cruel to the audiences. A few dazzling moments here and there suggested why she was in the second round in the first place, but no more.

Korean Young-Uk Kim managed for a very boring Beethoven performance (op.96), produced Hindemith (op.31/2) that was technically adept but humorless and bloodless… and the Debussy sonata was, to be nice about it, ‘not very French’. Where’s the fast-forward button when you need one?

American Lily Francis, whose performance I liked in round one, made it to the semi-finals, meanwhile, where I will catch up with her playing.

Winner Takes Third

A German bassist who had been pleased as heck to even have made the cut for the first round finally explained to me the difficulty of playing double bass accurately. When I asked him how his colleagues could sound so off, so often, when they have two inches to get the right note, the violinist-cum-bassist shook his head: “We don’t have more space for the right note. It’s as precise a point on the fingerboard as on the violin. We just 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.”
Now I know better than to moan at the occasional off-pitch note from these musicians.

In the afternoon I arrived at the Herkulessaal where earlier I had met Gunars Upatnieks to take pictures of his instrument (left, above) and where the four double bass finalists now assembled for their final competitive performance—all four with Nino Rota’s cinematographic double bass concerto in tow. Fortunately the Rota concerto is just good enough to withstand such monoculture on the bill without boring the patient audience half to death. The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (with laudably many of its first desks present) played under Lawrence Renes through four professional, if mildly bored, renditions of the Rota.

First was Stanislau Anishchanka who, after his semi-final performance and hear-say of his bass-heroism in the first and second rounds, was one of my favorites to take the top prize. What I witnessed was rather more disappointing; his great physical efforts no longer yielding the same invigorating results, his energy by now zapped, and even his accuracy gone. Ivan Zavogordniy followed, didn’t really best Anishchanka with his buzzing, raw rendition, and managed to drop his bass off the pedestal mid-performance.

The second half was a vast improvement to these ears. Sure, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra member Olivier Thiery, too, was far from pitch-perfect—perhaps an impossibility with such an instrument—but what a different world of playing altogether. He sang the concerto on his instrument, enjoying his instrument to the very limits of public decency. I can’t imagine double bassist consider it much a compliment when one compares them to cellists (because of the implicit notion that the latter instrument is somehow superior), but that’s precisely how Thiery comes across: A cellist with an oversized instrument. Pending the blond Latvian, Gunars Upatniek’s, performance, this was clearly the Rota of the night. “Pending”, that is… because Upatniek put down a Rota that blew the audience away; nearly as refined and lyrical as Thiery’s, with hardly any flaws, and brimming with vigor. What a leap from the rather well behaved Dittersdorf in the semi finals. Responding to congratulations afterwards, still before knowing the jury's decision, he texted: "I tried to make music :-)". With that performance, Upatnieks won himself first and audience price. Stanislau Anishchanka came second, and Ivan Zavgorodniy third. Thiery, though, my favorite for a (shared) first prize after hearing all four rounds, shared a (full) third with Zavgorodniy, instead. How curious.

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