Tuesday, June 12, 2012: Conquering the Cello Competition

Opus Osm

Victor Julien-Laferriere competes in the Prague Spring cello competition, with Koji Kawamoto conducting.

Conquering the Prague Spring Cello Competition

Have you ever wondered if musicians get bored playing the same major masterpieces again and again?

“We don’t get bored,” a musician told us. “You can always find something new in every piece, something you hadn’t realized about it before.”

Well, sure, if you’re a professional musician. But what about the rest of us, who often have trouble identifying the artist or title of a piece, let alone the “new” notes in it?

This question made us hesitate to attend the Cello Competition at the 2012 Prague Spring Festival recently. The final four competitors, each the maximum age of 30, would each play the same piece for the judges and us, the public audience. Could we non-musicians stand to listen to it four times in a row, we wondered?

But then we saw that the piece would be one of our favorites, Dvořák’s Cello Concerto No 2 in B Minor, Opus 104. So we decided to go for it.

And we had one of the most enjoyable concert experiences. Ever. We sat back in the comfortable seats at The Rudolfinum, listened to the first two fine contestants, headed out during the long break for a light dinner and a stroll, and then returned, refreshed, to The Rudolfinum to hear the second two contestants, including the one who earned the “Bravo!”s.

The musicians aren’t so lucky, however. They’re the final four from a starting field of 59, competing for the prestige and the main prize of 200,000 kč, half that for second prize, and 50,000 kč for third prize. Smaller prizes of 15,000 kč, gifts, and titles are also on the line.

And this gorgeous concerto opens with a long introduction – almost 3-1/2 minutes! — during which the cello player has nothing to do but sit on the podium and try to keep his or her palms dry and find a place to look.

But even that part is interesting to watch. Some young cellists look up at the ceiling or at the floor; some turn their chins aside to listen intently to the music or to watch the nearest cellist in the accompanying Pilsen Philharmonic, conducted by the tender, sympathetic but capable Koji Kawamoto.

And when it gets started, as gorgeous as the cello part is to listen to, it can be tortuous to play, filled with musical tricks and tribulations for the hands and ears: several key changes, notes played octaves apart, double stops (playing two different notes simultaneously), the plucked strings of pizzicato, the high-speed 32nd-notes, glissandos requiring the fingers to slide all the way up the strings, and more.

But to our amazement, we discover that that musician was right: We do hear something different every time we listen to the concerto, even four times in a row. For example, we think Dongkyun An from Canada plays passionately but with a whisper-light touch, so he’s our pick for 4th place. Vashti Hunter, Great Britain, at times seems to able to make the cello weep, and gets our 3rd prize. Konstanze von Gutzeit, Germany, plays strongly, even defiantly at times, our 2nd place. And Victor Julien-Laferriere from France? He somehow manages to include the talent of the previous three and then take the music another step further. (But they were all playing the same piece!)

And what do the judges think? Apparently they also heard something different. Their prize-winners were Vashti Hunter, 3rd place; a tie between Dongkyun An and Konstanze von Gutzeit; but they agreed with the entire, cheering audience in picking Victor Julien-Laferriere for the first prize.

This year there was a similar competition for harpsichord; next year’s Prague Spring International Music Competitions will be for the organ and for the French horn.

Make your reservations early. You might be surprised at what you can hear. — oo

– Mary Matz

Photo Credits: Miroslav Setnička

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