Friday 15 March
Arrive on the Isle of Man for a unique event ….an International Viola Competition on a tiny island with violists travelling from across the globe to this gloriously removed haven away from the crazy race of life!
The town of Port Erin is host to this viola festival and competition; the Erin Arts Centre with welcoming banners and a wonderful greeting from John Bethell and Gloria Balakrishna. The festival spirit had begun.
Saturday 16 March
John Bethell officially opens the festival with an inspiring and wonderful testament to Lionel and Lillian Tertis, followed by Tully Potter also talking about Lionel Tertis, illustrated with recordings by the master, accompanied by unique and personal anecdotes. Tully’s knowledge of early 20th century string players, styles, trends and history is unsurpassed.
Hong-Mei Xiao’s class on the III of Hindemith’s Der Schwanendreher was packed with invaluable tips. Hong-Mei’s obsession with articulation, clarity and projection was inspirational and her demonstrations were full of vigor and passion. Der Schwanendreher was admirably performed in the class by violist Laura Seay from the USA and pianist Anthony Hewitt (UK).
Violist Jean Sulem (France) and pianist Caroline Dowdle (UK) gave an evening recital, beginning with Sulem’s own transcription of Schubert’s Variations on the song “Trockne Blumen D.802, originally for flute and piano – revealing lyrical, sweet and virtuosic qualities to his playing. He followed this with a deeply personal rendition of Stravinsky’s haunting Elegie for solo viola (1944) and finished the first half with Heinz Holliger’s Trema for solo viola (1981).
Sunday 17 March
10.00am for the first of my Viola Ensemble Sessions. I started with the group playing the rousing Hungarian Dance in G minor by Brahms, followed by one of Garth Knox’s Viola Spaces (arranged for multiple violas by Garth himself) “Up, down, sideways, round” – bringing a kerfuffle with bows everywhere and much laughter.
Jean Sulem gave a beautiful master class to two different players, each performing the first movement of Brahms Sonata op.120 no.2 in E flat. Eloquent and sophisticated teaching, warmly linked to harmony at every corner, taking his musical direction and line integrally from within the piano score throughout.
Samuel Rhodes gave a personal and movingly loyal session on the Allemande and Courante from Bach’s second Partita followed by the Allemande and Sarabande from the fourth Cello Suite in E flat. His knowledge from memory of every bowing and articulation was in itself astounding, accompanied only by an even deeper knowledge of harmony, musical shaping, inégale and a wonderfully imaginative approach to voicing.
Hong-Mei Xiao (viola) and Sophia Rahman’s (piano) recital brought vibrant playing, packed with energy, life and brilliance. The Schumann A minor Sonata was stormily interpreted, followed by an impassioned and glittering Romeo and Juliet Suite. The recital ended with Bliss’s mammoth sonata for Viola and Piano – a deluge of virtuosity and extremely beautiful lyrical moments in the second movement and Finale.
Monday 18 March
Sadly, I missed Tully Potter’s second lecture on “Oskar Nedbal and his Czech successors”…although…I did manage to hear the strains of the Shostakovich Sonata and Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumble-Bee” buzzing through the door towards the end of Tully’s talk…
Another Viola Ensemble Session, starting with the “Chorale” from Gordon Jacob’s Octet…sound building, intonation, pulse, texture, leading and general group responsibility. To finish the session we continued to slave away on Garth Knox’s “Up, down, sideways, around” with bows and arms flailing!
Maxim Rysanov’s master class in the afternoon included two renditions of the first movement of the Bartok Concerto and another student playing II and III. Maxim’s ravishing demonstrations and unfailing sense of humour were revelatory, as were his compelling and emotive concepts about the character of the music.
Unbelievably there was yet another Viola Ensemble Session after Maxim’s class…this time we ventured into the Argentinian world of Piazzolla!
Martin Outram and Julian Rolton’s Recital in the evening introduced the audience to several lesser-known Tertis arrangements as well as some hidden gems in the English Viola Repertoire. An unusual and illuminating recital, where Martin’s fascination for this music was evident in his eloquent and informative introductions and in his beautiful playing.
Tuesday 19 March
David Hume’s talk on instrument set-up and adjustments was fascinating… followed by another Viola Ensemble session where we were lucky to have Nejat Basegmezler to conduct his arrangement of Piazzolla, finishing off with Simon Rowland-Jones magnificent arrangement of “Svanen” by the Swedish composer Palmgren.
The Lord Lieutenant Adam Wood’s arrival at the Erin Arts Centre for the evening recital was accompanied by God save the Queen played by 13 violas!!
The hall was packed for the recital by Maxim Rysanov and Xenia Bashmet (Yuri Bashmet in the audience).
Maxim started off the evening with Suite no.6 in D major, followed by arrangements of famous works by Ravel, Debussy and Faure, finishing off with a dramatic and exquisite performance of Schumann’s Märchenbilder.
Brian Hawkins finished the evening off by reading the names of the eight semi-finalists… plenty of jubilation but also disappointment!
Wednesday 20 March
I sadly had to miss David Hume’s superb presentation on how to look after your bow.
The fifth Viola Ensemble session saw Nejat and Betil Basgemezler teaching us Turkish Folk Music…Then a group photo, followed by the Viola Ensemble in rehearsal to select the repertoire for Friday’s concert .
Brian Hawkins, Chairman of the Jury delivered a scintillating talk on the Schubert Arpeggione Sonata and a short master class on the first movement of the sonata afterwards.
The hall was again packed to hear Yuri and Xenia Bashmet’s evening Recital …an incredible testament to this unique and unbelievable talent. This was a poignant and deeply sincere recital – concluding with the Shostakovich Sonata: both harrowing and devastating. Yuri’s own brand of expression, bow control and musical license is utterly individual…it is not the first time I have been privileged to hear Yuri live, but I think I was even more in awe this time of his human frailty and the sense of occasion having him grace the stage…
Thursday 21 March
What a day… 8 semi-finalists playing for 40 minutes each… nervous tension abounded. The line-up of semi-finalists included representatives from Japan, South Korea, China, Taiwan, USA and one candidate from the UK. I did not envy the jury narrowing the final list down to three people…
The announcement of the finalists was saved until after the end of the evening recital with Sarah-Jane Bradley and Anthony Hewitt – an eclectic collection of Martinu, Kodaly, Mendelssohn and Bowen – beautifully constructed and presented. The final offering was a gorgeous unpublished work by Bowen – what a gem!
The announcement of the finalists was surprising – 4 rather then 3!
Ziyu Shen (age 15) – China
Matthew Lipman (age 21) – USA
Shuanghuang Liu (age 26) – China
Kei Tojo (age 21) – Japan
Friday 22 March
This morning it was Yuri Bashmet’s turn to give a master class – and what an occasion it was. His genius and fantastically unique perspective on music and the viola came flooding forth – everyone patently aware that they were in the presence of greatness. His obsession with a true legato, meticulous attention to detail with bow speed/weight and contact, alongside a self-aware and musically complimentary vibrato consumed his work on both the Shostakovich Sonata and Bartok Concerto. His connection with the Schnittke Concerto and the composer himself was utterly fascinating – allowing a personal view of the relationship between composer and performer. The violist who played this to Yuri certainly came away with a much more intimate sense of the music and Schnittke’s intentions.
The Viola Ensemble gave it’s concert in the afternoon with Yuri Bashmet in the audience. We performed the Chorale from Gordon Jacob’s Octet conducted by John Bethell, Brahms Hungarian Dance, Svanen by Selim Palmgren (arranged for 6 violas by Simon Rowland-Jones) and an arrangement of Piazzolla by Nejat Bagesmezler.
Samuel Rhodes, violist of the Juilliard Quartet for 44 years gave the final evening recital of the week – a wonderful selection of harrowingly difficult contemporary music by Elliot Carter, Milton Babbit and Hall Overton, alongside a W.F Bach Sonata, Hindemith Sonata for Solo Viola op.25 no.1 and the Stravinsky Elegie – what a privilege! Sam’s touching encore was written by a friend on hearing of his departure from the Juilliard Quartet in 2013, it left everyone of us feeling sad!
Saturday 23 March
The morning panel session was chaired By Brian Hawkins with Tully Potter, Sarah-Jane Bradley and myself, to discuss topics ranging from the future of the viola, copyright and photocopying, competition rules to external visibility, attendance, advertising and press coverage.
The Final Round of the competition started at 19.00! The four finalists certainly provided a magical evening of music-making – displaying their incredible talents with their movement of Bach, the fiendish Peter Maxwell-Davies Six Sorano Variants for Solo Viola and their chosen concertos.
After an agonizing wait everyone was called into the hall for the prize-giving and speeches. Many awards were presented to violists from the first and second rounds and tributes made by the President, Yuri Bashmet, John Bethell and the President of Tynwald, Mrs Clare Christian. Finally the prizewinners were announced:
Suangshuang Liu (China, age 26) and Matthew Lipmann (USA, age 21) were awarded joint 3rd prize
Kei Tojo (Japan, age 21) was awarded Second Prize)
Siyu Zhen (China, age 15) was awarded First Prize