IVCI - listening to the violin

Six IVCI finalists

The Ninth Quadrennial International Violin Competition of

Indianapolis hosted 37 of the best violin players in the world--and perhaps the

highest average caliber of all preceding competitions.  In 1982, 1986 and 1990, it was fairly

easy to rate the players as there were many non-world class participants.  Indeed one or two

of the gold medalists from that era have failed to find fame and fortune in the

interim; they were simply not of world-class caliber.  It was often the silver medalists who

fared better.  Was

this the jury's fault? 

Was it an improperly managed career launch? Who knows?

In any case, the present complement of players having been

chosen for the IVCI are so good that it may not matter so much who finally gets

picked.  All of

them are capable of sailing through the most difficult passages that composers

old and new can write for the instrument.  Brilliantly executed passage work,

rapid staccato, rapid double stops, fast pizzicato: They were all heard during

these preliminaries and semi-finals, and were all handled as well as any

already successful touring performer.  Plus they all show an understanding of

a piece's "musicality," its intrinsic meaning, of course differing with each

player and comprising the so-called subjective element of music making.

But there is one element in the playing of any stringed

instrument and in the singing of any voice that resides in only the uppermost

tier of performers: their tonality--or specifically in present-day performing

practice--the shape of their vibrati.  And with the violin, it's in their

finger-work and bowing. 

During a sustained note drawn on the fingerboard, the player

vibrates his/her left hand which varies its pitch at around 5 times a second.  This "wavering"

effect is most pleasing when it is done to a certain degree--enough to think

you're hearing a "tremolo," a modulation of a note's loudness--but not enough to

hear a change in pitch, which I've termed a "wobble."

And there were a number of IVCI participants who showed

wobbliness in their vibrati, one almost continuously throughout her two events.  Even though she

excelled in all other aspects, her vibrato was irritating, rather like "warm

maple syrup strained through a very old brassiere," to quote someone a long

time ago describing something smarmy. Most of the participants played with a

highly varying tonal width, some going from white (no vibrato) to wobbly within

a measure.  This

manner of playing is common enough that many are used to it, don't really hear it, or are enamored more with the persona than with the


This tonal variable remains with all violin performers,

those in competitions, as well as those who've "made it" on the tour.  But those with near

perfect vibrati are few and far between.  Among the younger crop of today's

touring players visiting our environs, I could name Gil Shaham, Hilary Hahn,

and Christian Tetzlaff as the best examples. 

And from the IVCI, I would include the 2006 gold medalist Augustin

Hadelich and the 2002 silver medalist Sergey Khachatryan at that level. Those with lighter

vibrati but otherwise making smooth, beautiful sounds include Joshua Bell (he's improved in recent years) and

the Japanese player Midori. 

Past examples of great fiddlers with great tonality include

Arthur Grumiaux, Jascha Heifetz (in his younger years), Aaron Rosand and of

course Josef Gingold.

I heard three of this year's IVCI participants come close to

achieving this criterion of beauty: Tessa Lark, Petteri Iivonen and Yoo Jin

Jang, the latter making the IVCI commissioned piece, "A Fantasy for Violin" by

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, the most beautiful of any of its 16 performances.  Regrettably Iivonen

did not even make the semi-finals, while the other two are in the finals.  I therefore make no

claim to be "in tune" with the jurors, who may weigh different criteria with a

different emphasis.


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