Virtuosity at its best

  • 2013-02-20
  • By Jonathan Brown

SHORT-LISTED: A rarity, Vilnius’ virtuoso, Jascha Heifetz (1901-87), without his violin and in usually good spirits. He gives his name to the IV International Jascha Heifetz Violin Competition.

VILNIUS - The critics are vultures, the jury unpredictable. Virtuosity is taken for granted, there’s money involved, and politics come to the fore. Competitions rarely show the better sides of classical music.
It’s a relief then that Vilnius’ Heifetz Violin Competition eludes these controversies. Between Feb. 26 and March 3, budding musicians will meet head-to-head in Lithuania’s capital to perform for audience and jury.
After DVD auditions of Mozart’s concertos, thirty participants were short-listed to compete in Vilnius. Although almost a third are Lithuanian and eighteen are from the former Soviet countries, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Japan, Canada, and Norway are represented too.

Mozart’s music isn’t especially technically demanding, but it does require a distinctive artistic voice. Towards the end of his long and full life, the great Soviet pianist, Sviatoslav Richter remarked, “A phrase would seem very simple in Haydn or Beethoven, but becomes horribly difficult if it’s by Mozart. I’ve not yet found the key to Mozart.” The violinists invited to perform in Vilnius have sufficiently impressed the jury with convincing renditions of Mozart.

Bronius Kutaviciushas composed a piece for the competition called There and Back. Organizers require competitors to perform a piece by a living Lithuanian composer - most will opt for this specially commissioned music. The score’s preface, penned by Prof. Jurgis Dvarionas of the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theater, describes Kutaviciusas as “one of the most original contemporary Lithuanian composers.” There and Back is divided into three contrasting sections. Each will allow the performer to demonstrate their capabilities in terms of dynamics and timbre. Instructions a performer would expect to find in any score have purposefully been omitted here. This will test performers’ ability to confidently impose their interpretation upon Kutavicius’ pages of notes.

Latvia’s best-known violinist, Gidon Kremer, plays a central role in this year’s competition. Kramer will chair the competition’s jury, all of whom are distinguished musicians themselves. They will come from Poland, Russian, France, with three from Lithuania.

But juries at classical competitions have gained a terrible reputation for bias. The Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow awarded first place to Russian pianists uninterrupted for twenty-five years (they made an exception in 1986 for the Northern Irish pianist Barry Douglas – Russians told Douglas he played like they did). Since, Tchaikovsky’s voting system has been completely overhauled. Some journalists have claimed you’d need a PhD to grasp its nuances. Even with the introduction of new voting systems, there’s always a danger that a jury’s decision won’t be transparent. The Heifetz Competition’s Web site specifically states: “The decisions of the Jury are final and not a subject to appeal.”

Kremer’s Kremerata Baltica were nominated for Latvia’s Great Music Award and their most recent recording, The Art of Instrumentation was released on contemporary music’s prestigious Nonesuch Records. The ensemble is young in two respects – it was founded in 1997, the average age of its musicians is 27 (it’s something they boast). They’ve won a Grammy, been nominated for a second, and performed in the world’s most sought after venues. Kremerata Baltica will accompany six finalists in the competitions second and final stage. This is certainly an important injection of vitality into the competition’s infrastructure and no doubt a highpoint for competitors too.

Heifetz was celebrated for his incredibly diverse repertoire. So it isn’t surprising that his transcriptions include “Mack the Knife” by Kurt Wile, and George Gershwin’s “it isn’t necessarily so.” Competitors will performs any Heifetz transcription of their choice in the second round of the competition.

There’s much to play for. The competition’s first prize is 6,000 euros. Second and third places will be awarded 4,000 and 2,000 euros, respectively. Those who perform in the final but don’t place in the top three will earn 1,000 euros each. What’s more, the usual array of agents will likely be waiting in the wings, weighing the cost benefit of offering a contract to the more impacting performers. For better or worse, it’s these contracts, and less the competitions themselves, that make or break young musicians careers.

Judging the success of any musician’s performance will make those dedicated to classical music squeamish. By doing so, these competitions make spectacles of themselves. Whether this spectacle serves music or the musician isn’t obvious. It’s enough to make any audience suspicious. But it has never been enough to turn audiences away. Classical music’s followers keep coming to competitions internationally because it’s an opportunity to hear new and invigorating renditions of familiar scores and new music too. The Heifetz competition is a welcome addition to the most promising of these competitions.

For more information about the competition, visit