In the musical world, the once meek shall inherit the Earth. Remarks on the Long List of this year’s Queen Elisabeth Competition, Belgium

In this brief essay, I present a straw in the wind.  I freely acknowledge that the facts pertain to a minor occurrence. But I believe that occurrence helps us to understand which way the world is headed and addresses directly the fears of those who still talk about a ‘clash of civilizations’.

The facts in question are the just published Long List of those admitted to compete during the coming month in this year’s Queen Elisabeth International Musical Competition.  The 2019 competition is among violinists.

Wikipedia characterizes the status of the Queen Elisabeth Competition thus: “Since its foundation it is considered one of the most challenging and prestigious competitions for instrumentalists.”  The founding year was 1937, and it was devoted then to the violin, the instrument which the reigning queen played, with mentoring and encouragement by the country’s greatest violinist and composer of the time, Eugene Ysaye.  A competition for piano was introduced the following year. Today there are in addition voice and cello competitions. All come in sequence year after year.

Each year the Queen Elisabeth Competition puts up a new jury, this to avoid favoritism for one or another musical school and for a given pool of students. Each year, the variable number of Long List contenders is winnowed out in the course of three stages held before the public at several different venues, ending in performances at the concert hall of the Palais des Beaux Arts, which is where the winning 12 laureates are named.  Of these, the first six are each assigned a number, the remaining six are undifferentiated.

From the beginning, the first prize winners in the Queen Elisabeth Competition often made spectacular international careers as soloists. From the beginning, a goodly number of the finalists were Soviet performers. The top laureate of the 1937 violin competition was David Oistrakh. In the post WWII period, in 1967, the first prize in violin went to Riga-born, St Petersburg trained Philippe Hirschhorn, then 21 years old, who performed a never-to-be forgotten rendition of the Paganini Violin Concerto No. 1. Philippe later became a family friend and I saw up close the degree of monomaniacal dedication required to reach the threshold of first laureate in such competitions. Were it not for his untimely death at age 50 just as his concert tours were reaching their peak, you would easily recognize his name today. That same year, 1967, the second place went to fellow Latvian Soviet Gidon Kremer, who performs worldwide and maintains his own orchestra. The most recent Russian star who made his name in Brussels as first prize in the competition was Vadim Repin (1989). Repin is this year a member of the Jury.

In the piano competition, Soviet performers appeared at regular intervals as first prize winners, starting with Emil Gilels in 1938:  see Vladimir Ashkenazy (1956), Evgeny Mogilevsky (1964) and Andrei Nikolsky (1987).

The preeminence of Russians lasted until the fall of Communism. The chaotic post-Soviet 1990s disrupted this and many other cultural and economic traditions in Russia. Many talented youths left Russia to continue their studies and their careers abroad.

In their place, we have seen a potpourri of nationalities among the winners of the Queen Elisabeth Competition, but in the new millennium, a certain trend has been clear: the emergence of the Far East as the spawning grounds of the new super-stars of the classical music world. We saw this unmistakably last year in the vocal competition, when there were numerous Long List entries from China and, more particularly, from Korea.  In this year’s list of violin candidates the trend is overwhelming.

The competition organizers chose the Long List from among a great many applicants who sent in video recordings of their playing for evaluation. In the end, they selected 71 candidates to participate, of whom 64 accepted to come to Brussels and test their fate.

You will note that among the historic names of laureates mentioned above all were men.  This year’s Long List confirms that the future will likely look very different.  Forty-five of the 64 violinists are women. As for nationality, identification is not so straightforward but clear nonetheless.

The organizers speak of 19 nationalities being present, but also note that some (nearly all natives of the Far East) are dual nationals.

Korea is the country with the single largest contingent under its flag – 16, of whom 3 are also listed in other countries.  Japan comes next with a list of 12 candidates all of whom have unmistakably Japanese surnames. The United States follows, with a total of 11. But of these 3, bearing Korean surnames, are shown as dual nationals, while a further 5 have Chinese surnames and one ‘pure American’ has a Korean surname. The Russians have a total of 5, though one is a dual national Canadian and another is a dual national citizen of the Czech Republic. By the same token, the Australian and Belgian entries (one each) have Chinese surnames.

If you put together all the candidates with clearly identifiable surnames and match them with their actual or presumed countries of origin, you find that 44 of the 64 candidates are from the Far East. The dual national status may be explained as young musicians from Korea and China continuing their education and beginning their careers at prestigious schools in the West. The People’s Republic of China, taken by itself, has “only” five entries, the same as France and Russia. Japan seems to buck this trend, with none of its candidates showing a second flag. Then you get the odd candidate from the Czech Republic who decided to study not in the West but with the Russian school, which is gaining in strength.

So what does all this mean and why take your time to analyze the Long List?

For one thing, looking over the list we can be fairly certain that the string sections of all the major Western orchestras will in coming years become predominantly female and predominantly Oriental.  At present these categories are minoritarian.

Secondly, it is encouraging to see the arrival of new blood from the Far East to carry on the traditions of our high culture even as we in the West are presently stumbling badly to the point where we are unworthy of our heritage. In Western Europe, in the United States, vulgarians daily attack all that is beautiful and refined in our opera houses and arts museums, with virtually no outcries from our traditional Kulturtraeger, cowed as they are by political correctness.

Excellence in the performing arts, and most particularly in music, which has intolerant, mathematical roots demands not only one in a million God-given talent but also incredible dedication and competitive drive. Here in Belgium we have very good Conservatory instructors and some very good students, but hardly any have the ambition to succeed in open competition and become a soloist on the world stage. The days ahead of the Queen Elisabeth Competition will show us whether our new friends from the Far East are holding their places by default or by merit.

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Postscript, 26 May:  Last night’s edition of The Violin Channel posted the following results of the awards ceremony:

“26-year old Stella Chen from the United States has just minutes ago been awarded 1st prize at the 2019 Queen Elisabeth International Violin Competition – in Brussels, Belgium.

A graduate of the New England Conservatory and Harvard University, where she studied with Donald Weilerstein and Miriam Fried and current student of Li Lin, Catherine Cho and Donald Weilerstein at The Juilliard School, Stella is former prize winner at the Tibor Varga International Violin Competition and the Menuhin Competition.

2nd and 3rd prizes were awarded to: 25-year-old VC Young Artist Timothy Chooi from Canada and 23-year-old VC Young Artist Stephen Kim from the United States.

4th, 5th and 6th prizes were awarded to: 26-year-old Shannon Lee from Canada/United States, 27-year-old Julia Pusker from Hungary and 26-year-old VC Young Artist Ioana Cristina Goicea from Romania.”

With perhaps one exception, all twelve finalists were there by merit not by default, if I may answer the question I posed at the very end of my essay.  This was a competition of unusually strong contenders. It was also the competition which had the very best “imposed” composition in more than thirty years, “Fidl” by the Finnish composer Kimmo Hakola. His piece was imaginative, amusing and challenging, with side references to Jewish folk fiddler traditions and to progressions from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Coq d’Or.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019