Striking a chord on the global scene
The Chinese music industry’s intent to promote its culture while exerting more influence on the world stage takes the form of a violin competition with a massive prize purse
China has throughout the past few decades produced winners of many international music awards, from Chopin to Tchaikovsky and Van Cliburn, but the inaugural Isaac Stern competition in Shanghai could been seen as a sign that the Chinese music scene is no longer satisfied with just winning the trophies — it now wants to set the rules.
This new competition has the biggest prize purse among all the other violin contests in the world. The organizer, Shanghai Symphony Orchestra (SSO), said that it spent the past three years preparing for the competition as it wanted to set the standard high.
Thirty-year-old Japanese musician Mayu Kishima won the US$100,000 top prize.
The SSO had also managed to attract big names to judge the competition, including violinist Elmar Oliveira, conductor David Stern, and founder of the Heifetz International Music Institute Daniel Heifetz.
“The launch of a true international music competition reflects China’s cultural confidence, and it plays a big part in promoting China’s culture to the outside world,” said Yu Long, artistic director of SSO.
The competition began in mid August when more than 140 young violinists from 26 countries submitted video clippings to participate. Thirty of them made the shortlist for the competition before seven contestants competed in the final on Sept 2 at the Shanghai Symphony Hall.
The finalists competed in several rounds that included an interpretation of Chinese music, playing in a chamber concert with an improvised cadenza creation, and playing with the full-scale SSO orchestra in the final.
In an effort to promote Chinese culture, the organizers introduced a special contest segment that saw contestants play The Butterfly Lovers, a Chinese concerto for violin and the piano, during the semifinal. This particular contest was won by Song Ji-Won from South Korea.
“Chinese tend to believe that this piece is familiar and famous all over the world, but that is not true,” said Zhou Ping, director of SSO, who shared that most of the contestants actually had to learn about the story and the Chinese folk opera behind the piece.
Zhou added that this segment of the competition had generated so much public interest in The Butterfly Lovers that the music score sold out in Shanghai’s bookstores soon after the final.
“China is gaining more and more prominence in the global classical music scene, and a true international competition event has been urgently needed,” said Zhou.
The organizers said that they had decided to name the competition after Isaac Stern (1920-2001), an American violinist and conductor, “not just because he was a great musician, but more importantly, because of his idea and contribution to the music world.”
Zhou said that the competition was designed to be aligned to Stern’s belief that all musicians should seek to understand music and why they create it.
In addition, the competition program was also designed to test musicians in “every possible aspect of music,” said Chen Qing, head of Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra, who was in attendance at the final and offered performance opportunities to the finalists.
Some of Chen’s peers such as Li Nan, head of the China Philharmonic Symphony, and Rory Jeffes, managing director of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra from Australia, were also at the competition to lend their support.
According to Li, the three orchestras have made plans to host concerts for the finalists.
According to Yu, the Isaac Stern violin competition will be held every other year and will seek to make musicians’ interpretations of Chinese music a regular segment. He believes that this will inherently provide China’s music scene with a worthy challenge to carry on their work of creating good music for people around the world to play.
Yu also spoke of SSO’s commitment to the enduring success of the competition, quoting Napoleon’s “greatness is nothing unless it is lasting”.
“I hope that in 50 years, an established musician would say with pride, ‘I was the winner of the first Isaac Stern violin competition’,” he said.
Li from China Philharmonic said that though there are at least 20 million children in China who are learning to play the piano, the country still lacks a high-level integrated platform for these talents. He also lamented that existing music competitions in China are either too official, which in turn results in a lack of international influence, or too temporary and disappear after several years.
The competition also gave away a special “Isaac Stern Human Spirit Award” as the organizers were keen to honor Stern’s contribution to the music scene in China.
In 1979, Stern became one of the first western musicians to visit China and under his guidance and influence, many young musicians went on to achieve international recognition. The historic visit was recorded in the Oscar-winning documentary From Mao to Mozart, which captured the musical culture of China at that time.
Wu Taixiang and Du Zhengquan, middle school educators from Huining, Gansu province, won this award for their efforts in setting up a student orchestra called “Einstein’s Band”.
Wu, the headmaster at the school, had sold his home to buy the first batch of music instruments for his students. Du, the deputy headmaster and the only teacher in the school who had some proficiency in music, was responsible for teaching the students to play the works by Austrian composer Joseph Haydn.
Japanese violinist Mayu Kishima performs during the Isaac Stern competition in Shanghai. Kishima walked away with the top prize of US$100,000.