Asia-Pacific Chamber Music Competition
I never do this. When I attend a competition, usually as a jury member these days, I maintain professional discretion and hold the party line when the results come out. This time, I feel like commenting. Mainly because I suspect I’m going slightly mad and have possibly suffered some subtle form of hearing loss.
OK, so I should declare that I am a member of the Artistic Committee of this competition and have served more than once as a jurist, as well as chairing the selection panel that chose this year’s entrants. This, however, does not mean that I had already made my mind up about who should win. How could it? I have the memory of a goldfish.
All I know is, I heard every note played by each of the final groups and, listening technically as well as musically, arrived at a pretty definitive conclusion. The standard of string quartet playing was satisfyingly high, but the stand-out groups were the Tasman Q, a group from NZ who have been tutored by the Takacs Q to brilliant effect, and the Hamer Q, resident at the Australian National Academy of Music. The intonation and ensemble of the TQ were rarely less than impeccable, their Janacek and Bartok were breathtaking and their Haydn was easily the most accomplished of any of the performances of works from the Classic period. In the final, they began Schubert’s Death & the Maiden nervously, as one might expect, but by the finale, which they took at a blistering pace (rivalling a certain account by the then Tankstream Q in 2001), they were back to the electrifying level of earlier rounds.
The local contenders, by way of contrast, performed their Mozart quartet in an comparatively sketchy way, with the excellent Rebecca Chan suffering from frequent partial eclipses of melody. Throughout the competition, the Hamer Q played well, sometimes very well (the Vine quartet was terrific) but lacking the verve and textural transparency of the Tasmans. It is hardly contentious to say that their melodic lines were often partially obscured because of faults in internal balance, faults that were absent from the TQ.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t begrudge the HQ their success — far from it. I’m very proud that such a promising, talented quartet has arisen from the ANAM, where I have taught on and off for ten years. But I am disappointed that such a fine young group as the Tasmans is sent away with not much more than fleas in their ears. They deserve much better than that.
As for the trio result: 1st prize, Nibbana Trio from China; audience prize, Yarra Trio from Melbourne. I have two things to say. The standard of trio playing was arguably below that of the quartets. The Yarras were, to my ears, more artistically accomplished, interesting, colourful and exciting than the Nibbanas. The Nibbana’s Brahms, my goodness. The pianist couldn’t even count. A pretty ordinary student performance with few points of interest and many technical flaws. The Yarras played a strange mangled über romantic work by the 13 year-old Korngold, not a good choice, with great passion and colour. Yes, a bit wild at times, but never inappropriately so. I prefer this any day to the bland competence of the Nibbanas.
Matthew Westwood in the Australian reports that (jury chair) Carl Vine said the Nibbanas were “by far the most even and musically convincing”. Maybe Carl’s right; I’m possibly wrong, but I certainly disagree.
The other critic, present only at the final, O’Connell in the Age wanly observed that the TQ was “steady”. Twice. How can you play at lightning speed with gusto, huge dynamic range and razor sharp ensemble and be considered steady? Oh well, such is the standard of music reviewing in my beloved home town. After all, I can still remember when erstwhile Age reviewer Kenneth Hince opined vacuously that Messiaen’s music was “largely bio-degradable”…