Low rumblings at an unpopular competition result

Low rumblings at an unpopular competition result


norman lebrecht

May 31, 2015

The Queen Elizabeth competition for violin was won last night at midnight by a Korean, Lim Ji Young, 20.

She receives  25,000 euros ($27,470) and a four-year loan of a 1708 Stradivarius from the Nippon Music Foundation.

Second was Oleksii Semenenko of Ukraine and third William Hagen of the USA.

Our contacts in the jury room say the judging was fair, according the rules.

But they may have stuck too closely to the rules, picking a safe and correct player above talents of greater potential.

Stephen Waarts of San Francisco, who came fifth, brought the house down with his final Bartok performance and walked off unusually with both audience prizes, French and Flemish (there’s not much the two halves of Belgium can ever agree upon).

So, why didn’t he win?

stephen waarts

UPDATE: Here’s a eyewitness account from Ariane Todes and a further Belgian report on an ‘enorme confusion‘ in announcing the awards.


  • SVM says:

    As with judges in the judiciary, adjudicators in music competitions must rise above the pressure of popular opinion, and act in accordance with their own professional convictions. After all, they are paid to be there for a reason. If audience prizes were to become binding on adjudicators, we would quickly see a resurgence in the ‘claqueur’ industry, with all its extortion, scandal-mongering, and anti-meritocratic intrigues.

  • Musicmatters says:

    Talent isn’t enough – it’s how you use it. I’ve witnessed countless competitions where the best talent didn’t give the best performance, whereas the lesser talent gave better service to the music. But not to worry — If Waarts continues to grow, he’ll eventually outshine all the others. Let’s remember what happened at the 1972 Queen Elizabeth competition: 1st Prize: Valery Afanassiev (who?), and 7th Prize: Emmanuel Ax!

  • LA resident says:

    Why are you obsessed with Stephen Waarts, Norman Lebrecht? He didn’t deserve to win.

  • Musician says:

    Nobody mentioned anything about the first prize winner being a student of a jury member… As it has been the case in many other violin competition lately. Sadly

    • vmusic says:

      I have seen too many competitions where the judges pick their own students or help their other judge friends out.They hould not be there if their own students are competing.

  • V.Lind says:

    Doesn’t it depend upon the terms of the competition? Are the artists there to be the best on the day — ergo judged as neutrally on what they bring as (incorrupt) human beings can judge?

    Or are the judges there to anticipate future sales of seats in concerts and of recordings? Perhaps a number of winners end up in orchestras, where getting it right is so important, while runners-up get the solo careers, with more room for their personal imprint, whatever it may be? The despised Afanassiev apparently blew a promising, if erratic, career with some of his more “personal” choices of playing style, but they may have been sufficiently under control to win on the day.

    Is it to be like American Idol, where the audience determines, despite the view of the judges? Or like the old days of figure skating, where the school figures counted for o much that occasionally the best skaters of the tournament could not make up sufficiently in the artistic sections of competition to catch up with the better-disciplined

    • V.Lind says:

      Sorry — accidentally hit send before I punctuated. To conclude my point:

      Or like the old days of figure skating, where the school figures counted for so much that occasionally the best skaters of the tournament could not make up sufficiently in the artistic sections of competition to catch up with the better-disciplined? It is worth noting that the importance of figures was reduced, before their elimination. I do not agree with the latter, but I do think perhaps the emphasis was too great for too long.

      Are music competition judges there to choose the player they think is most likely to make a career on the stage as a soloist for the rest of his or her life? As many competition prizes include set appearance opportunities, and many used to include recording deals, it may be so, in which case perhaps more emphasis needs to be placed upon presentation, personality, etc. If they are there to judge the note-perfectness or received tempi or generally what is referred to as accuracy of the player in competition, perhaps they are judging , as I said above, what the candidate brings on the day, which has the benefit of fairness, not preference, dominating the vote. But are competitions creating the teachers, or the performers, of tomorrow? The answer, as dazzling careers can elude even winners, is probably both. But it would help to know what the judges think they are judging. Because, in the end, the audience vote is the one that will matter. In the election of musical competitions, competition judges are just pollsters.

  • David says:

    History shows that the relationship between competition “winners” and those musicians who will actually go on to make a meaningful career is tenuous at best, and perhaps one of the reasons for this is that competitions are judged by professionals, whereas it is ultimately the audience which judges a musician with its desire — or lack thereof — to make the effort to come hear him or her. Of course, this is never so clear cut as there are other factors involved, but there is ultimately something compelling about truly great artists — something which is not of the order of technical perfection or of abiding by certain musical norms. I personally was most impressed with Mr. Tobias Feldmann, who in my opinion is a superb musician who truly has the potential to develop a major career, for he has something very special to say. I was also very touched by Mr. William Chin-Yi Wei, who brought something very personal and sensitive to the pieces he played, and who in due time will also develop into a great musician. Part of the problem is that there are so many technically flawless players out there today that one becomes almost indifferent to technical perfection — as far as I’m concerned, unless someone has something truly special to say, I really have no interest listening for the umpeenth time to a major violin concerto which I’ve heard already a thousand times and for which I can probably stream 20 or 30 versions online at the mere click of a button — most of which will be equally flawless from a technical point of view. However, it’s no accident if nowadays we have no artists of the caliber of Maria Callas, Mirella Freni, or Carlos Kleiber: such involvement might make us somehow uncomfortable, and we prefer a much safer, less controversial, and perhaps much more cookie-cutter kind of performing which rocks no boats but which, at the same time, leaves us somewhat cold. Perhaps such a change in perspective might be another way to truly “reach out to new audiences.”

  • El Grillo says:

    Competitions apparently aren’t for horses they’re for “adjudicators.” It’s pretty enlightening to have this compared to the legal system (up there). That’s about it, someone does things in a way that’s not approved of and they’re considered criminal. Didn’t follow the rules. As if it’s not about human expression to begin with.

    I see we’re back to the Stalin era, where music is “adjudicated.”

  • Olaugh Turchev says:

    From their website:

    “Ji Young Lim studies at the Korea National University of Arts under Nam-Yun Kim.”

    “The celebrated violinist and teacher Kim Nam Yun has served on the juries of numerous prestigious competitions, including the Taipei International Competition, the Tibor Varga International Violin Competition, the Joseph Joachim International Violin Competition Hannover, and the Tchaikovsky Competition…
    Final violin 2015 Member of the jury
    Semi-final violin 2015 Member of the jury
    First round violin 2015 Member of the jury
    VIOLIN 2015 Member of the jury”


    • Arto says:

      Jury members who are Docents of a candidate are not allowed to vote!

      • Olaugh Turchev says:

        Sure they are not allowed to vote FOR their candidate protege but do not tell me they cannot play games with others if they wish to. This is unhealthy, period.

  • pver says:

    However, she can still influrence the result to vote better player much lower?

  • Lucien Knoedler says:

    Just assumptions, and food for conspiracy theories again when too easily supposing that a prize winner thanked a victory to her/his teacher in the jury. Usually, a competition jury is strictly bound to clear regulations which no one can move. The chairman looks at this process most attentively of course, in Brussels anyway, I’m sure.

    When Yayoi Toda won the Queen Elisabeth Violin Competition 1993, to the surprise of many, her teacher Herman Krebbers was a member of the jury. However, he was most unhappy about this result, stressing that this prize came too early for her. Did he stage a play? Well, the ones who know Mr. Krebbers are well aware that he never ever compromises, always talking straight from the shoulder with piercing eyes. He’s a severe teacher too, and deeply principled. Any bargaining he would have categorically rejected. He 91 now.

    As he didn’t vote for his student then -he wasn’t allowed to do so, of course-, he could but lay his head down when he saw the result.

    Two years later I saw Mr. Krebbers in the train leaving Amsterdam, as I coincidently just had signed Ms.Toda for the world première recording of Tristan Keuris’ 2nd Violin concerto. As I didn’t refer to her Brussels 1993 success at all, he spontaneously said: “Winning that prize wasn’t good for her” and once more: “It came too early!”, meanwhile shaking his head expressing a lose heart which is characteristic for him when he doesn’t like it.

    I could see what his complaint: an introvert and not having finished her studies yet, as she underlined herself more often, this major prize put Ms Toda under huge pressure, especially in her native country Japan. After all, she is the second Japanese violinist having won Brussels, after Yuzuko Horigome in 1980. Meeting all the expectations time and again, Ms Toda found it hard, it seemed to me. Competitions are merciless, for the winners more often.

    Btw, it is said that there are so many first prize winning Korean vocalists meanwhile, that they hardly stand a chance to attract the attention a major artist agencies. They arten’t considrerd having the potential to become money makers, I learned. Well, isn’t this a pretty akward position? To put it mildly! Next, the record business has virtually vanished.

    Why did Ms Toda participate in Brussels? As usual, to just take the measurements of her development. No more, no less. However, at the age of about 22 (?) she did lack the maturity to right away become a star. Where’s she now? Her website doesn’t show any concert or recital since January 2013,as in the previous 20 years she didn’t “make” it, really.

    Back to a competition’s regulations, these are mainly focused on the tiniest (objective) details, of course, turning a performance during the finals into a series of random findings as well. When there’s no candidate transcending the others, obviously – which is mostly the case today, I’m afraid –, it is no surprise that the winner is a surprise.

    In addition, it barely needs stating, that winning the first prize at a major competition doesn’t guarantee a successful career at all. As the Brussels 1967 winner clearly was Philipp Hirschhorn right away, when he untimely died in 1996. Gidon Kremer, the 1967 third prize winner, belonged to the world’s most prominent soloists.

    Furthermore, the number of major competitions is quite large today, leveling out the quality of the finalists more often. What’s worse, I think, is that these competitions rule out the really interesting musicians more and more. And are there sufficient exoerienced jury members to provide a competition substance? I’m afraid not.

    Regarding Stephen Waarts. His time will come, not as a violin soloist perhaps, but as a conductor or a fine mathematician and/or a physicist. I won’t be surprised.

    • Olaugh Turchev says:

      Conflict of interest are being [ at least tried to be] rooted out in every other field, from business to sports because everyone understands how inappropriate these cozy relationship are. And when potential career making events are at stake, a difference between light and nothing, the risk is high. However, in musical competition, window dressing should be enough to alleviate suspicion. Move along folks, that was then, this is now and the Great Mathematician fixed the problem… right?
      Indeed winning could be a curse in disguise but perhaps in the case you mention, someone wanted to reward… Mr. Krebbers through his student. The best politicians in the field are much more subtle than the simple equation you based your comment on.

  • Bob says:

    I quite enjoyed the videos of the competition and I am quite unbiased in terms of personalities. 2nd and 3rd place were well deserved but I really have a problem with the winner’s Brahms concerto. It was quite good but everyone I know who has seen the competition agrees that Bomsori Kim’s Brahms performance was definitely better.

    Since all of the finalists are brilliant players, the winner might be the result of the jury’s average age. Some of them are probably unable to remember the names of yesterday’s players if you ask them quickly. So if it was a close call they would remember the final two concertos much better. Combine that with a bit of exhaustion and the desire to leave and have a rest some of them would have cooperated eagerly on a shortcut to a decision. I simply do not believe that jury members just take notes and finally get easily to a fair judgement.

    So why didn’t Waarts win? Because he was good but not as good as for example Semenenko. Furthermore it is quite unwise choosing Bartok over Brahms or Tchaikovsky. Bartok does not fit as many ears as the other two mentioned. Just check global concert statistics if you have any doubt.

  • L. Alesco says:

    The meaning of a violin competition is quite simply to choose the “best” player. As the purpose of music is to entertain the audience, it would appear that the jury failed to do so in this case.

  • Milka says:

    One has only to look at the jury members -to know the prize means absolutely nothing .

  • Peter says:

    This opening article and subsequent comments is a sad testimony to our self-righteous times. So apparently someone in the audience or close to a not winning participant with a different opinion sends a note to Mr. Lebrecht and then this is published.
    Why? To what avail? What does Mr. Lebrecht get out of this? Is it worth reporting that someone disagreed with he jury decision? Really? Do you report also on every single bag of rice that fell over in China?
    The jury gave their verdict. It is always subjective between the jury members.
    Waste of time, really, to engage in discussions about this, unless someone has proof of corruption in the jury.

  • thekingontheviolin says:

    He did not win because he has no talent. On the other hand neither has the Korean girl any talent. She was not even secure acrobatically in the Brahms concerto. I fully agree that the members of the jury likewise were non entities.

    Can we all please cease commenting on competitions and young soloists nowadyas and get on with the grief that the classical world of music has died.

    For those of us still in the business of horses and carriages we must have only love for the horses and carriages with true amateur passion. Our bread and butter must be payed for by other sources of income.
    By contrast for those who have successfully jumped to manufacturing cars please market and advertise the cars as such without using superlatives out of context.

    This means going back to the analogue from the analogy please refrain from calling any of these students violinists or musicians. It is not their fault that they are neither. They are misled mediocre ambitious people who are deluding themselves that descration of, for example, the Brahms violin concerto is an interpretation of the Brahms violin concerto.

    Stern, Heifetz, Kreisler, Haendel, Milstein… yes these artists were great violinists with great interpretations of the repertoire. -horses and carriages- the above mentioned youngsters sadly misled by their equally misled teachers and conservatoires no….neither great violinists nor interpreters -cars-

    • Leonard Tourte says:

      Stern, Heifetz, Kreisler, Haendel, Milstein…
      In those days, there weren’t teachers telling students this is how you “have to” play Mozart, this is how you “have to” play Bach, this is how you “have to” use vibrato, these are the composers that you are “not allowed” to use glissandi for, etc, ad infinitum.
      And these teachers with all their rules are the people who judge the biggest competitions.

      I don’t see it as a question of corruption like others do. The judges are usually lame teachers who instill a lame approach to music in their most talented students.
      (most of the time), and vote for violinists who fit into their lame mold.

      What does it matter anyway? 40 years ago when someone won any top prize at these competitions, they were immediately invited to be soloist with the great orchestras of the world. These days, people barely notice who won what.

      Also, look at some of the programs your favorite legends made their debuts on or played when they were young (19th century virtuosic concerti, short pieces, show pieces). They were allowed to grow from there….
      A young person of today playing a similar program would be destroyed by the critics and their career would be over.

      • thekingontheviolin says:

        Dear Leonard Tourte,
        I agree with every word you write- 100%.

        Please could I come to visit your carriages?
        I assume you will not trade with second hand car dealers.
        I thought I was the only horses and carriages person left.
        I am priveleged to have contact with you via Norman Lebrecht’s blog

        Yours sincerely,


  • M. X. says:

    May be simple but not as simple as you would like it to be. The first prize of this session shows the narrow vision of the judges, which prefer inner political games and “collegial” benefits up on supporting and helping real talents like Stephen Waarts or Tobias Feldmann. And this is the real purpos of any music competition. It is also very SIMPLE to compare the first prize winners of the same competition from 50s till today, and to compare the QUALITY and the LEVEL of the judges from the same period till today. Interesting which question you will ask then? ((-:
    The queen Elizabeth competition of today is no longer the best competition in the world like it was before. Today it is an International competition with a provincial mentality.For this achievement we ALL must thank to Mr.Arie Van Lysebeth, a poor musician and unsuccessful teacher, and Prof.Nan-Yun Kim which is promoting Korean born violinists by ignoring and neglecting the musical, artistic and pedagogical values which were the guiding lines of Eugène Ysaÿe and the Queen Elizabeth when they created this competition. Simple isn’t it?

  • SVM says:

    I feel you are rather misrepresenting my previous comment (although the judiciary analogy is partly to blame — its applicability lies in how the judge must disregard popular opinion, and not so much in how a judge must arrive at a conclusion). By ‘professional convictions’, I was not at all referring to ‘rules’ or ‘accuracy’ per se, and I was certainly not referring to adjudicators as being the raison d’être of a competition (indeed, it is arguable that a big problem with the competition circuit is that some competitions are little more than means of financially enriching the jury).

    Instead, my usage of the expression ‘professional convictions’ was intended to refer to an ideal of adjudicators judging purely on the music itself, and disregarding some of the extrinsic factors that have been elucidated in other comments. ‘Real life’ affords more than sufficient opportunity to judge artists on their marketability and popularity, so, as far as I am concerned, competitions should resist the temptation to simply mimic such considerations, and promote the best musician, even if he/she were manifestly *unlikely* to become rich and/or famous.

    • SVM says:

      To clarify, I am responding to El Grillo above.

      • El Grillo says:

        I notice I’m still rather harshly criticizing your remark, sorry. It’s just that a comparison between music and the penal system really rubs me the wrong way. And I’m not saying that there aren’t people in the judicial system truly struggling for other people’s freedom to express themselves.

    • El Grillo says:

      The penal system tries to create harmony by traumatizing people, do they not behave according to the rules, music does the opposite. Instead of traumatizing people it gives anyone a place for their emotions to find peace (regardless of who they are, neither air nor musical vibration discriminate against anyone). That is how healing takes place, and there’s not been one society that truly nurtured the human condition that didn’t also care about the arts.

      In regards your remark: “was intended to refer to an ideal of adjudicators judging purely on the music itself” which sounds again quite honorable, but what seems to me to be going on in the majority of such cases is adjudicators who have a very strict ideology of how the music should be all of this while the whole bulk of people being judged have no creative input to the music as composers. Almost none of them have ever experienced music manifesting out of nowhere in their mind, how this effects the whole involuntary mind, almost none have tended to this beyond the world’s idea of what’s realistic and what isn’t, something going completely beyond ideology or any conceived idea of how it should be. And I think that the whole accepted repertoire consists of composers who needed the music to find emotional equilibrium, composers who experienced the innate human need to find a home in something as intangible and nondiscriminatory as music. That reinstates the whole human condition. Again quite contrary to a trauma based penal system (or any trauma based system such as academics, religion, military industrial complexes, what have you). And yet these “competitions” exist for adjudicators to judge how music should be and you add it should be purely for the music, and yet they are perpetuating a whole exploitation that doesn’t really engage with the creative process, except to be exploited. As if this music is just there for all these judges to decide how it should be, something which instead of being about music, becomes a whole fundamentalism. And it’s considered just.

      And to state that this ideology prevents: “resurgence in the ‘claqueur’ industry, with all its extortion, scandal-mongering, and anti-meritocratic intrigues,” that’s perhaps more fundamentalist ideology. I actually see the whole celebrity scourge that comes from such competitions, along with the uptight mode of interpreting, something which perhaps is not only turning people off to classical music audiences diminish, but gives an exorbitant salary to a few classical music celebrities who because of marketing have such audience pull that orchestras try to hire them, which again diminishes audience with people who aren’t into such media addictions. And this isn’t seen in the math that adds up to how to get an audience, although it in totality has diminished audience. And this paves the way for exactly what such ideology is supposedly preventing: “resurgence in the: ‘claqueur’ industry, with all its extortion, scandal-mongering, and anti-meritocratic intrigues-” because you get the next wave of “this-is-how-we-have-to-survive-to-get-an-audience.”

      I do think it reflects how music is judged (even whether it’s said to be for the music itself) when most of the music played came from a time period when there was1/4th to 1/8th the population there is now, and yet there’s perhaps less than ½ the amount of creativity (although it’s many times more easy to get the resources needed for such creativity), and anyone who stands in the public eye, because of media and marketing has to live an almost impossible lifestyle to not be put through the ringer of fear monger and scandal (speaking of of resurgence in the ‘claqueur’ industry, with all its extortion, scandal-mongering, and anti-meritocratic intrigues) creating more something akin to a drone population of addiction and adrenaline than the human condition.

      Of course, someone should stay true to their own convictions, but given the kind of market these competitions entail I question such convictions. To compare that to a penal system using trauma based discipline, and speak of rising above the pressures of popular opinion: well! If a “market” or a society was truly interested in maintaining the human condition, they’d look in the heart of the worst criminal and see what went wrong, and music is one of the true means of expression that remains nondiscriminatory, regardless of someone’s past, and allows for such healing and revelation. That’s not comparable to a trauma based discipline, whether it’s called judicial or not.

  • bgmusic says:

    I think a violinist only needs to win one or two (at the max) high profile international competitions to make it. After that, they should take it upon themselves to continue growing as artists and actively network. Steven seems to already have quite a long list of awards so I think he is already in a position to launch a full blown professional career without anymore of these competitions.

    I read somewhere that first prize winners never really end up making it and are often forgotten about. Maybe it was an article on this blog. I am not sure why that is exactly, but it sounds like Mr. Waarts in on a winning trajectory.

  • Milka says:

    Can one in the year 2015 take seriously present proponents of a so called art form who
    play garbage like the “Dance of the Goblins ” as a calling card to displaying their talents .
    Or just as bad if not worse from Asia we get the Butterfly concerto .It does seem that in
    the present violin world, players for the most part consist of dim wits who consider the violin a circus act or worse .They do throw in Bach now and then under the pretense of being serious artists .The Queen Elizabeth competition reflects this over and over .