Have competitions killed our violinists?

Have competitions killed our violinists?


norman lebrecht

October 13, 2015

Following the dubious results of the Joseph Joachim Competition in Hannover and similar recent outcomes, a Russian musician asks, in this exclusive Slipped Disc contribution, whether competitions might have destroyed a generation of violin talent. Since English is not Marina’s first language, please excuse the infelicities. The sentiments, however, are valid.



by Marina Evreison Arshinova

marina evreison

Can you name a really great violinist born after 1980? Perhaps Julia Fisher. Who else?

And when did you last attend a violin recital?

The last generation of great violinists are slowly withdrawing from the big concert stage. Some have begun to conduct (Maxim Vengerov, Joshua Bell, Nikolay Znaider).

The life of violinists is relatively short: from 16 to 45, then quality of playing inevitably descends. Although David Oistrakh played at 70 more than somewhat well, but that is not typical. So, where are the extremely talented prodigies? Young flourishing talents? It seems like we face a lost generation.

Why has this happened, and who is responsible?

My answer: competition selections of the last decades. Why does this selection work more or less smoothly among pianists or singers and at the same time almost killed violin playing? The weakest fruit drops earliest to the ground. Also the chain is no stronger than its weakest link.

The responsibility lies with those who make the decisions. The great teachers one sees on juries used to give to the world as much as they consumed. Today this balance is disturbed: they consume more.

Without exaggeration, they have jeopardized the very future of violin playing.

Look at the lists of laureates of the last decades. Is there a name for whom you would spend money on a concert ticket? If so, tell me who. But how can I know you are not somehow related to this violinist?

That’s how badly the system has been corrupted.



  • Stefan Jackiw says:

    As a violinist born after 1980, I have had the good fortune of frequently being in the presence – both as an audience member and as a collaborator – of several great violinists born after Ms. Arshinova’s seemingly arbitrary cutoff date. In fact, it seems to me that we are in the midst of a violin renaissance. Of course, it is certainly possible that my standards of violin greatness are lower than those of the author, which would account for our differing opinions. Since the author indicts the ruinous nature of competitions, I’d like to point out that some of the violinists of this generation who have inspired me are laureates of major competitions, while others have pursued different paths to success. In any case, it seems cavalier and counterproductive to me for the author to dismiss with a single sentence an entire generation of thoughtful, brilliant violinists who are dedicating their lives to reimagining old masterpieces and introducing new treasures to music lovers and new audiences alike.

    • L.F. says:

      As a music consumer and amateur musician born 1941 I would recommend to Mrs Arshinova to listen to Vilde Frang (*1986), Pekka Kuusisto (*1976) and Isabelle Faust (*1972). All are outstanding violinists with a very personal style, undamaged by any school or competition and being absolutely on par with the greatest. I am not related in any way with any of them.

  • Ross says:

    The system was always corrupt.
    Time has distanced some of the great legends from this, but don’t try to tell me that Oistrakh, Kogan, and Stern didn’t go to great lengths to favor their own.
    Perhaps it has more to do with common teaching methods, an outdated competition repertoire model, and a general lack of interest in winners just because they won a top prize.
    I have no idea why this young lady chose ages 16-45. Both edges of the range make for ridiculous claims.
    How about a different competition model? If a piece of music doesn’t have a place in modern programming, then it shouldn’t be represented in competition programs. By simply requesting all candidates to play one Mozart Concerto and one modern concerto (Ligeti, Penderecki, Dutilleux, Adams, etc) a jury would have a much better idea which candidate has a great career or not in the cards. That would be a much better alternative to the hurdles of 2 caprices, a virtuoso showpiece, 2 standard sonatas, 2 standard concerti, all of which have been played by the greatest violinists millions of times over the past century.

  • Grace-notes says:

    Ms. Arshinova is as clueless about violinists as she is about pianists. For the recent Tchaikovsky competition, she made disparaging remarks about pianist George Li (whom many thought to be the front-runner). Well, George made the finals, and suddenly Arshinova changed her tune – praising his performance in the finals. So, she publicly flip-flopped when she realized the tide had gone against her. Clearly she has more arrogance than expertise, and she would do well to stop writing such silly articles. Competitions have never been ideal, and never will be – simply because they are run by human beings. But they do bring attention to deserving talents, and they bring segments of the public to classical music who would otherwise ignore it. Ultimately, juries and competitions do not decide who will have a career, because cream always rises to the top, no matter who wins 1st Prize. Alfred Brendel got 4th prize in the Busoni Competition, Phillipe Entremont got 11th prize in the Queen Elizabeth competition, etc.

  • Milka says:

    The moment that Arshinova listed Vengerov,Bell , & Znaider among great violinists her lack
    of knowledge concerning the instrument and its players was self evident .
    Mr. Jackiw’s statement can be read as self serving , nothing insightful and if he truly
    believes the violin world is in a” renaissance” he displays an ignorance of its history
    and a misunderstanding of the word.

    • Philip says:

      Just to name Janine Jansen would be enough to respond appropriately to this person.

    • Anonymous says:

      Milka, there’s nothing more ignorant than claiming that anyone with different opinions than you is ignorant. The fact you can’t accept the possibility of there being a plurality of views within the world of music already questions your credibility as a commentator of such topics. Oh, and by the way, the phrase “not in my book” isn’t a response that carries any weight. Being unable to justify your views verbally just shows the fragility of your views.

  • Janis says:

    Um, Rachel Barton Pine?

  • Andrew Janss says:

    Just immediately Itamar Zorman, Benjamin Beilman, Tessa Lark and Augustin Hadelich all came to mind as violinist of extreme beauty who have won competitions in the last few years. Oh, wait, and there’s Nikki Chooi, Kristin Lee, Francisco Fullana, and Alexi Kenney(if you count CAG as a comp). I’m sure I’m forgetting some very deserving people.

    Anyway, thanks Stefan for getting me to indulge in this clickbait…

  • Respect says:

    Sarah Chang. Hilary Hahn. The article is a jealous rant of someone who didn’t break through. The fie;d is shrinking, even if the talent pool isn’t. There is no grand conspiracy, there are fewer opportunities for all musicians. The world economic crisis and the failure of governments to support culture are the real villains.

  • Violinhunter says:

    The writer (Arshinova) has no clue whatsoever. Valeriy Sokolov, Vilde Frang, Stefan Jackiw, Augustin Hadelich, Jinjoo Cho, Sayaka Shoji, Mayuko Kamio, Sergei Khachatryan, Arabella Steinbacher, Simone Lamsma, Alina Pogostkina, Caroline Goulding, and so many others prove her completely wrong. As Stefan states, we ARE in a violinist renaissance.

  • Milka says:

    If Violinhunter & Stefan Jackiw truly believe we are in a violin renaissance then it
    does seem to explain their ignorance to the art of the violin. In rattling off a dozen names
    Mr. Jackiw included, violin hunter has presented us with a short list of players that
    sadly don’t amount to a hill of beans in violin history and violin hunter seems to mistake fingerboard dexterity as some sort of violin renaissance , well it ain’t as you can hear by their playing.

  • M2N2K says:

    There are some truly outstanding violinists under 40: Hahn, Hadelich, Jansen, Batiashvili, Soumm – not great perhaps yet, but definitely worth listening to.

  • Malcolm Kottler says:

    I won’t comment on whether there are any great violinists who were born after 1980.

    But I would like to remind readers of the years in which the following violinists reached the dreaded age of 45, after which they are supposed to have gone into decline.

    Heifetz was 45 in 1946
    Kreisler in 1920
    Oistrakh in 1953
    Milstein in 1948
    Szigeti in 1937

    Joseph Joachim was 45 in 1876, two years before the Brahms violin concerto. Good thing Brahms did not think Joachim was too old.

  • Anon says:

    I wouldn’t put Jinjoo Cho on a list with good players as ‘Violin Hunter’ did. She’s flat out sloppy and incompetent. I agree that there are some fine players today and some from the past. To put a date on art and artists shows no fundamental understanding.

  • M2N2K says:

    According to Arshinova, Joshua Bell, age 47, is already way over the violinistic hill. But her statement about David Oistrakh’s playing “more than somewhat well at 70” is even more baffling, considering that he unfortunately died at 66.

  • Milka says:

    Arshinova might know who the player is on you tube Haiku#1Antoni Janusz

  • Chad Satterlee says:

    Depends how you define greatness in a violinist. I propose that the following three minimal desirable axioms should hold simultaneously. A great violinist is someone who:

    1. Demonstrates consistent technical perfection — or at least very close thereto — across most performance seasons.

    2. Demonstrates an ability to emotionally move audiences.

    3. Brings a unique stamp to bear on everything one performs.

    There are, of course, issues regarding how the content of these axioms can be empirically quantified etc. While not a straightforward task, I believe these issues can be dealt with systematically, and a list of the truly great violinists today generated. My conjecture is that the following individuals would be in the list: Frank Peter Zimmermann, Maxim Vengerov, and Leonidas Kavakos. (I think Zimmermann and Kavakos only relatively recently satisfied axiom 1, through sheer hard work over the years. Vengerov’s genius, in contrast, was always innate.)

    There are some close calls here: Vadim Repin definitely satisfies axioms 2 and 3, but is too unpredictable in terms of 1, probably due to poor scheduling and maybe injury more recently. He needs to practice more. And people like Hilary Hahn and James Ehnes satisfy 1, but fail on 2 and 3. Pinchas Zukerman satisfies 1 and perhaps 3, but fails on 2.

    I would argue the rest of the pack are frankly mediocre in comparison. People like Znaider, Bell, and Shaham have mediocre techniques in comparison to the aforementioned greats, and the 20/30-somethings of today have an eternity to go before satisfying axiom 1. As Milstein said, it takes 60 or 70 years to become a violinist. Some, like Ray Chen and Sergey Khachatryan, may satisfy 2. No 20/30-something violinist today that I have seen or heard satisfies axiom 3. In general, the young ones all tend to make the same, sterile, capitalist-society-raised-and-conservatory-trained sound.

    We shouldn’t be surprised at this, by the way. True greatness does not come along often. We should cherish and enjoy as much as possible the greats that currently exist.

    • Milka says:

      Mr. Satterlee is of course being Subjective in his definition of “great” an d his choices
      are based on his knowledge of the instrument ,its history, and his own temperament .
      For instance when I read that he thought Vengerov a genius of sorts my thoughts were
      Mr. Satterlee is extremely limited in understanding the art of violin but music as well .When
      noting the other two names along side of Vengerov I am convinced there is a lack of
      knowledge concerning the art violin playing ; his categories are pointless but fun reading .
      When one gets to reading sterile ,capitalistic-society raised ,conservatory sound ,you
      make note that there is little if any rational thinking going on .

  • Eugene Nakamura says:

    With regards to comparing Heifetz (or others from that era) with soloists of today, please don’t forget that Heifetz didn’t perform nearly as often as soloists of today. Heifetz performed about an average of 58 concerts a year between 1917 – 1956. Soloists of today have to push 100.

  • Eugene Nakamura says:

    By the way, lots of incredibly talented people mentioned in these comments who have all probably achieved several times the “greatness” of the infamous Milka. Get a life, honestly.

  • Milka says:

    Can this be the Nakamura from Windsor Ont. if anyone will admit to being from Windsor Ont.? It’s not about greatness Eugene it’s about being an “artist” of the violin .Hundreds can
    saw away at Wieniawski or Paganini to varying degrees of success but it is to give meaning
    to what you are doing besides it being a circus schtick calling card .

  • Eugene Nakamura says:

    I haven’t updated that site in a while. I wasn’t happy with the recordings of Beethoven and Schumann that were up there, so that’s all that’s up there for the time being. I, along with many of my colleagues, don’t approach this as a circus schtick, but rather a life-long devotion to the greater good that is music. One of my most validating and fulfilling experiences in my performing career is to sit in the pit of an opera house and play second fiddle in Don Giovanni. We spend our blood, sweat and tears to get where we are, not for glory or fame, but for music’s sake and nothing more. The fact that you dismiss us as if we’re vermin whilst hiding behind your anonymity enrages me. You should be ashamed of yourself.

    Stefan Jackiw is a musician of integrity and deserves not to be slandered by some coward furiously typing anonymous rubbish.

  • Milka says:

    My, my, now it’s personal name calling and here I was almost moved to tears reading…”.
    greater good that is music ….” except that after three acknowledged teachers and many so called master classes and endless competitions it doesn’t strike me Eugene as a violinist was aiming for the orchestra pit of an opera house orchestra not that there is no honor in that status .Where the “vermin” observation comes in is beyond me ,it seems to reflect
    some insecurity on the writer’s part .Perhaps he should put his rage into his violin playing .
    Using the Jackiw name as a stalking horse for personal invective speaks to itself .

  • Eugene Nakamura says:


    I know not all orchestras of the world are on such (relatively) solid ground as those in Germany, so I’m grateful for how lucky I am. I’ve got tenure in a German A-Orchestra with a good salary, kind of the ultimate in “security” – see what I did there? It means I can provide for AND be there for my family. We are all faced with decisions with how we want to live our lives, but people who choose classical music as a career, no matter as a soloist, teacher, orchestral or quartet player, share the common belief that all that hard work IS worth it for its own sake – after all, we’re not in it to get rich!

    We are the ones keeping classical music alive, and making sure that it can be heard by our grandchildren’s generation. I think that’s an honourable cause to contribute to.

    I’m proud to sign my name under this, because I firmly believe there is meaning behind what I do, to use your own words. Can you say the same?

    Best regards
    Eugene Nakamura

  • Milka says:

    I am positive many people will rejoice that Mr. Nakamura after all these years of study
    has a full time job with a German A-Orchestra ,tenure,and a good salary , one can only
    wish him continued success .Why he wants one to take note of his success in
    landing a place in an opera pit orchestra escapes me , but it seems to have some meaning for him… I do believe at the beginning a youngster is into music for the pleasure of music unless the parents smell talent $$ and along with unscrupulous teachers drive kids to enter competitions in hopes of snatching the golden ring on the merry go round of competitions .But alas for 99% it all comes to nothing ,most become teachers of a sort,others orchestral players etc. and the cycle begins once more .
    That Mr. Nakamura finds contentment and meaning as a player in a German A orchestra
    is well and good that he continues to take a personal slam at me rather than address the topic shows lack of character.

  • Eugene Nakamura says:

    Summary, for people who don’t want to bother reading all that: Milka thinks most solists are rubbish, and don’t get him started on orchestral musicians and teachers. They didn’t even amount to anything.

    Sara Kim, principal violist of a German A-orchestra, just won second prize over at the Rostal Competition by the way. Not that she needs it.

  • Ross says:

    The original topic was competitions, right?
    Some of you went off on tangents.
    Many great soloists forged their careers without competitions. Ma and Kissin come to mind.
    It may have been possible for Marina to have made a point about something, but her own ill informed, preconceived notions turned her interview into a babbling mess.
    Yea, Oistrakh played great at age 70, from inside his coffin.
    And to have to name just one really great violinist born after 1980 and come up with Julia Fisher? Of course she’s good, but that isn’t the standout name of the generation, not even close.

  • Nicholas Finch says:

    This whole article rests on the assumption that all that one *should* need to have a career of the highest order is a win in a major competition. In the modern world, *nothing* could be further from the truth. Look at laureates of competitions of the past and the same phenomenon happens. There are all kinds of *random* reasons why winner X or winner Y or person Z who didn’t win a competition end up with a bigger or larger career.

    This attitude might make sense in an environment like the Soviet Union, where top authorities literally controlled *everything* and all artistic decisions. But to have a major career, where essentially your reputation is the thing that gets you hired, it goes so far beyond that. The attitude that competitions can or should create that is a foolish and antiquated attitude.

    I’ve had the good fortune to play with *two* fantastic musicians (who will remain nameless) who were the 1st and 2nd place winners of one of the biggest competitions on Earth. The person in second has a much larger career than the person who won first. Why? The second place winner has an unbelievable seductive power of charisma and first rate promotion and people skills – just my theory. But the first place winner was also charismatic in his own way (extremely dry and funny) and still a magnificent artist. Was the competition *unfair*? And is the jury responsible? No way.

    Also, the level of people playing the violin today (Stefan Jackiw included) is higher than it has *ever* been. I am forever dumbfounded at how stupidly our profession – both musicians and audiences – are trapped in a forever nostalgia that isn’t merited at all. Many young great violinists of today can play rings around the masters of old, both technically *and* musically. Same for our top quartets and chamber musicians and their respective old masters. We are driven by a profoundly misplaced demand for ancestor worship that often goes way beyond the credit that is due. It’s time to stop worshipping the graves of our ancestors and start talking about our masters of today.

  • Milka says:

    Nonsense ! Mr. Finch confuses finger dexterity with artistic insight .As to present day violinists knowing their history, spare us …it is not a matter of ancestor worship, it is what
    some of the past players brought to the art …..why is it that in most cases we can recognize individual players from the past and today not so ? The present crop with very few exceptions all are interchangeable and one sounds much like another including your Jackiw as nimble as his fingers are on the fingerboard. What is missing is the personal innate artistry that many old-timers brought to their performances .Many young violinists can play rings around masters of old it is true but to give music meaning takes more than
    manual dexterity ,

    • Michael Klotz says:

      No, Nicholas, you can’t have him! He’s MY Jackiw!

    • Nicholas Finch says:

      Actually I’m not confused by anything – I *can* tell them apart because I bother to venture outside of the few Heifitz and Oistrakh recordings that were given to me as a child, and to expand my palette beyond the pre-approved cliches that most pretenders of this art form assent to simply because someone they thought was authoritative first told them it was “the best”, and that nobody else could possibly compare. Almost inevitably, when I’m confronted with this lemming-like group-think response (I could swap out your reply with literally hundreds of other times I’ve heard this tired refrain), what it usually boils down to is that there were a few recordings by a few well known artists that were your first introduction to various pieces in the violin repertoire, and when *anyone* else’s interpretation deviates, you think it is somehow “wrong” or inferior. This shows you actually don’t understand the repertoire or the practice of live performance.

      You clearly have never heard “My Jackiw’s” rendition of Chopin’s Nocturne in C# minor – a piece that isn’t considered “technical” but can plumb the musical and emotional depths. You can listen here – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2VomlAnAB8k

      Or another great example – Augustin Haedlich’s stunning rendition of the opening movement of Ysaye Sonata no. 5. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8MFg_fx9LMQ

      These two players could not be more different, and I can hear the difference immediately. I have ventured beyond simply the recordings of the old masters and actually taken the time to expand my palette. You clearly have not. Please tell me, with specifics – how is their “personal innate artistry” lacking exactly? Be specific. If you cannot be specific, then you are just dressing up your opinion as fact.

      I for one, find Heifitz to often be extremely technically correct, but musically often incredibly uninteresting, especially in pieces similar to “My Jackiw’s” Chopin. I find his vibrato to be uniformly too fast without enough variation, and his general approach to music making rather sterile and cold, much like his personality. I am not the only person, incidentally, who has made such comments. Now, you might say to me, but really, that’s just a matter of personal taste, nobody can argue with Heifitz’s ability on the violin. You are correct on both fronts. That’s just my *opinion*. I don’t deny that Heifitz is a master, he just happens to be a master that’s not necessarily my cup of tea.

      Again, it’s fine if My Jackiw or Haedlich or any of the others aren’t your personal favorites. But to say that none of them haven’t achieved the same level of mastery and none deserve to be viewed through that lens shows your palette to be woefully lacking in experience and sophistication.

      I’m personally a big fan of bourbon whiskey – any pretender who claims to know bourbon, when asked what the “best” bourbon is, will automatically reply “Pappy Van Winkle”. Pappy is certainly a fine bourbon, and it’s certainly the most expensive and famous – but anyone who *really* knows Bourbon will name all varieties of brands in between and be able to specifically point out strengths and weaknesses, as well as to be able to point to all varieties of brands the neophyte has never heard of, as most often will be able to correctly point out the vast price disparities having more to do with branding and PR than to do with a relevant increase in quality. The same disease also infects how people view the instrument market – people who *really* know violins can acknowledge the greatness of the Stradivarius, while also acknowledging the indisputable merits of fine modern makers like Zygmantovich or Moes and Moes. As I’m sure you undoubtedly know, when rare Italian instruments are performed by expert violinists behind a screen next to fine modern instruments, votes on them by audiences essentially come to a draw. The rare Italian instruments don’t perform appreciably better than the fine modern violins, and a *truly* serious musician in the market for a fine instrument will know how to differentiate between them in a way that goes beyond an amateur collector who yearns for a Strad simply because other people have muttered the tired lemming-like cliche that Strads are always “the best”.

      Your comment regarding how the only thing modern violinists bring to the table is “manual dexterity” shows that you aren’t actually a serious consumer of this art-form. You should also know that right now, almost every top young classical musician on the North American continent is having a field day laughing at the inanity of your comments all over social media. Our profession always lives on a precipice, and those who have desperately tried to keep us forever locked in the past, rather than help us move into a relevant vibrant future, have often times lead organizations into the abyss of apocalyptic financial and cultural collapse. When you insist on repeating these tired, cliched tropes, you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.

      • Milka says:

        Poor Mr. Finch ,much like Nakamura he spends time telling me what I am about while
        wandering broadly afield in making his inconsequential points rather than attend to the
        topic at hand .He even tells one that to differ shows a lack of understanding the art whereas his” different “is but a matter of a cup of tea and a matter of taste .
        Come ,come Mr. Finch you can do better …….Again assuming much Mr. Finch tells me I have not heard Jackiw in the dreadful transcription or the Haedlich Ysaye but I have and find the transcription aberrant and the playing not worth comment. The Haedlich Ysaye needs a better player than what we have here,being such a idiosyncratic work .
        May I suggest from my point of view Mr. Finch listen to the inane Haedlich comments
        on the Mozart violin concerto #5– says much about the “giants” in the Finch archive of
        fiddle players .As for bourbon , I prefer the better drinks ,it being only a matter of taste .
        The modern fiddle test is old hat. Your last paragraph shows ignorance and knee jerk
        response to what I have written,and while most all your top friends are laughing the “very
        few exceptions ” as I noted are not and certainly do not include the run of the mill Haedlich or Jackiw.

        • Hal says:

          Oh, Milka. I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed your writing here, how eagerly I checked back for your most recent replies. It took my breath away to see your virtuosic sophistry, or as Socrates called such rhetoric, your skill at making the weaker argument seem the stronger. How pitilessly you dispatched these thoughtful, respectful, serious musicians who bore real names and identities, who wrote well-reasoned notes to you supported by detailed language and examples, whilst hiding behind your anonymous moniker, your vague, catch-all, pseudo-checkmate words like “artistry,” and yet somehow dripping with such poisonous sarcasm and dismissiveness as to bring me to my feet with a slow-clap leading to outright cheering for your monstrous success. Like Shakespeare’s Richard III, you turned your deformities into some kind of superpower and overtook your betters by your willingness to go further in your sheer mean-ness than they could anticipate.
          But now this most recent comment from you has lost me as your fan, as your greatness spontaneously deflated like a neglected soufflé. I fear that Mr. Finch, simply by heaving a huge sigh and deciding to rejoin you for once and for all with a carefully drawn, blow-by-blow answer, has revealed your sword for the shiny aluminum foil it was all along. This last reply from you is neither funny, nor impressive, nor (worst of all) does it mount in the least a real defense of your “position,” if one has the intellectual temerity to call it that.
          In any event, if you should find it within yourself to regain your erstwhile panache, you may again call me a fan. Let’s hope. Those were really such heady days, last week, as I dreamt of all you would accomplish, bringing modern performers crashing down to the cellar and installing in every citizen’s home by governmental ordinance and enforcement the entire catalogue of rhythmically careless, one-size-fits-all-vibrato, piano-miked-from-the-next-room-because-obviously-it-doesn’t-matter Heifitz recordings.

  • Milka says:

    Poor Hal, one senses his effort in trying to make his point a brilliant zinger of a critique aimed at Milka, unfortunately it carries the weight of an elephant giving birth to a mouse.
    But do keep trying . Mr.Finch a needs more competent champion .

  • Jamie says:

    Who is Marina Evreison Arshinova anyway???

  • Richard Aguirre says:

    The original premise of this post was arrogant and cynical, and Milka strikes me as a contentious boor. I do hope these musicians have dropped the bickering and gotten back to practicing over the last two years