Menuhin Violin Competition: A critic's wrap-up and review 

03.03.14
Giancarlo Guerrero, Cleveland Orchestra
The American Statesman

By Luke Quinton

An actual roar moved through the crowd on Sunday night at the Long Center before bursting into near-rapturous applause for a bracingly intense, rollicking version of Dvorak’s “Carnival Overture,” by the Cleveland Orchestra.

Cleveland, one of the world’s top-tier orchestras was here to cap off the official end of the Menuhin International Violin Competition, and it was a momentous night — a momentous weekend — of music making, which put an exclamation point on Austin’s newfound infatuation with the young phemons of the violin world, who came from around the globe and played their hearts (and fingers) out.

It was a generous week of music, of free, and world-class concerts. An event that now feels as though it’s come and gone too quickly.

On Sunday, Austin was treated to two more pieces by the winners.

Japan’s 14-year-old Rennosuke Fukuda made a show-stealing performance of Fritz Kreisler’s “Praeludium and Allegro,” with playing so smooth and pitch-perfect coming from a pint-size performer that it was all you could do to simply sigh in disbelief. Fukuda’s playing was so expressive — even better than his performance of the same piece the day before.

Stephen Waarts, 17 was in Fukuda’s place four years ago, having won the junior division in 2010. But this time around, the incredibly tall American/Dutch performer won the senior competition, clinching it with a shockingly mature, nuanced performance of Prokofiev’s second violin concerto, accompanied by Peter Bay and the Austin Symphony Orchestra.

On Sunday, Waarts’ performance with Cleveland (of just the first movement) was solid, but never quite got off the ground, perhaps due to outright exhaustion.

One of the great joys in hearing the Cleveland Orchestra this weekend was the fierce energy of its playing. Every phrase has a well-considered color, in every note, a certain emotional weight. It was a wall of sound, with a absolute army of strings at its disposal. And not just numbers, but a clarity of sound that erupted in absolute unison.

After watching more than a dozen of hours of the competition, if there was one thing that seemed to define this level of musicianship, it was poise. All week, not a single young performer showed any of the usual signs of nervousness.

And then there’s orchestral poise. The instant Cleveland’s conductor, Giancarlo Guerrero stepped on stage, the orchestra came alert. Especially on Saturday’s children’s concert, Guerrero barely placed his second foot on the podium when he rose the baton and the music struck. It was invigorating, because this confidence continued through the concert — with everyone playing as if they were ready to burst.

There were some gratifying Texas connections as well. Assistant conductor Brett Mitchell, who conducted Cleveland through Lemony Snicket’s “The Composer is Dead,” a brilliant new narrated work in the tradition of orchestra introductions for children, holds a Doctorate from UT. And it turns out Guerrero, who usually conducts Cleveland during its summer residency in Miami, (and directs the Nashville Symphony), studied percussion at Baylor.

The rest of the Cleveland Orchestra’s concert was equally impressive. Juror Arabella Steinbacher played an ultra dramatic take on Ravel’s multi-textured, folk-tune work “Tzigane.” And the irrepressible conductor, Guerrero gesticulating like mad, pulled out a gorgeous version of Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony, which, despite not being one of the great, stimulating symphonies, was brilliantly performed, down to the last vigorous detail. (And how about that french horn solo!)

Guerrero doggedly resisted one of the more severe, spontaneous and sustained calls for an encore the Long Center’s probably seen.

The Menuhin Competition launched a more refined, benevolent invasion than most of Austin’s festivals, one that took great pains to take on the character of Texas and Austin — using local pianists, cellists, violinists, quartets and orchestras. Nodding to folk music with a concert by fiddler Ruby Jane — complete with food trucks — and asking its competitors who tackle Kreisler and Prokofiev before breakfast, to show their true mettle by improvising to Texas folk tunes.

Fans came from across Texas to see these young talents and the great Cleveland Orchestra, including thousands of students who attended the family concert, their tickets paid by an Austin CEO.

Many others tracked their favorites via the excellent webstream that was broadcast live all week, and subsequent Youtube videos with views in the thousands already. (It’s greatly unfortunate that none of the concerts at the Long Center, from Cleveland or the ASO were streamed online. Technical and permissions issues were cited.)

The 42 young wizards of the violin are headed back home Monday, as are their parents, the jurors and organizers of the festival, reporters for classical music magazines and blogs. Returning home to japan, London, Korea or Philadelphia. And for some, on to their next concert date.

The Menuhin’s 10 days served notice that Austin’s venues and performers are supremely well-equipped for a brighter spotlight in the classical musicverse. The applications to the Butler School are already said to have jumped for next year as a result.

So  for Austin’s classical fans, the hope is that this newfound source of energy will reverberate for years to come.