Cecil Aranonwitz International Viola Competition


Bradshaw Hall, Royal Birmingham Conservatoire ****

Music-lovers the world over have been zooming into Royal Birmingham Conservatoire all week, watching the triennial holding of the Cecil Aronowitz International Viola Competition.
Named after the great South African violist who became such a presence in this country, the competition was locked-down last year, and the accumulation of entries for its resuscitation now totalled no fewer than 93 hopefuls. 40 applicants were selected to perform in the competition, but Covid flight precautions prevented 16 from attending, with a total of 24 performing in the preliminary rounds, streamed online.
Three contestants made it through to Friday's final, watched by nearly 6000 aficionados worldwide as well as by an enthusiastic live audience here in the Bradshaw Hall: the UK's Edgar Francis, Haneul Park from South Korea, and Noga Shaham from Israel, accompanied by an alert and multi-toned, now bright, now deep-digging dark Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Angus Webster.
They had a choice of a concerto movement by Hoffmeister or Stamitz, and then had to tackle Britten's searching Lachrymae, with its many moods and textures.
Francis' Hoffmeister was big-toned, articulate in bowing, and negotiated some tricky corners. His cadenza was almost a separate composition in itself. He brought veiled, cello-like tones to the Britten as well as some haunting ponticello-work, and his flexing of his shoulder-muscles at the end showed how hard he had worked!
Park brought a discreet, well-matured sound to her Hoffmeister in a somewhat stertorous performance, as well as a slightly less overbearing cadenza. Her Lachrymae was well-characterised, not least in the pizzicato variations.
Noga Shaham's was an elegant, assured stage-presence, propelling her Stamitz offering with drive and control, and with double-stopping so confident that it never drew attention to itself. The Britten was delivered with determination and personality, leading the ear on to the final statement of John Dowland's plaintive air.
While the trio of distinguished adjudicators (Thomas Riebl, Garth Knox and Matthew Jones, under the chairmanship of Festival founder and director Louise Lansdown) deliberated we were treated to an amazingly warm account of Klengel's Hymnus, arranged for 12 violas by Michael Vidulich. Eleven of the players were eliminated competitors, the twelfth a Showcase student from the RBC itself, and their sense of ensemble and balance of texture, achieved after very little rehearsal, was extraordinary.
A few details of presentation need to be worked on in this prestigious Competition: how the winners actually respond when they are receiving their prizes; and how good it would be if the adjudicators could vouchsafe us a few words as to how they reached their decision.
Which was thus: Haneul Park was the third-prizewinner, receiving £1500 from the Gwyn Williams Bursary (founded in memory of the popular CBSO principal viola) and various Pirastro accessories, including a viola bow from the British Violin Making Association.
Second prize went to Noga Shaham, recipient of £3000 from the Tertis Foundation, a fine viola bow from Ayres Violins, and again, several Pirastro accessories.
Which leaves Edgar Francis as the winner, all sorts of goodies coming his way: £5000 from the British Viola Society and British Violin Making Association), a Robert Shallock viola bow from Bishop Instruments and Bows, another Pirastro Christmas stocking, and the enticing prospect of an album recording with Champs Hill Records.
Christopher Morley

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