Despite the much-improved pandemic conditions surrounding the 36th edition of the Irving M. Klein International String Competition, the annual showdown was once again a virtual affair in 2021. The young competitors livestreamed their performances before the seven remote judges and an online viewing crowd of thousands, with finalists taking their definitive turns June 5–6. This year’s top prize went to 22-year-old violist Yuchen Lu, with the second prize going to violinist Grace Huh (18). Cellist William Tan (16) took the third prize, with fourth prizes going to violinists Ria Honda (20) and Serin Park (17).
Yuchen Lu is pursuing a Masters of Music at the Juilliard School, studying under Carol Rodland. His winning program included movements from the Bach Cello Suite No. 6, George Rochberg’s Sonata for Viola and Piano, Bartók’s Viola Concerto, and the commissioned work Bagatelles for Strings (for solo viola) by Sakari Dixon Vanderveer.
Second place winner Huh is a Bay Area musician who just has been studying with Ian Swensen at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Pre-College Division. Huh was also awarded the Pablo Casals prize for Best Performance of Bach. She told SFCV about the thrill of competing in the Klein:
Being a part of the Klein Competition has been a dream of mine for several years now. Whenever the competition took place at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, I’d always be watching from the audience, watching in awe at the incredible performances by the competitors. When COVID-19 began, I saw it as my opportunity to both practice and work more. However, I found it difficult managing preparing for Klein and other competitions with the arduous college application season, college auditions, and schoolwork. But what drove me was wanting to compete on the same stage with incredible musicians such as those that I watched before at SFCM.
In addition, both my violin teacher, Ian Swensen, and my pianist, Weicong Zhang, were incredibly supportive, always finding any time they could to work with me. Though it was challenging trying to recreate the special energy I witnessed at in-person Klein competitions through submitting recordings, the Klein Competition forever holds a place in my heart, not only because I have watched and dreamed of it for many years, but also because of the incredibly fun memories I have of the journey preparing for it.”
Asked about her plans for the immediate future, Huh says, “I will be studying as a student of the Columbia-Juilliard Exchange starting in the fall.” In terms of building a career in music, the young prizewinner is more circumspect. “Though I’m not completely sure about my dreams as a musician, the first thing I want that comes to mind is to perform in-person again, and I am so grateful for the Klein Competition to provide these performance opportunities. I am honored to be a part of their wonderful community.”
The challenges of conducting the competition online did nothing to dampen enthusiasm for the event, which was hosted by the California Music Center. “This year the Klein Competition received more applications than ever before, as dedicated young musicians worldwide redoubled their investment in time with their instruments during COVID,” said Klein Artistic Director Mitchell Sardou Klein. “Our jury has found that the level of playing and musicianship has been the highest ever in this year’s event. Being invited to be a semifinalist in the Klein Competition was a major achievement. Our three finalists (violinist Grace Huh, violist Yuchen Lu and cellist William Tan) are all riveting musical artists with great insight and maturity,” he added.
The jury for the 2021 Competition included Charles Castleman, Glenn Dicterow, Sakari Dixon Vanderveer (2021 Composer), Karen Dreyfus, Daniel Stewart, Ian Swensen, and Barbara Day Turner.
Previous winners of the Klein Competition include Jennifer Koh, Oliver Herbert, Frank Huang, Robert deMaine, Tessa Lark, David Requiro, and Gabrielle Després.
Watch the final performances online: