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Strings Very Much Attached

Irving M. Klein International String Competition

June 12-14

Top 3 Prize Winners from the 2009
Klein International String Competition

It’s one of the world’s more prestigious competitions for young musicians, and it takes place right here in San Francisco. The Irving M. Klein International String Competition, held annually on the campus of San Francisco State University, attracts the crème de la crème of string players, ages 15 to 23, for two days of intensive music-making. Past winners such as Jennifer Frautschi, Frank Xin Huang, Jennifer Koh, and Mark Kosower are now major soloists, recording artists, or leaders in top-flight symphonies. (As another measure of the competition’s quality, musicians not winning the top prize include such prominent names as Misha Keylin, Joshua Roman, and Lara St. John.)

The semifinal round, to be held June 12, is an all-day affair featuring 20-minute performances by each of this year’s eight semifinalists, chosen from a field of 65 auditioners. Each performer will present an unaccompanied piece by Bach, a concerto movement, and a new work by composer Dick Hyman, who wrote separate pieces for each instrument represented in the competition (violin, viola, and cello).). This year’s concertos include the Sibelius and Tchaikovsky violin concertos, Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante and G Minor violin concerto, Hindemith’s Der Schwanendreher, and the Schumann and Dvorak cello concertos. Up to five contestants will then be named finalists, performing an added movement of their concerto plus another sonata in an additional concert on June 13.

This year also marks the Klein’s 25th anniversary, so an official 25th Anniversary Concert also take place at SFSU’s Knuth Hall on June 10, featuring pianist Jon Nakamatsu, the Alexander and Cypress Quartets, former Klein winners David Requiro, cellist and Tessa Lark, violinist, along with Bay Area violist Michi Aceret.

Mitchell Sardou Klein, president of the board of directors at California Music Center (which sponsors the competition) and son of the competition’s namesake, says that in an extremely competitive playing field, it’s the total package of musical chops and artistic presentation that stands out. “By the end of the two days of the Competition, the judges (and the audience) have heard a wide variety of repertoire and styles of music, and each player’s personality, expressive range and technical command have emerged. By then the judges have a clear idea of which performer has made the deepest musical impression, and their decision is often quite clear. The voting system is very simple: each judge gets one vote for each prize.”

The four-day schedule is arduous on contestants, but also rewarding. Besides the competition itself, each semifinalist rehearses several times with the accompanying staff and attends social events with their peers and competition supporters, as well as the 25th Anniversary concert. They do get some time to be tourists in San Francisco as well, though as Klein shrewdly observes, “practice time always comes first.”

Klein says that feedback from participants consistently reveals several benefits of the competition. “They enjoy the opportunity to perform in front of judges and an audience, in a supportive setting which enables them to play their best under pressure. They also get to measure themselves relative to their peers at the highest level. For the winners, the biggest incentive is the performing opportunities with symphony orchestras and important recital series.” And while every semifinalist receives a cash prize, the winner earns a cool $14,000, along with opportunities for solo appearances with the Santa Cruz and Peninsula symphonies, at a Bay Area benefit concert, and in other performances.

This year’s field of semifinalists includes three Americans, as well as representatives from China, Israel, South Korea, and England. They span the full age range allowed by the competition, from 15-year-old Korean cellist Taeguk Mun to 23-year-old violist Philip Kramp of Springfield, Illinois. Three study at Juilliard, two at the New England Conservatory of Music, and one each at Rice University and the Colburn School of Music.

Klein also observes an internationalization trend among applicants in recent years. “Twenty-five years ago, when the Competition started, most of the applicants were from the U.S., and the largest international contingent was Japanese,” he notes on a blog accompanying the competition’s Web site. “The biggest domestic applicant pool came from the Chicago area, with its rich history of developing violinists and cellists ... and where music education has continued to be supported in the public schools.”

These days, the talent pool is much deeper. “In more recent years, we have seen small surges of Eastern European players (Russia, Romania, and Bulgaria), Western Europeans, and Canadians,” Klein continues. “Domestically, the Midwest has continued to produce exceptional applicants. Now (not surprisingly) the biggest overseas numbers come from China (especially Shanghai) and Korea.”

Joseph Sargent holds a Ph.D. in musicology from Stanford University and teaches at the University of San Francisco.