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Young and Inspiring

June 12, 2007

Aiding and encouraging young careers is the noble cause behind the Irving M. Klein International String Competition, which held the finals of its 22nd competition Sunday afternoon at San Francisco State University. Three talented musicians each played a full virtuoso concerto, supported by the Marin Symphony under conductor Alasdair Neale. Considering the amount of sheer hard work that goes into building such musicianship, it amounted to a serious retort to the naysayers who claim that classical music is dead. As long as young musicians like violinists David McCarroll and Jing Wang or cellist Madeleine Kabat keep turning up, music's moving along, better than ever.
McCarroll opened with Brahms' Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77, followed by Kabat playing the Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major, Op. 107. After an intermission, Wang closed the concert with another performance of the Brahms Concerto. Wang played the Fritz Kreisler cadenza, as opposed to the traditional Joseph Joachim cadenza used in McCarroll's performance.

Once the smoke of battle had cleared, the judges held their powwow, which took a bit of time. Deciding was clearly not an easy task. It had been evident that the first place ($11,000, plus additional professional engagements) would go to violinist Wang. Picking the second- and third-place winners must have been a bear, as the playing of McCarroll and Kabat could be separated in quality by only the width of a frog’s hair. Ultimately, McCarroll was awarded second place ($5,000), and Kabat the third ($2,500).
Around the World
Wang, now 22 years old, was born in China, but made his first public appearance at age 6. That took place halfway around the world, in France. When his family moved to Canada, Wang enrolled at the Québec Conservatory, later moving on to New York's Juilliard School. He has remained there doing his advanced studies, but considering Sunday's performance, I'm not convinced that he needs any more polish.

All three competitors possess solid technique and a full command of their instruments. But Wang's performance displayed a bit more mastery of the intangibles. Those things cannot be taught; you either have it or you don't. Finesse of phrasing, for instance, in which a given few notes can be momentarily searched or compressed, backed down in intensity or accented, is vital to a great performance. In the case of string players, it means subtle adjustment to bow strength and length, plus believe it or not, good breath control. Musicians don't just play an instrument with their fingers and hands. The entire body goes into the production of tone, although that can easily get out of control if the musician wiggles and shakes to the point of distraction.

Wang's sensibility to subtle subaccents, when added to his pinpoint intonation and general beauty of phrasing, resulted in as fine a performance of the horrifyingly difficult Brahms Concerto as I've ever encountered. All this bespeaks the potential for a long and probably major career.

Born in Santa Rosa, McCarroll studied privately in Sonoma before transferring to Berkeley's Crowden School at age eight. By age 13 he had been invited to the famous Yehudi Menuhin School near London. Once he thought he'd mined that institution, it was on to Boston's New England Conservatory. With such a background, his overall performance of the Brahms was quite fine.

What held him back a little was a nervous first half of the first movement, not helped by some surprisingly cavalier playing from the orchestra. That straightened itself out along the way, and by the time the cadenza and final coda area appeared, all was well. McCarroll's slow movement was probing in its depth of expression yet elegantly sung out with a touch of classicism that I found heartening. So the flaws were minor, but enough to drop Carroll into second place.

Twenty-year-old Kabat made her debut at age 18 with no less than the Cleveland Orchestra. She studied at the Cleveland Institute of Music before moving into advanced studies with Norman Fisher, of the late Concord Quartet at Rice University. Her virtuosity was breathtaking, brimming with fire and secure pyrotechnics. But while technically impressive, her dynamics ranged between loud and louder. That and her tendency toward literal metronomic consistency, produced a hard-sell aspect that offered more flash than musical communication.

A friend and onetime teacher tells the story of a jury he sat on with cellist Gregor Piatigorsky. When a young cello contestant finished playing, Piatigorsky turned and said, "Now she needs to survive a desperate love affair." I fear that kind of attitude is all too true. It is yet another aspect of performance that cannot be taught.

The one serious flaw of the afternoon was its length, gravely aided by too many speeches, remembrances, and thankings of this and that person. That's for program books, not to brandish before a captive audience. It's becoming epidemic at Bay Area concerts — a severe outbreak of yackety-yak disease.

Heuwell Tircuit is a composer, performer, and writer who was chief writer for Gramophone Japan and for 21 years a music reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle. He wrote previously for Chicago American and the Asahi Evening News.