The 2019 edition of the Concours musical international de Montréal (CMIM), devoted this year to the violin, started off with added pressure – for the organisers, that is. Because of the convergence of several of the most high-profile violin tournaments elsewhere this spring – from Auckland to Augsburg, from Sendai to Brussels – the recently completed CMIM also had to compete with the competitions.

Even so, the year’s other major violin competitions did not prevent the section panel from attracting an extraordinary array of the finest emerging talent on the international scene today. The audiences benefited from the variety and individuality on display. The distinguished jury, for its part, no doubt recognised reflections of their own selves as ambitious young artists. And they faced a daunting challenge: given that the level of technical excellence was already so high across the board, how to rank the subjective qualities of interpretation and musical personality? Jury members included Pierre Amoyal, Kim Kashkashian, Boris Kuschnir, Cho-Liang Lin, Mihaela Martin, Barry Shiffman, Dmitry Sitkovetsky, and Pavel Vernikov, with Zarin Mehta serving as non-voting President of the jury.

“My overriding factor is to ask myself: would I buy a ticket to hear that person again? Did the way they played come out and grab me and compel me to want to hear more?” said Shiffman shortly after the conclusion of this 18th edition of the competition, held between 29 May and 5 June. CMIM was launched by bass Joseph Rouleau and the late Canadian politician André Bourbeau in 2002. Initially modeled after the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels, CMIM began as a vocal tournament and alternates each year among violin, piano, and voice.

From nearly 200 to six

The whole process started out with a pool of nearly 200 applications from around the world, which was winnowed to 24 participants from 12 countries invited to come to Canada’s second-most-populous city. Half of these were chosen for the semifinals, which entailed 12 one-hour recitals.

Both the first round and semifinals took place at the Salle Bourgie, a former Roman Revival church along the Golden Square Mile at the base of the city’s iconic Mount Royal. Six finalists were subsequently selected to compete in two evening concerts at the acoustically superb, wood-panelled Maison symphonique in the Place des Arts complex – home of the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal (OSM). Each performed as the soloist in a concerto of their choice, with Alexander Shelley conducting the OSM.

That made for luxury casting during the two nights of concerto performances, but the finalists had only 50 minutes each of rehearsal time. The complaint is sometimes voiced that conservatories churn out technically superb performers at the cost of real musical education. Yet the winners this year soundly, proudly refuted that charge. The 2019 Grand Laureate, California native Hao Zhou (born in 1997), chose Shostakovich’s First Concerto – encouraged by his mentor at the Colburn School in Los Angeles, Martin Beaver, he explained afterward. It essentially put him in the position of playing a major Shakespearean protagonist, each movement exploring an entirely different facet of his character.

Zhou’s intensely involving, epic performance is clearly what Shiffman had in mind when referring to the criterion of competitors who, apart from all their skill and razzle-dazzle, know how to compel an audience. His achievement on that first night of the finals seemed to effect a collective catharsis. Indeed, Zhou also won the popular vote based on the live stream of his performance, along with the CMIM first prize: a total of C$80,000 in cash and career development funds, a newly crafted violin and bow valued at C$20,000 and a residency at the Banff Centre for Arts, as well as a concert at the New Generation Festival in Florence, Italy.

“You Never Lose”

Austrian Johanna Pichlmair, winner of the C$15,000 second prize, achieved a similarly impressive level of performance with her vastly expressive and colourful Brahms Concerto – played on her beloved Camillo Camilli instrument made in 1734. When I first heard her in the semifinals, she immediately stood out with a personally engraved, highly stylish interpretation of Beethoven’s Sonata no. 8. Her menu also included visionary accounts of Schoenberg’s Fantaisie and the late Debussy Sonata. Not surprisingly, she additionally took the Montreal Bach Festival Prize for the best performance of a piece by J.S. Bach (in the first round) and another prize acknowledging her interpretation of stand alone, which was commissioned for this year’s competition from the Quebec-based composer Michael Oesterle. Pichlmair shaped stand alone with genuine personality – to the point that it stood out in the context of 11 other iterations of this neo-Bachian monologue, which alternates between a plaintive, folk-like idea and Baroque sprays of passagework.

I had a chance to speak to Pichlmair, who is also a first violinist with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, right after her OSM rehearsal, on the cusp of what she explained is her farewell to the competition circuit as she turns 30 next year – the cutoff age for many competitions (including CMIM). “Actually, you never lose. You win or you gain experience. A competition makes you grow musically and as a person. I think part of getting older is developing your very own ideas about what a work should be rather than just repeating your teachers’ ideas.”

Pichlmair described thinking hard about her selection choices and was grateful CMIM’s format allowed her to take risks. “It’s not the technical aspect that makes you go forward. It’s the emotional and musical aspects. I can learn pieces very quickly but to have the right attitude and depth sometimes takes a long time to develop. And this is what makes music so interesting. It always develops.”

Third prize winner Fumika Mohri impressed the jury with her sophisticated, passionate take on the Sibelius concerto – the night after Christine Lim gave her own moving account of the same work. The Sibelius was the only concerto that was a shared choice among the finalists. When I asked another jury member, Cho-Liang Lin, about the difficulty of choosing among such an embarrassment of riches, he pointed out that “no matter what you win, its a growth experience. These are great lessons for a musician – to face the pressure of performing with such a short rehearsal. That’s the real-life situation they will face when they’re called in to substitute at the last minute, for example.”

A humane competition

Competitions are inherently arenas of high adrenaline. The powerful emotions and sweeping drama can at times seem unbearably intense. But a recurring theme I encountered in discussions with the competing violinists was a sense of gratitude for CMIM’s reputation for humaneness, for its warm and supportive treatment of participants. Leonard Fu, a 22-year-old German citizen who plans to continue graduate studies at the New England Conservatory, struck me as a surefire choice for finalist after I heard the astonishing stylistic variety and maturity of his recital. Surprised that he was passed over, I asked him about the experience: “The hospitality here has been amazingly supportive,” Fu replied. “We had a lot of freedom for creative programming, which gave us a chance to showcase who we are as performers. The Concours really highlights the artistic value of our playing.”

Indeed, aside from two mandatory solo violin pieces – a J.S. Bach selection in the first round and, in the semifinals, Oesterle's stand alone – the contestants opted for a striking amount of thoughtful, interpretively demanding fare. I deeply admired American Hannah Tarley’s command of architecture and suspense in the Franck Sonata in A major. It was easy to take the reliable virtuosity of these semifinalists for granted, allowing us to focus on what they had to say with the music.

Baffled, again, that an artist of this calibre did not make it to the finals, I asked Tarley, who will start graduate school at Yale University in the fall, what she had gotten from the experience. She also spoke of CMIM as a humane experience: “I was touched by how supportive everyone was – especially in a setting where you are stressed. There was a real sense of camaraderie. At the end of the day, we are there to play music and share it with people who love it like we do.”

Following a career at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Christiane LeBlanc has served as CMIM’s artistic director since 2012. She spoke of the importance of cultivating supportive relationships to create “a human, welcoming competition. That’s why we pair the participants with host families, so they have someone to come home to and not an empty room in a hotel.” Moreover, relationships between the contestants and sponsors – regardless of how far they proceed in the Concours' stages – regularly take root and open the way to new opportunities.

LeBlanc is additionally responsible for creating related events to enhance CMIM and its appeal to local audiences. This year saw the introduction of the "Mini Violini" programme, a junior competition for violinists aged 10-14 that serves as a prelude to CMIM itself. And a benefit concert on the day between semifinals and finals, "Bach tout Bach," presented the previous first prize violin winner (from 2016), Ayana Tsuji, as well as two of the jury members – Dmitry Sitkovetsky and Kim Kashkashian – who were joined by cellist Matt Haimovitz to play Sitkovetsky's string trio arrangement of the Goldberg Variations.

"The idea here is to create some sort of festival aura around the competition – to try to open doors to people from Montreal who think a competition maybe sounds too serious for them. It's a way of opening different doors into the competition."

This article was sponsored by the Concours international de Montréal.