Every four years, the capital of Indiana becomes the center of the violin world, as the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis energizes the cultural life of the Circle City. Over the course of 17 jam-packed days, musical aficionados from around the world descend on downtown Indy to discover the string stars of tomorrow, while an international digital audience tunes into recitals, chamber performances and orchestral concerti from far-flung locales. For two weeks, the primacy of classical music overtakes even basketball in the Hoosier State.

This September, a judging panel of violin luminaries awarded the competition’s gold medal to American artist Sirena Huang, with her compatriot Julian Rhee taking the silver medal. The bronze medal was presented to Minami Yoshida, a Japanese violinist currently studying at the New England Conservatory. American violinists Claire Wells and Joshua Brown, and South Korean artist SooBeen Lee were named laureates of the competition.

Medalists and Laureates at the Awards Gala
© Denis Ryan Kelly Jr.

The placement of these rising artists – announced following a series of performances with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Leonard Slatkin – represented the culmination of a grueling selection process and demanding performance schedule. Organizers of the competition invited 40 musicians from 13 countries to vie for the gold medal, a grouping whittled down to 16 semi-finalists following a preliminary recital. Ten additional competitors were eliminated following a second recital, which included the performance of a commissioned work by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Harbison: an elliptical, technically demanding sonatina called Incontro 

The contenders and competition organizers also had to deal with an unspoken but ever-present obstacle: Covid-19. Since the Indianapolis is held quadrennially, the 2022 competition is the first to be given since the start of the pandemic. The logistical requirements imposed by the virus presented a new set of challenges for Glen Kwok, the competition’s executive director for 22 years.

“Many people said that you’re so lucky – you had your competition in 2018, before Covid hit, and you have it again right after,” Kwok said in an interview. “But the truth of the matter is that no one knew for sure when the pandemic would end, and it hasn’t really ended completely. Covid is still a very present and serious consideration for us. For the last year, we have been planning protocols with our medical advisor to determine what we would do in every circumstance.”

The potential for an all-virtual competition was considered and quickly scotched, according to Kwok. “We determined that we would either have the 11th quadrennial just as we’ve had the other ten competitions – live, in person and at its full capacity – or we would postpone it for a year,” Kwok said. “The stakes are simply too high. Even over 17 days and four rounds, we barely get to know you as an artist. So imagine trying to do that virtually, and then trying to launch a major solo career for you. It’s just not worth doing.”

Through careful preparation and a hearty amount of grit, the events took place without a hitch, with competitors and spectators remaining safe and healthy. The Indianapolis draws a remarkably engaged and knowledgeable audience, with many viewers attending multiple events a day, from the preliminaries to the final round. Kwok noticed the hunger for a return to live, in-person classical music after the industry shutdown in their enthusiasm.

The Jury
© Denis Ryan Kelly Jr.

“Yes, this competition is really for the violinists and for the people around the world who want to experience it,” Kwok said. “But it is also for the people who want to come to the concerts. There is no substitute for live performances or for the education outreach programs, exhibits and lectures that we offer over the course of the Indianapolis. If we were to do a strictly online version, we would lose much of the meaning of the competition.”

Since its establishment in 1982 by the late Josef Gingold, the Indianapolis has served as a vital stepping stone for young violinists on the precipice of an international career. Bagging the gold medal offers immediate credibility and opens valuable doors for the winner. “It was nothing short of a life-changing event,” said Jinjoo Cho, gold medal laureate of the 2014 competition, who returned this year to serve on the judging panel. “I went from being a talented student to having a full-time professional life overnight. It was incredible.”

I asked Cho what attributes she and her fellow jurists considered when ranking candidates. “I was on the same stage not too long ago, so I can’t help but feel like I’m almost about to play,” she told me. “An impressive and very effective performance seems to require two things: fire and ease. One should exhibit stage presence and the conviction that they need in the musical expression, and all of that comes from natural and studied understanding of every aspect of the music-making. And then there is the facility that allows you to do all of these things without sounding arduous or laborious. It has to feel like we are not distracted from the musical expression because of the technical aspects.”

The 2022 medalists displayed that perfect balance of fire and ease – at times, they exceeded it. In her valedictory performance of Dvořák’s Violin Concerto in A minor, Huang spun out seemingly limitless lines of melody, floating above the orchestra even when playing in the violin’s highest register. Rhee’s rendition of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major was a study in filigreed elegance, in which he demonstrated seamless communion with Slatkin’s relaxed tempos. Taking on Sibelius’s much-loved Violin Concerto in D minor, Yoshida traced a narrative arc that always remained coherent within the context of the piece’s dense orchestration and stylistic variability.

Sirena Huang with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and Leonard Slatkin
© Denis Ryan Kelly Jr.

The contestants clearly relished the opportunity to perform with a conductor as experienced and respected as Slatkin. In turn, the venerable maestro offered unqualified praise of the young artists, and for the competition’s mission. “Generally speaking, I am not a big fan of music competitions,” Slatkin said in an email. “From my point of view, it is impossible to determine who is ‘best’. However, the exposure this competition affords the young artists, especially in these days of livestreaming, is invaluable. When it comes to the finalists, at least one of them is ready to launch their career, and it is intriguing to think about which among them might sustain their talent and mature into seasoned professionals. Identifying those talents helps the continuation of musical legacy, and I am honored to be a part of that.”

The competition’s true work begins after it ends. In addition to a $75,000 honorarium, the gold medalist receives professional artist management, overseen by Kwok and the organization’s full-time staff. This allows the winner to begin her solo career in earnest on equal footing with her more established colleagues, and to prepare her for the triumphs and challenges of an international musical career.

Among the benefits of winning the top prize is a recital debut at Carnegie Hall, which is typically held two years after the Indianapolis. “We want the winner to develop their repertoire and to practice their programs before they go into their big debut,” Kwok explained. “We also know how important it is to have an excellent website, so we design and upkeep their website – pay for all the costs and do all the maintenance – for four years, because that becomes their calling card. We also have a collection of violins that we loan to the laureates. Anyone who does not have the use of a fine instrument is welcome to choose these instruments. The first in our collection is the 1683 ex-Gingold Stradivari, which we purchased from the Gingold family after Josef Gingold’s death. We also have a Sam Zygmuntowicz violin and two other contemporary instruments. This in itself is invaluable. There are so many artists who need instruments, but people are loaning them for one concert, or one month. We loan it to you for four years, paying all the expenses and all the insurance.”

This care and commitment are what sets the Indianapolis apart among the competition circuit. “Very simply, the uniqueness of its level and its kind are notable,” said Cho. “There is nothing of this magnitude in North America, period. This is the only one in the United States, and that’s big, because a lot of talent comes from the United States. This is really the only one here that is on this level of prestige.”

This article was sponsored by the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis.