What do Anne Sofie von Otter, Mitsuko Uchida, Christian Tetzlaff, Sol Gabetta and Christoph Eschenbach all have in common? Well, for one thing, all of these artists are at the top of the musical profession. But they also all got an important boost from the ARD International Music Competition.

Laureates of the 2022 ARD International Music Competition
© Daniel Delang

Since 1952, this prestigious festival, held annually in Munich and sponsored by the Bayerischer Rundfunk, has highlighted young artists on the verge of stellar international careers, recognizing musicians from different countries and instrumental backgrounds. Although the categories under consideration change yearly, they encompass vocal arts; string, brass and woodwind instruments; and solo artists, duos, trios and quartets.

The 2023 competition will be held between 28th August and 15th September, with categories including harp, double bass, viola and piano trio. Following the announcement of the winners, livestreamed concerts will take place, including one performance with the Munich Radio Orchestra, one with the Munich Chamber Orchestra, and a final performance with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.

The competition also provides opportunities for its laureates to perform chamber concerts. This year’s Winners Festival will run this spring, from 18th–30th May, in venues across Germany, featuring winners from the 2022 ARD Competition – the Chaos String Quartet, as well as flautist Yubeen Kim and pianist Junhyung Kim.

Alexandra Tirsu
© Daniel Delang

The experience can serve as a professional launching pad, according to violinist Alexandra Tirsu, who received the Third Prize in her category and won the Audience Prize for Violin at the 2021 ARD Competition. “Of course, I played lots of concerts before, but you cannot compare what it is to be a prize winner of the ARD Competition,” Tirsu says in an interview. “A lot more doors started to open for me, and very beautiful projects are coming my way now. In the two years since I won, I am still feeling the beautiful gifts that ARD gave me.”

The competition opened extraordinary doors for Yun Zeng, who won Second Prize in the French Horn category in 2021. Just 22 when he travelled to Munich from his native China to compete, Zeng was pursuing his master’s degree at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. Like many musicians at that time around the world, he saw his professional opportunities dim somewhat due to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

In fact, due to limits at the time on travel from China into Germany, Zeng had extra hoops to jump through before he could participate. “There was an extremely strict limit while we were applying for German visas,” he told me. “We had to provide ‘proof of the necessity of travel’ after being invited.” Luckily, the situation worked out and allowed Zeng to compete – and to reap the benefits of an unexpected professional opportunity.

Yun Zeng
© Daniel Delang

“The competition gave me such a lovely trip, full of touching moments,” he says. “I played with a fascinating pianist, musicians from the Munich Chamber Orchestra and the BRSO. I was interviewed briefly during the prizewinner’s gala and gave my word to the audience: ‘next time, I will be able to speak German with you’! The words were broadcast. The next day, I received an e-mail from Manfred, an 82-year-old man, who is now my German teacher. And right after the competition, I received an invitation from the hornists at Statskapelle Berlin. They asked me to play with them as a guest for a few months, because the competition proved that I have a qualified German-style horn sound. Now, they are my official colleagues.”

Both Tirsu and Zeng were born into musical families. “My parents are musicians, my grandparents are musicians, my aunties are musicians – everyone is a musician in my family, so it was a normal path for me,” says Tirsu, who hails from Moldova. “Of course, in the very beginning my parents said ‘no, no, no – she’s not going to be a musician’! But I ended up starting the violin when I was seven, and I had a really wonderful teacher when I was young, so from an early age I was in competitions in Moldova and nearby Romania.”

Like Tirsu, whose mother is also a violinist, Zeng is the son and grandson of hornists. “Some friends of mine are always saying that I was born with a mouth piece, and I can’t disagree with that,” he says. “My grandfather plays the horn, and he taught my father how to do it, and then my father did the same for me. I heard the music from my father’s students when they were having lessons in the living room – playing loudly or making many mistakes! But then I was either reacting musically with dancing hands or sleeping tightly. I started learning when I was six, and when I was eleven, I went to Beijing.”

Both musicians are veterans of the competition circuit, but they highlighted the ways that ARD differed from their past experiences. “One thing that attracted me so much was the program that was so unusual to other competitions,” Tirsu says. “The finals were very, very challenging. They gave us two concertos that are not very common, the Hindemith and the Frank Martin violin concertos, which are probably among the rarest choices for a violinist. We are so used to playing Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Sibelius! And then having to play these unfamiliar pieces by heart was challenging, and there were selections from other rounds that were filled with other unique choices. I played the Enescu Third Violin Sonata, which has become one of my favorite pieces, and now I am asked to play this sonata very often.”

Alexandra Tirsu performs Hindemith’s Violin Concerto with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.

Zeng praised the camaraderie among the musicians who embarked on the Winners Festival tour. The lineup included Tirsu; Nika Melnikova and Olesia Morozova of the Melnikova-Morozova Duo, who won second prize in the piano duo section; and Friedrich Thiele, who took second prize in the cello section at the 2019 competition.

“When I was very young, I saw a documentary which captured the scene of Zimmermann, Mehta, Du Pre, Perlman and Barenboim backstage together,” he says. “Since that moment, I was always longing to set myself into a similar image. I made it! The tour with Alexandra, Olesia, Nika, Friedrich and the fantastic ARD Competition crew was a huge joy. We played as various combinations. As the youngest in the group, I learned a lot from them in terms of musical ideas, the possibilities of their instruments, living hints in Europe and Russia, and how to learn the language as well as Alexandra! The whole tour was so professionally organized by the ARD Competition team. Every concert was a full house. That was a big encouragement for us young musicians.”

“Competitions can sometimes feel so competitive and dry, like you cannot even speak to people because everyone is in competition mode,” Tirsu tells me. “The atmosphere at ARD was so friendly in comparison. I had a lot of friends there in the violin section, and we had a great time. We kept supporting each other even as we were competing against each other. It taught me a lot. In the finals, I was with Seiji Okamoto and Dmitry Smirnov. Dmitry has been my friend for many years, and Seiji and I created a wonderful connection. In the moment when we were waiting for the results, seconds before they were announced, we were holding each other’s hands!”

Yun Zeng performs Richard Strauss’ Horn Concerto no. 2.

In twenty years – or perhaps even sooner – names like Alexandra Tirsu and Yun Zeng will likely be spoken with the same reverence that today greets ARD laureates from decades ago. But it’s clear that the experience encompasses more than merely winning a prize. Zeng summed it up succinctly: “For a musician, it is always a touching moment when we are reminded that we can do everything with music: make a living, make friends, travel, communicate with people. I gained these all during the competition and the tour.”

The Festival of ARD Prize Winners runs from 18th–30th May, in venues across southern Germany. The 2023 ARD International Music Competition runs from 28th August to 15th September in Munich.

This article was sponsored by ARD International Music Competition.