Like many top-flight musicians, violinist Linus Roth entered a series of competitions on his way to an international career, but whether or not he won the top prize, he always came away feeling perturbed at the structure of the contests. Now, as the new artistic director of the International Violin Competition Leopold Mozart, he is taking the chance to make ground-breaking changes to the world of competitive music-making.

Linus Roth © Dan Carabas
Linus Roth
© Dan Carabas

Next year will mark the 300th anniversary of the birth of Leopold Mozart in Augsburg, Germany, and the tenth competition to bear the name of Wolfgang Amadeus’s father and teacher. It will also feature several new rules devised by Roth, chief among them that past or present students of jury members will be ineligible to enter. 

“This sounds like the most obvious thing to people who are not musicians,” said Roth, “but this does not happen in our world. This was very disturbing for me, because even if the winner was the best player and deserved the prize, as a student of one of the jury, the player loses his or her credibility, as do the jury members and the competition."

“All this comes from my own experience. If I did not win the first prize I was always modest enough to accept that maybe the other player was better than me, but still, I found it not right, not fair [that they were a pupil of a juror]. So I have made this rule and already the classical music world seems pleased that finally somebody is doing something about it.” He is also barring his own students from entering, even though he will not be sitting on the jury.

Roth strongly believes that the competition should be about more than winning the €20.000 first prize. It should be an enriching experience, preparing contestants for the real life of the regular performer. To help realise this he has changed the composition of the jury: it will still contain prominent violinists, but it will also feature other musicians and major figures from the industry. 

“Of course, too many students would be excluded if we had only violinists on the panel, but I want to find not only a great violinist but a great musician,” he said. He doesn’t want a jury that gets hung up on violin technique, so he has included viola player Nils Mönkemeyer and cellists Christian Poltéra and Danjulo Ishizaka, along with John Gilhooly, director at London’s Wigmore Hall, and Sabine Frank from HarrisonParrott, the artists’ management company.  

“If you win first prize at a competition but only violinists hear you, and not, say, the director of a major concert hall, that’s not going to help you much in your career. I wanted everybody to be able to play in front of people from the industry as well as great musicians.”

He has also introduced another jury, made up of the prominent critics Remy Frank of Pizzicato, Jens F. Laurson of the International Affairs Forum, and Anna Picard of the London Times. They will vote separately from the main jury and award their own prize. Roth points out that the critics’ vote may not go in the same direction as the main jury. “They might choose somebody who doesn’t even make it to the final,” he said. “Now that would be interesting.”

His passion for finding a fully-rounded winner also extends to new rules in the second round chamber music section. Each violinist will have 20 to 30 minutes to rehearse the first movement of the Mendelssohn D minor piano trio with a pianist and cellist they have never met. The jury will evaluate the contestant’s interaction with the other musicians and the degree to which they cope with the time pressure.

“I got a bit inspired by conducting competitions,” said Roth. “The rehearsal for a conductor is even more important than the performance. You have to have the talent to communicate with other people when you rehearse. This is the real life of the musician. If I play at a festival I often have two hours to prepare an entire piano trio and maybe one more hour before the performance and I’ve never met the other two before. I come across competition winners who are amazing players but you can’t have a conversation with them because they practise 10 hours a day. This is not enough.”

And language skills? “These days if you don’t speak a few words of English you are not really going to be able to operate. English is our common language – but having said that you can actually have a rehearsal purely using musical terms to rehearse: music is a language in itself.”

Roth wanted a much more intense competition, so he has reduced the number of participants from approximately 50 to 24, and cut the competition from four rounds to three, taking three days off its duration.

Entrants, aged between 15 and 29, must have their applications in by 7 December this year. They are required to include an audiovisual recording of themselves, made in the past year and unedited, in which they play from memory and are visible at all times. They can play one of the fugas from one of J.S. Bach’s sonatas for solo violin, or the Ciaccona from Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004. Additionally, they must record themselves playing Paganini’s Capriccio for Solo Violin, No. 24 and Mozart’s Rondo in C major K 373.

If they get through to the first round, they can repeat some of their recorded pieces and then perform an eight-minute solo piece specially commissioned for the competition from Polish composer Elżbieta Sikora, which will include electronics. “On stage we will provide a button on the floor for the soloist to start the electronic part. It’s quite an issue to be tackled: again this is an example of the sort of things they may have to master in real life.”

Twelve of the 24 will go on to the second round, where they will combine their chamber music performance with a 40-minute programme of their own choice, either solo or with piano accompaniment – an opportunity to show off their individual strengths.

Only three will be selected to compete in the final, where they must play one of the five Mozart violin concertos and one of the great warhorse concertos by Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius or Shostakovich, accompanied by the Munich Radio Orchestra. The concert will be broadcast live on Bavarian Radio and livestreamed on the internet. “It is quite a tough final,” says Roth “and contestants have to be ready to perform the Mozart and the romantic violin concerto on the same day, which is truly a great challenge.” 

He is particularly pleased that Benjamin Schmid, who won the Leopold Mozart competition in 1991, and whom he describes as “one of our great classical violinists” has agreed not only to chair the jury but also to play the Beethoven concerto in the opening concert. And Roth is deeply proud that Salvatore Accardo, one of the finest violinists of his generation, has agreed to be honorary president of the competition. “Not only has he given his name but he will present the prizes (€20.000, €12.000 and €9.000, plus concert engagements) and he will also give masterclasses for those participants who do not make it into the final round. I want everyone to get something out of this competition. I want them to go home feeling that it enriched them as a performer, even if they did not win a prize.”

 

This article was sponsored by the Leopold-Mozart-Kuratorium e.V.