Competitions are some of the most intriguing animals in the Zoo of Classical Music. When you’re going to a concert, you always have a slight sense of looking through the glass window. But at a competition, when you’re accompanying the artists through several stressful rounds, it feels like you’re actually in the cage with the lions. At this point, you are sitting next to the young artist on an emotional rollercoaster, all the time hoping that he or she isn’t being ripped apart by her own nerves or the jury or both. Concerts convey big emotions like sadness and happiness through the musical score. Competitions do the same, of course, but with the added elements of raw fear, greed, wrath, pride, and heartfelt relief. And the artists are doing more than just interpreting these feelings through music: they are living them – together with their friends, families, and other sympathetic music enthusiasts like yourself.

Prizewinners of the 66th ARD Music Competition 2017 © Daniel Delang
Prizewinners of the 66th ARD Music Competition 2017
© Daniel Delang

Within the worldwide competition scene, the ARD music competition is not just intriguing, but also quite unique as it displays more instruments and chamber music combinations than any other competition on this level. Last year, they featured the double bass along with horn, harp, and string quartet. 2017, oboe and guitar stood next to piano and the violin. A record number of 640 applicants were preselected by patient pre-Jurors. In the case of the Violin competition, they had to listen to the same Haydn Sonata over and over again, boiling the applicants down to 46 candidates. On August 28th, the 1st round began under the direction of a Jury including grand masters of the violin like Benjamin Schmid, Isabelle van Keulen and Tasmin Little as well as acclaimed teachers like Mauricio Fuks who chaired this year’s Violin Jury.

The musical and technical quality of all candidates was truly stunning and many listeners noted that old prejudices did no longer hold true: Europeans played on the same technical level as their Asian counterparts and Asian musicians showed as much passion and feelings as any Western artist. Yet, the semi-finals turned out to be a pan-European championship with six candidates from Bulgaria, France, Latvia, Italy, and Germany (2x) who performed six Mozart concertos with orchestra (KV218 even twice) and six world premieres of a piece by Avner Dorman (*1975) commissioned by the ARD competition and called simply For Solo Violin. It is a tradition of the ARD competition to commission such a piece for the semifinals of any instrument and it became evident how valuable this rule is for reaching a fair verdict.

Andrea Obiso playing Mozart's Violin Concerto in G major at the Semi-final of the competition:

The most famous candidate of this year’s competition, Fedor Rudin (France), clearly fell short of his technical brilliance which he showed in previous competitions - listen to his Paganini Caprice No. 5 at the 2015 Singapore competition for example. There was the elegant yet untouchable und untouching Liya Petrova (Bulgaria), and the equally elegant but too controlled Lorenz Chen from Germany. And there were the three finalists: The angel-like Kristine Balanas from Latvia with her noble tone who seemed to have time-travelled from the era of Dinu Lipatti. She won the 3rd prize in the end. Andrea Obiso from Italy received a 2nd prize for his almost impeccable technique and his unconventional, immensely transparent and direct way of music-making. In the final Prokofiev Concerto No. 1 in D Major, Matador-like Obiso was mostly convincing except in some slower passages which require more subtle and mysterious shades. For the Dorman piece, however, this was just right and nobody played this piece as entertaining as Andrea which won him the special prize for the commissioned piece. Sarah Christian also won the 2nd price and the special Audience prize. And she deserved it without the slightest doubt. Sarah is yet another magnificent talent from the extended Munich area, which turns out to be a remarkable nest of young talented female violinists like Julia Fischer, Arabella Steinbacher, Lena Neudauer, and Veronika Eberle, to name just a few. Sarah Christian stands beside them from now on.

Sarah Christian playing Prokofiev's Violion Concerto No. 1 at the Final of the competition:

Two days after the finals, I had the pleasure to interview Andrea and Sarah in Munich.

First of all, congratulations! How do you feel today, two days after having won this magnificent prize?

SC: I am still not completely relaxed. It is hard to let this energy and tension go. Also, I have to take care of my violin, it has to be readjusted. Competitions like this are not just stressful for us but also for our instruments. Of course, I threw a big party after the finals, many friends were there! But having won the prize does not feel real yet, I still have to digest it.

What did you think about the ARD-competition as compared to other competitions you participated in?

SC: I had a great time and felt very welcome. The audience was very nice and open-minded, for instance when we played contemporary pieces. In every round, you had to play a piece from the 20th century. This is usually quite demanding for the audience and you can sense that. Here in Munich, however, the audience made me feel very comfortable and it was easier to play, more like a concert than a competition.

Andrea Obiso © Daniel Delang
Andrea Obiso
© Daniel Delang

AO: I completely agree, I also felt very welcome here and it did not feel like a competition at all. From the second round onwards every concert was fully sold out. I thought ‘Wow, an Italian playing and so many people coming’. Really wonderful! After the last performance, I thought to myself: ‘Is this already over? What am I going to do tomorrow?’ It was all so fast and dense, we had to change our repertoire every two days and just had a few hours to prepare for the next round. I came from a hard month in France with a lot of chamber music, completely different pieces, and will now go on a tour with yet another repertoire. But hey, this is a great training for us, that’s how our life as a professional musician will look like. And yes I am exhausted. But also very happy!

Do you play differently in a competition than in a “normal” concert?

AO: No, not at all. Although some fellow musicians think a lot about tactics in competitions and try to anticipate what the Jury wants to hear rather than what they want to express, I don’t think you should do that. I always want to be the same, from breakfast to dressing room to the stage: transparent and honest.

SC: The only way to convince, is to be yourself. Yet, as paradoxical as this might sound, being yourself in music-making means to step back as a person. I have to put in front of myself what I want express and convey it through the music. Obviously, everybody who participates in the ARD-competition is able to play the violin. So what sticks is what you want to express without taking yourself too seriously. What helped me as well, like Andrea, was the fact that as a concertmaster of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie, I had a packed season before the competition and it will be very busy afterwards. So I literally had no time to concentrate too much on the competition. It was one very important point in my busy calendar, but not the only one.

Winning the 2nd prize in the ARD competition is like winning the 1st prize in most other competitions. Will you ever participate in another competition although a crescendo is hardly possible anymore?

Sarah Christian © Daniel Delang
Sarah Christian
© Daniel Delang

SC: This was my last competition. I did a lot of them. Although I’m glad that this chapter is closed, it was great to focus on a goal and tackle all the unforeseen circumstances. You grow a lot in competitions so I would recommend everybody to do it, but I will concentrate on my professional career now.

AO: Being 4 years younger than Sarah, this is only my 3rd competition, so I am actually just starting. I very much respect what Sarah has achieved and I also want to grow through competitions as much as she did. But one should not forget, that competitions are like Bingo: Coincidence and luck play an important role.

In the last few decades, interpreting classical music has become incredibly diverse. Playing Bach on modern instruments with modern strings and bows sounds so much different from playing the same piece on period instruments in a historically informed performance practice. And of course you can find everything in-between. In light of this diversity, how can a Jury manage to still find a consensus on who delivers the best interpretation of a certain piece?

AO: I always like condensing this big question into a very small idea: Be convincing. That’s the reason why a Jury should not think too much about details like ‘How wide or narrow should the vibrato be in this passage etc.’ That’s also the reason why I actually don’t like competitions so much, because in competitions the Jury judges on the performer only. Yet, for me the ultimate goal is not to present myself but to present the composition. This is what I do: I use my entire body to express the composer’s intention, I throw in all my cards at once, the good and the bad ones. If I make mistakes, so be it, better than not taking the risk!

With live streaming and social media, will we need analogue competitions in the future?

SC: Musicians will always need to train and prepare through competitions, but also masterclasses and ultimately concerts. I don’t know how competitions will look like in 50 years, but as for social media, right now many debates are very superficial and commercially driven rather than focusing on the music. I am confident however that the discussions will become more artistic again.

AO: Competitions also develop over time. Maybe the Tchaikovsky and Sibelius competitions are still the huge institutions they used to be but the Paganini competition for instance is not anymore what it was when Accardo won. And there are many fine competitions in Asia which we don’t know so much about. Think about Sendai in Japan. I believe there will be competitions for many years to come.

You mentioned Asia. Almost half of the 640 applications to this year’s ARD competition came from Asia. Some people say that Asian performers are mere music machines. What’s your opinion on this?

AO: This is not true. Asia has a tradition of Western music making of its own, like the Suzuki violin school in Japan. But of course, there are a lot of automatic mechanical processes that have to be developed especially during early childhood. Nonetheless, independently of Asia versus the West: Some people focus so much on practicing that they forget about their personal development. I firmly believe that every young musician should go out into the world, experience other societies, cultures and lifestyles and grow on them. This is the only way to mature – also musically.

What about your own personal development? How was your childhood? Did you have one?

SC: I had a great childhood! I stem from a musical family, my mother being a pianist and my father a violinist, my brother plays the trumpet. My first childhood memories were chamber music evenings at our home with other musicians. I begged my parents to be allowed to stay up late because I also wanted to hear the conversations after the music making. These artists were so full of joy and made great jokes, it was the fun time! But I also ballet-danced and loved horses, like my classmates really. Well, of course I was the crazy girl with the violin, but apart from that everything was normal. Things changed when I flew the nest at the age of 16 and started studying. Yet, I never questioned that I wanted to become a musician. There was a point when I had to decide between the Piano and the Violin but also this decision came very naturally.

AO: Actually, my childhood in Palermo (Sicily) was very similar. Ok, I did not dance ballet, but apart from that: My mother is a pianist and my father is a violinist (laughing). So really like Sarah: I loved listening to my parents rehearsing Respighi, Franck, Brahms, and Grieg Sonatas and so on since I was 4 years old. I remember that one Christmas, my father wanted to install the Christmas tree and prepare the Christmas gifts. But I begged my parents to play the end of Respighi Sonata again and again, so I just forgot about the gifts. Quite a normal childhood really.

Andrea, is there an Italian way of playing the Violin?

AO: I don’t think that I have already reached the level of Italy’s all-time greats like Zino Francescatti or Salvatore Accardo but I look up to them. Do they have a distinct Italian way of playing? Maybe when they play Paganini, but as for myself, when I play Prokofiew like in the finals, I try not to play it Italian or Obiso-style, but rather like Prokofiew, no more and no less.

Are there any negative sides about being a professional musician?

SC: When you have to travel so much that you cannot spend physical time with your friends and family anymore, that’s the hard part.

AO: I have nothing to add except that of course, travelling so much is also a great privilege which not many people have.

If you had two lives to live, what would you be in your second life?

SC: I am interested a lot in nature, especially medicine, so I would probably be a doctor in my second life.

AO: I used to play a lot of Ping Pong, I liked especially this gesture (makes a thetralic smash movement in the air). But seriously, I also studied Sociology so I would most probably be a Sociologist or Anthropologist in my second life. The human brain is so fascinating!

And what do you do in your first life’s sparetime?

SC: I love mountaineering and going out into nature and of course spending time with my friends.

AO: Me too, I love spending time with my friends. Mostly away from the bustling city life, on a lonely terrace. Also, I go fishing at night whenever I can.

After the competition, I saw you standing alone on the stage completely introverted just taking in the moment.

AO: It might not seem like that but I am a very reflexive person.

Will the ARD-competition prize change your life?

SC: I have a great musical life already including the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie and a lot of wonderful chamber music. But I would like to further develop my solo career so the prize might help with that. But whatever happens, I couldn’t be happier right now!

Imagine that in 50 years, you are sitting in front of a fireplace together with family and friends, maybe your grandchildren. What will you tell them when they ask you about the greatest stories of your musical life?

AO: Music already changed me so much also depending on the place where I was and on the people I shared Music with. I am excited to see how I will grow further as part of all these interesting societies and cultures all over the world.

SC: The most beautiful memories of my musical life now and in the future are not related to places or certain stages or success stories like winning a competition – although the ARD competition was a great experience as I said before. Yet, I am convinced that at the end of a career in music, what you will remember are magically profound moments and the people you shared them with. When my father was dying two years ago, I went to the palliative care unit and played Mozart Sonatas together with my mom. Of course, I was a mess and I didn’t play perfectly. But I remember all these terminally ill people and what this concert meant to them. That’s what it is all about…


This article was sponsored by ARD International Music Competition, whose 67th edition runs from 3rd to 21st September 2018.