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Focus - Queen Elisabeth Competition
Young virtuoso violinists are in the spotlight as Belgium’s prestigious music event marks its 75th anniversary
The Queen Elisabeth Music Competition this year celebrates its 75th anniversary, having been launched in 1937 to realise the dream of violinist and composer Eugène Ysaÿe, court composer to the Queen and her late husband, Albert I. Ysaÿe never lived to see his dream come to fruition, but perhaps even he could not have imagined the heights it would reach. Certainly for violinists, who alternate with pianists and singers, it’s considered one of the top competitions in the world.
This year, as luck would have it, the violinists are back on centre stage for a competition that promises to be as challenging as ever, for performers but also for audiences. If you were to follow the whole event, you would have to sit through 134 performances, from solo recitals to full-blown orchestral concerts. Gargantuan though the task is, there are people who do it – and not all of them members of the distinguished jury.
This year’s competition involves 88 young candidates, aged between 18 and 30, selected from the hundreds who applied by DVD from around the world. They’ll take part in the gruelling first round of two sessions a day, which started on April 30. Their numbers will be reduced to 24 for the semi-finals, beginning on May 7. The finals, involving the 12 best players, take place at Bozar in the week beginning May 21, with the laureates announced after the performances on May 26.
There are four Belgian candidates this year, compared to two in 2009 and 10 in 2005. They are: Marc Bouchkov, born in Montpellier in France; Claire Dassesse from Brussels, the winner of last year’s Vieuxtemps competition in Verviers; Jolente De Maeyer from Antwerp on her third attempt; and Eugenia Ryabinina, born in Russia and now living in Antwerp. The field of 45 women and 43 men is dominated by Koreans, with 16 candidates, followed by the US with 13, Russia 11 and France seven. There are 29 nationalities represented, from Armenia and Argentina to Kazakhstan and Ukraine.
The competition breaks with tradition this year by holding its first rounds and semi-finals in the Flagey building, rather than the Brussels Conservatory, for the simple reason that the magnificent but dilapidated Conservatory is no longer in a fit state to receive members of the public.
The first-round candidates will be accompanied by one of the competition’s battery of accompanists. For the semi-final, each candidate plays a concerto by Mozart and a recital programme, accompanied by the Royal Chamber Orchestra of Wallonia conducted by Michael Hofstetter. The finalists will each play a concerto of their own choosing, accompanied by the Brussels Philharmonic conducted by Michel Tabachnik. This year’s mandatory work, which must be performed by all semi-finalists, is a caprice composed by Frenchman Victor Kissine, a professor at the conservatory in Mons and Brussels’ performing arts institute INSAS, and a member of the Belgian Royal Academy.
One of the most exciting new developments coinciding with this anniversary edition is the release online of the first offerings of what promises to be a huge archive of audio and video from previous years of the competition, including interviews and performances. The archive, which is free to stream, was created by archive specialists Sonuma using material provided by broadcasters RTBF and VRT. At the moment it’s far from complete, but new material will be added as time goes on.
Also to mark the 75th anniversary of the competition, the Royal Mint will strike a commemorative €2 coin bearing the profile of Queen Elisabeth and the logo of the competition. The coin, in two special numismatic qualities, can be ordered at www.europemint.be for€10 and €20. Another five million coins of normal quality will be put into circulation.
Meanwhile, record label Muso have released a four-CD box set featuring eight violin concertos to mark the 75th anniversary.
On April 25, publishers Versant Sud released a book by radio personality Nicolas Blanmont in which he goes behind the scenes of the competition, which he’s been following since 1987. The book, illustrated with 100 photos, will be published in French and Dutch. www.versant-sud.com
The number of Korean candidates is nothing new: it’s been a feature of the competition for some time, especially in the violin and piano years. The RTBF set out to explore what it calls the “Korean mystery” in a 75-minute documentary to be broadcast on May 19.
Canvas, meanwhile, has produced a documentary on the history of the competition through the eyes of some well-known finalists and winners, including Pierre-Alain Volondat (piano, 1983), Vadim Repin (violin, 1989) and Aga Winska (song, 1988). It will be broadcast on May 20 at 20.50, and repeated on June 10 at midday.
• First rounds – daily at 15.00 and 20.00 at Flagey. The 24 semi-finalists will be announced on May 5. Entrance is free for under-26s.
• Semi-finals – from May 7 daily at 15.00 and 20.00 at Flagey. The 12 finalists will be announced on May 12. Entrance is free for under-26s.
• Finals – from May 21 daily at 20.00 at Bozar. The laureates are announced on May 26, with open access to the auditorium from 23.00. Last-minute tickets are available for under-26s for finals and laureates’ concerts.
• The laureates will give recitals at La Monnaie from May 30 to June 1 and from June 6 to 8 at 12.30. The fourth-, fifth- and sixth-placed contestants will be in concert on June 11 in Bozar at 20.00, while the top three perform on June 14, also at Bozar at 20.00. That concert will be relayed live by satellite to Kinepolis cinemas in Ghent and Antwerp, as well as to Kinepolis Imagibraine in Braine l’Alleud.
Jolente De Maeyer is trying for the prizes in this competition for the third time, after going out in the first round in 2005 and making it to the semi-final in 2009. Born in 1984, she was invited at the age of 14 to study at the Yehudi Menuhin school in London, before going on to study at the Royal College of Music
Claire Dassesse comes from Brussels and studied at the Conservatory there, having enjoyed the support of the Royal Musical Chapel (closely associated with the competition) from the age of just 15. Along the way, she won several young musician trophies, including one from the French-speaking broadcaster RTBF. More recently, in October she won the Vieuxtemps competition in Verviers
Marc Bouchkov was born in Montpellier in France but now has Belgian nationality. His family was musical, and his first lesson came from his grandfather at the age of five.
A year later he was standing before an audience. After studying in Lyon, he moved to Paris, and then to Hamburg, following his teacher, Boris Garlitsky
Eugenia Ryabinina was born in 1985 in Astrakhan, in what is now Russia, into a family of musicians. Her father gave her her first violin lesson at the age of six, and four years later she was appearing in front of an orchestra. She now lives in Antwerp. She studied in Cologne, and has won two minor violin competitions before appearing here this year