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ARCHIVE: Ima Hogg 2014

Originally published 6/1/2014

Last evening I heard the finals of the Ima Hogg Competition, with the Houston Symphony at Stude Concert Hall. This is a major competition, with a top prize of $25,000 and a performance with the HSO at Jones Hall. The four finalists were selected from a field of ten. As has been the case in recent years, there were a marimba player, a clarinetist, a pianist and a string player–this year a cellist instead of a violinist. Each of the four young musicians was worthy of their achieved recognition, but for widely varying reasons. The judges’ decision may not have been shared by all in attendance, but was less controversial than in some competitions. To begin, the cellist, Fedor Amosov, was voted the audience favorite, yet was awarded fourth place. His Rococo Variations reminded me of the interpretation given by Johannes Moser with the Houston Symphony just last April. This is an emerging “free” approach filled with extremes of tempi, molto rubato, and a cursory view of dynamics and articulation. The result plays well with those who listen with their eyes, but irritates those who value a more structured and disciplined interpretation. All that was missing was the red socks.

The third place winner was marimbist Maria Chiebus, from Miami, who played a concerto by Danish composer Anders Koppel. He founded a rock band, has a jazz trio, and has composed for many movies and theatrical productions. That DNA is a part of his music. Chiebus gave a polished and thoughtful interpretation, showing excellent preparation and execution. She made full use of every available sound from her instrument, which even at the highest possible level of expertise cannot match the subtleties of articulation and color or concept of line that are possible from the three competing instruments.

The second place winner was the pianist, Yekwon Sunwoo, a graduate of Curtis and Juilliard and currently at Mannes. One could say his was the most “professional” performance of the day. He played with extraordinary accuracy, working with the orchestra in passages of close rhythmic tolerances and playing expressively in the famous inverted theme slow variation. I enjoyed his crystalline sound, which had none of the bombast one often hears from young pianists eager to impress. While his approach was certainly not small scale, I sense he is a marvelous chamber musician. His main disadvantage may be comparisons to Jackie Parker, who recently performed the piece with the Shepherd School Symphony Orchestra, and whose interpretation is virtually without equal.

The first place winner, clarinetist Lin Ma, is a student at the Shepherd School and a member of said SSSO. I have often admired his playing in the orchestra, and was happy to hear him play as soloist. He produces a particularly beautiful sound, which can be bright and transparent or dark and covered. A wonderful quality of the clarinet is the ability to play very softly and with an extended line. It is also capable of virtuosic display. Lin’s rapid passagework was brilliant and his octave interpolations were seamless. What made him stand out was his total immersion in the musical moment, and how he played from the heart but never lost touch with the structure of the piece. This hot-wired connection between heart and brain gave Weber’s concerto refound elegance and relevance. The operatic qualities inherent in the piece can easily become a caricature of itself if not played sincerely and elegantly, as did Lin. In this regard, the Houston Symphony, led by Hugh Wolf, provided first-class support. From the opening of the Weber concerto, with its wonderfully played violin section passagework, to the perfectly timed accompaniment during the second movement, through solo cello passages beautifully played by Brinton Smith, the HSO offered an outstanding accompaniment. This was the same throughout all four concerti, and is no small feat given very limited rehearsal time. Bravo to all!

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