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The 29th annual Klein Competition announces its plans and honors its last winner

Once again San Francisco State University will be hosting the annual Irving M. Klein International String Competition next month. Run by Mitchell Sardou Klein, who has served as director since 1985, this has become a career-making event for virtuoso string performers between the ages of 15 and 23; and this year is distinguished by the fact that seven of the eight semifinalists are still in high school. The grand prize includes not only a monetary award but also both concerto and recital performance opportunities. One of the latter is a slot in the Noontime Concerts™ schedule. This year that recital coincided with the announcement of the semifinalists for next month’s competition.

Last year Youjin Lee won the grand prize at the age of seventeen. She moved from her native South Korea to Los Angeles two years ago and has been studying with Danielle Belen at the Colburn Conservatory of Music. The program for today’s recital at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral seems to have been selected to present the diversity of her repertoire, beginning with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, proceeding to Maurice Ravel, and concluding with a “programmed encore selection” by Jenő Hubay. Lee’s accompanist was pianist Hsin-I Huang.

The Mozart composition was the K. 301 sonata in two movements, one of four sonatas he wrote while in Mannheim in 1778. In his early twenties at that time, Mozart had definitely progressed beyond the prodigy stage and was probably in Mannheim in search of either an employer or a generous patron. K. 301 is not a particularly virtuoso piece for violin soloist. Rather it is an elegantly conceived conversation in which violin and piano are equal parties. Lee both recognized and honored this conception and always knew how to balance her part in the conversation without ever overshadowing Huang.

While violin and piano are also pretty much on the same level in Ravel’s G major sonata, the balance in this case was less successful. In fairness to Lee, however, this seemed primarily because Huang was being too subdued. She never seemed to appreciate just how much her part contributed to Ravel’s thematic lexicon. As a result, there was far less sense of this sonata as a give-and-take exchange than there had been in K. 301.

Lee, on the other hand, seemed to have a solid command of how the move from Mozart to Ravel required a major shift in rhetorical stance. Ravel may not quite have captured the “blues” nature of the second movement, whose tempo marking in “Blues. Moderato;” but Lee delivered her melody lines with a portamento that evoked some of the “jazz blues” (as opposed to “Delta blues”) singers of the past, such as Bessie Smith. Her vigorous approach to strumming her instrument also indicated some awareness of the indigenous roots that Ravel was trying (not always successfully) to capture.

This was followed by a dynamite account of the closing “Perpetuum mobile” movement (one of the few pieces of that genre that begins with a “warm-up”). In this case Lee may even have been trying to coax a bit more energy from Huang. In the absence of that energy, however, she still had the power to sustain the movement on her own terms.

The “programmed encore” was Hubay’s fantasy on themes from Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen. This is one of those outlandish displays of virtuosity that is 98.44% panache. Lee was definitely up to the task and was never shy in her spirited approach, and Huang provided her with all the necessary accompaniment support. The music was clearly more about the violin than about the seductive gypsy; but, taken on its own terms, it was a real treat.

As was the case last year, the public events for the 29th annual Klein competition will involve semifinal recitals running from 10 a.m. through 4 p.m. on Saturday, June 7, followed by performances by the finalists between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Sunday, June 8. This year’s semifinalists are as follows:

  • Zlatomir Fung, 15, cellist. He studies with Richard Aaron and attends Oak Meadow School in Brattleboro, Vermont.
  • Luke Hsu, 23, violinist. He studies with Donald Weilerstein at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston.
  • Kyumin Park, 17, violinist. He studies with Kowoon Yang and attends Kyunghee University in Seoul, South Korea.
  • Charles Seo, 18, cellist. He studies with Brinton Avril Smith and attends High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Houston.
  • Lauren Siess, 17, violist. She studies with Helen Callus and attends Colburn School Young Artists Academy in Los Angeles.
  • Jeremy Tai, 15, cellist. He studies with Jonathan Koh and attends St. Francis High School in Mountain View.
  • Lucie Ticho, 16, cellist. She studies with Tanya Carey and attends Hinsdale Central High School in Hinsdale, Illinois.
  • Angela Wee, 17, violinist. She studies with Masao Kawasaki and attends The Juilliard School’s Pre-College Division in New York.

As was the case last year, each semifinalist must play an unaccompanied work of Johann Sebastian Bach, movements from notable concertos, and a new commissioned composition. That piece has been prepared for the occasion this year by Mark Volkert, Assistant Concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony. In the final round the artists must perform additional portions of their selected concerto and one major sonata movement.

The grand prize, the Marvin T. Tepperman Memorial Award, is valued at $13,000. It also includes commitments for soloist engagements with the Santa Cruz Symphony and the Peninsula Symphony Orchestra, the Gualala Arts Chamber Music Series, Music in the Vineyards (in Napa Valley), and Noontime Concerts™. The Elaine Klein Award goes to second place and is valued at $5,000. It includes an appearance at the San Jose Chamber Orchestra. The Alice Anne Roberts Memorial Award goes to third place and is $2,500. The Thomas Barry and Harry Adams Memorial awards go to two fourth-place finishers and include $1,250 each. $750 will go to every semifinalists that is not a prize-winner. There will also be special non-cash awards for the best performance of the commissioned composition and for the Bach solo.

All events will take place in Knuth Hall in the Creative Arts Building on the campus of San Francisco State University (1600 Holloway Avenue at 19th Avenue). A weekend pass for admission to all events will be $20 if purchased in advance and $25 at the door. The semifinalist performances will take place between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. on Saturday, June 7. Admission will be $10 for the general public ($8 if purchased in advance), $5 for seniors ($4 if purchased in advance), and free for students. The finalist’s performances will take place between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Sunday, June 8. For this concert admission will be $20 for the general public ($16 if purchased in advance) and $10 for students, youth, and seniors ($8 if purchased in advance). Further information may be obtained at 415-338-2467 or by visiting the Creative Arts Web page for the Klein Competition, which includes a hyperlink for purchasing tickets in advance.

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