Osaka Competition Pulls International Chamber Groups

The Arcadia Quartet, from Romania, was the first-prize winner of the 2014 Osaka International Chamber Music Competition.
The Arcadia Quartet, from Romania, won first prize at the 2014 Osaka International Chamber Music Competition.
By Robert Markow

OSAKA – Japan, according to one reliable source, has over one thousand orchestras of one description or another (full-size and fully professional, chamber, string, youth, amateur, etc.). Every year, there are also thousands of piano recitals and duo recitals to be heard around the country. But for most Japanese concertgoers, chamber music holds little interest. Hence was born in 1992 the Japan Chamber Music Foundation, which organizes the triennial Osaka International Chamber Music Competition and Festa. Its mandate is to stimulate interest and promote chamber music in the country as well as to contribute to international exchange through music.

The competition has the support of some of Japan’s leading business interests, including Sumitomo, Suntory, Asahi, and Panasonic, as well as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and media giant Yomiuri Telecasting and Yomiuri Shimbun (a daily newspaper).

The Arcadia Quartet in performance at the Osaka competition.
The Arcadia Quartet in performance at the Osaka competition.

To this day it remains Japan’s only major chamber music competition. More significantly, it has risen to become one of the world’s Top Four for string quartets alongside those of Banff, London, and Reggio Emilia. Even more significantly, it is the largest event of its kind in the world, as it embraces three independent, interlocking competitions, each with its own jury, its own set of prizes, and its own ten-city tour of Japan for the First Prize winners. And the prize money is generous: 3 million yen (US$30,000) for First Prize winners in Sections I and II; 2 million yen for First Prize in the Festa; and lesser amounts for Second and Third Prizes.

Of the total number of ensembles (171) that applied for the Eighth competition (May 13-21), the U.S. led with 33, followed by Japan (25), Russia (23), and Germany (21). Neighboring Korea, which regularly sends pianists, violinists, and singers to major competitions around the world, had but two applicants, one of which was invited. China, with its millions of music students, had but a single applicant, which was not accepted.

The countries with the highest number of ensembles chosen to attend were Japan and Germany, both with eight; the U.S. sent six.

The UK's Cavaleri Quartet took second prize. (Chris Christodoulo)
The UK’s Cavaleri Quartet took second prize. (Chris Christodoulo)

“Section I” (string quartets) and “Section II” (this year, piano trios and quartets; in alternate competitions, wind ensembles) together attracted applications from 68 ensembles from 18 countries; 21 ensembles from nine countries were invited to attend.

On the first day, all ten string quartets performed a 60-minute program each. Aside from an hour out for lunch, there were only short breaks between performances, making for a marathon 12-hour day, if you survived to the end. Yet it was already quite apparent who the top contenders were going to be. Many of the quartets performed one or the other of the two works on their Round 1 programs with impressive results, but only the Arcadia Quartet (Romania) and the Cavaleri Quartet (UK) excelled in both.

As it happened, both ensembles offered Janáček’s Second Quartet (Intimate Letters), and I for one would not have wished to declare whose interpretation was the more gripping. Arcadia also impressed from the opening notes of Haydn’s Op. 50, No. 3, with its polish and elegance. Cavaleri brought a continuously changing variety of moods and colors to Mozart’s K.421 (D  minor).

Seven quartets advanced to Round 2 two days later (Round 1 for piano trios and quartets intervened). There was a sensational, powerhouse performance of Ligeti’s murderously difficult First Quartet from the American Wasmuth Quartet, in which the precision of ensemble work could be measured in nanoseconds. But this success was undone by their all-too-similar approach to Mendelssohn’s Quartet Op. 80, a fault common to nearly every ensemble that played Mendelssohn at the competition.

Germany’s Abel Quartet brought much imagination and tasteful playing to Schumann’s First Quartet, yet spoiled the overall result with an overly aggressive Scherzo that sounded far more like Bruckner than Schumann. Likewise in Bartók’s Fourth Quartet, every musician seemed hell-bent on showing how loudly and forcefully he or she could play.

By the Final Round it was obvious that the Arcadia and Cavaleri Quartets were destined for First and Second Prize; it was merely a question of who won which. First Prize went to Arcadia, probably on the strength of its coruscating account of Beethoven’s Op. 131. (Arcadia also won the London competition in 2012.) “We focused on playing a concert, not a competition,” noted cellist Zsolt Torok.”When you feel you are being judged, you play differently.”

Akira Nishimura's String Quartet No. 2 challenged ensembles in the finals.
Akira Nishimura’s String Quartet No. 2 tested groups in the finals.

Imposed contemporary works are standard issue at many competitions. In Osaka, this took the form of a Japanese work performed in the Final Round. For string quartets, it was Akira Nishimura’s fiendishly complicated String Quartet No. 2 (Pulses of Light), composed for the Arditti Quartet in 1992.

Nishimura, one of Japan’s most distinguished living composers, was born just a few blocks from the competition venue (Izumi Hall). He commented afterwards that this was the first time he had heard a work of his performed several times in succession, but that each of the three ensembles that played it brought new and valid insights. He admired the Cavaleri’s interpretation as being the closest to his original conception, the Wasmuth Quartet’s flexibility, and the Arcadia Quartet’s emphasis on the Asian elements.

The eight piano trios and three piano quartets of Section II likewise included several outstanding ensembles, any one of which could easily have been awarded First Prize. To my ears it was Germany’s Notos Quartett that most consistently played superbly, but the jury gave First Prize to the Trio Rafale from Switzerland. Notos came in second. Notos’ perfectly blended, unified sound brought to mind the experience of a fine old burgundy – rich, warm, elegantly refined, glowing with an inner spirit that resulted in some of the finest chamber music performances I have heard anywhere.

The Trio Rafale greatly impressed in Rounds 1 and 2, particularly for the white-hot intensity it brought to Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2 and the exquisite refinement in the Ravel Trio.  But in the Final Round there was too much banging from the piano and some squeaky, out-of-tune violin playing in Schubert’s Trio No. 2.

The Japanese percussion ensemble O-Gun impressed. (Japan Chamber Music Foundation)
The Japanese percussion group O-Gun impressed. (Japan Chamber Music Foundation)

The required Japanese work in the Final Round for the piano quartet was Ichiro Nodaira’s Quatuor en hiver, a scrappy, scratchy effort that did little to advance the Notos’s cause. For the piano trios, there was Takemitsu’s lovely, gently poetic Between Tides, which received its most sensitive and lyrical reading from the Third Prize winner, the Trio Atanassov from France.

The third component is Festa, believed to be unique in the world. Festa invites groups of two to six players of any age, in any instrumental combination and in any repertory, to compete before a jury of one hundred or more music fans drawn from the public at large. As it was Yehudi Menuhin who came up with the idea, Festa’s First Prize is called the Menuhin Gold Prize.

Festa has become the big public draw of the Osaka competition, a sign that the event is realizing its goal, which, in the words of the eminent cellist and jury chairman Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi, is “to enhance the spread of cultural life and information from the Kansai (western Japan) region, thereby enabling us to make our humble contribution toward developing the world of music in Japan and beyond.” Attendance has grown significantly each year.

Festa is fun, informal, lighthearted, and yields a continuous succession of surprises. You never know what you’re going to hear at a Festa. More than 100 ensembles from 24 countries applied to come; 20 were accepted. There were folk-music ensembles from Russia bearing balalaikas and domras, saxophone quartets, a koto and viola duo, and a traditional string quartet playing untraditional repertory.

The quality ranged from the occasionally dull to the dazzling. The Menuhin Gold Prize went to Das Kleine Wien Trio – two violinists and a pianist – who served up all manner of musical tricks and treats. Silver went to a Danish woodwind quintet, Carion, which “makes visible” the music by acting it out while playing.

But the group that burned itself most deeply into this observer’s memory was a six-man percussion orchestra called O-Gun (“tribe of guys” in English translation), which won Bronze. With an array of instruments far too numerous to list (it took ten men five minutes to clear the stage afterwards), O-Gun swept listeners into its fascinating, wondrous world of percussion music which, one must admit, offers a far, far greater range of dynamics, colors, textures, nuances, visceral excitement, and sheer physical energy than any other family of instruments. “WOW!!” was all I could exclaim at the end.

Izumi Hall, home of the Osaka competition. (Tomoaki Hikawa)
Izumi Hall, home of the Osaka competition. (Tomoaki Hikawa)

Mention must be made of Izumi Hall, where the competition is held. Although seating just slightly over 800, it seems larger due to the high ceiling and shoebox design. In fact, it is a smaller model of Vienna’s Grosser Musikvereinsaal, complete with chandeliers and rows of imitation window panels lining the upper reaches of the side walls. Its acoustics are truly remarkable. They do not call attention to themselves; the hall does not have a “sound” of its own. Rather, one is aware only of the music, which completely fills the volume of the hall with total fidelity to what is happening on stage.

The barest whisper of sound is clearly audible, yet the most violent barrage from the percussion never becomes unpleasant. Even after 13 nearly continuous hours of listening, as occurred one day, one’s brain may go numb but the ears remain fresh and alert. If the Osaka competition included a prize for a hall, Izumi would certainly win.

A handsomely-produced, neatly organized program book in Japanese and English added to the luster of the event. The Ninth competition is scheduled for May 2017. I can’t wait.

Formerly a horn player in the Montreal Symphony, Robert Markow now writes program notes for that orchestra and for many others in Canada, the U.S. and Asia. He writes regularly for such classical music journals as American Record Guide, Fanfare, Symphony, Strings, The Strad, Opera, Opera News and Opera Canada.

Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi (cello and chairman, Japan)
Hamao Fujiwara (violin, Japan)
Yoshiko Kawamoto (viola, Japan)
Martin Beaver (violin, Canada)
James Dunham (viola, USA)
Arto Noras (cello, Finland)
Rainer Schmidt (violin, Germany)

The above plus pianists Pascal Rogé (France) and Toshikazu Umemoto (Japan)

1st Prize – Arcadia Quartet (Romania)
2nd Prize – Cavaleri Quartet (UK)
3rd Prize – Wasmuth Quartet (USA)

SECTION 2 PRIZE WINNERS (Piano Trios and Quartets)
1st Prize – Rafale Trio (Switzerland)
2nd Prize – Notos Quartett (Germany)
3rd Prize – Anatassov Trio (France)
Honorable mention – Adorno Trio (Germany)

FESTA PRIZE WINNERS (Miscellaneous ensembles)
Menuhin Gold Prize – Das Kleine Wien Trio (2 violins and piano, Austria)
Silver Prize – Carion (woodwind quintet, Denmark)
Bronze Prize – O-Gun (percussion ensemble, Japan)
Folkloric Music Special Prize – Trio Paraphrase (folk ensemble, Russia)