OSAKA — Thirty-three ensembles, 98 musicians, and, by rough estimate, nearly 50 hours of music packed into eight days (May 12-19): That’s what constituted the Osaka International Chamber Music Competition and Festa 2023. Reputedly the largest competition of its kind in the world, it comprises three concurrent, independent competitions, each with its own jury, set of prizes, and follow-up tour of Japan for the first-prize winners.
The three components are string quartets (Section 1), piano trios and quartets (Section 2, though in alternate competition years Section 2 is wind ensembles), and a unique event called Festa (more on this later). Section 1 competitors underwent four rounds, Section 2 three rounds, and Festa two. The prize money was 2.5 million yen ($18,000) for the first-prize winners in Sections 1 and 2, 1.2 million ($8,700) for the second-prize winners, 800,000 yen ($6,000) for third. Winners in the five Festa categories totaled more than 3 million yen ($22,000). There were assorted smaller, specialized prizes as well.
The competition enjoys the support of big business (Suntory, Sumitomo, Yomiuri Shimbun, Daikin, Toshiba, etc.) and several governmental agencies including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This triennial event began in 1993 and continued in unbroken succession, including the year (2011) when the Fukushima earthquake and resulting threat of radiation poisoning kept hundreds of thousands of visitors away from Japan. But the Covid-19 pandemic dealt a mortal blow to that unbroken succession, postponing for three years what would have been the 10th competition. Hence, the organizers decided to designate the 2023 competition not by a chronological number (the 10th? the 11th?), but by the year. Regardless of its title, it was an event to remember.
At each of the four competitions I have attended (2011, 2014, 2017, 2023), word went out that the standard was always higher than the year before. This time was no different. Beyond technical polish and virtuosic flair, there were musical maturity and profound understanding of structure in many, if not most of the performances. Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi, chairman of the competition jury, just about wrung his hands in frustration that more of the 161 ensembles from 34 countries that applied could not have been accepted. Yawara Watanabe, one of Japan’s leading music critics, a chamber-music aficionado who has attended every Osaka competition since the first, and who regularly travels the world to hear competitions elsewhere, declared that the level of piano trios and quartets in Osaka this year was the highest anywhere “since the beginning of time.” I myself did not envy the jury’s duty to eliminate contestants in each round. Nearly all deserved prizes.
The competition swung into gear May 12 with Round 1 for string quartets. There were two quartets each from the U.S. (Terra and Rasa), China, Germany, and Japan, plus one from Switzerland and one from Italy. All but one (the Italian Indaco) included at least one Asian member, and five were exclusively Asian, including the Germany-based Ast Quartet. Three quartets were all women, but there was no all-male quartet. Each played one of Beethoven’s Op. 18 quartets plus Webern’s Five Movements Op. 5. (Kurtág’s Quartet was also a possible choice but had no takers.) Every quartet managed to find a different approach to the Webern movements. The Rasa Quartet emphasized its romantic elements, the Hono Quartet dug in and brought forth fire and brimstone, and the Malion Quartet found dark mystery in the slower, quiet movements. Ten times was not too many to hear this fascinating music.
For Beethoven, three ensembles chose the F major Quartet (No. 1) and no fewer than five the C minor Quartet (No. 4). In the latter cases, all tried too hard to emphasize the music’s dramatic aspects, and most came off demonstrating more force than power. The best Beethoven, to my mind, came from the Moser Quartet (Switzerland) and the Vivace Quartet (China). The Moser — all women, all beautifully gowned (a point worth mentioning as nearly everyone else in Sections I and II wore black), and all standing except the cellist — delivered a thoroughly polished account of the F major Quartet that stood out particularly for unified, homogeneous sound and interpretive approach. The Vivace Quartet, despite its uniquely bright, almost brittle sound, proved a highly unified ensemble that engaged the listener with energy and rhythmic precision. Both the Moser and the Vivace were among the eight quartets to advance to Round 2, but neither made it to Round 3.
The next day was devoted to Round 1 for piano trios and quartets. Eleven ensembles played from 10 in the morning until nearly eight at night — a marathon event equivalent to hearing two complete Wagner operas back-to-back. Nine of the 11 ensembles were piano trios, not surprisingly, as established piano trios are far more numerous than quartets. Nine came from Europe, five from Germany alone. The required repertory consisted of something by Mozart, Haydn, or Beethoven (Op. 16), plus music of either Rihm (Fremde Szene I or III), Carter (Epigrams), Hosokawa (Trio), or Schnittke (Quartet). Without exception, the modern works received performances ranging from excellent to sensational, and a couple could even be called electrifying.
The standard for the classical repertoire was consistently higher than for the string quartets, and there was not one ensemble that I felt did not deserve to advance to Round 2. The real standouts were the Albéniz (Holland) and Michelangeli (Germany) Trios. Unaccountably, the former was one of the four groups not chosen to advance — a big disappointment to many. Several pianists by themselves deserved mention, including those of the Michelangeli Trio (Riccardo Gagliardi), Capybara Quartet (Mario Häring), Albéniz Trio (Javier Rameix), and Trio E.T.A. (Till Hoffmann), all of whom could easily pursue solo careers if they chose to do so. “E.T.A.,” incidentally, refers not to Estimated Time of Arrival but to the famous German author.
Round 2 for string quartets proved to be another marathon day. Eight quartets competed for the five spots that would constitute Round 3. Each quartet performed for about an hour, resulting in an endurance test for even the most dedicated music lover. Yet the overall impression of the day’s work was the extraordinarily high level of performance. All eight quartets could easily have qualified for advancement.
In Round 3, held two days later, five quartets competed for three spots in the fourth and final round, for which the jury chose those from Japan (Hono), Italy (Indaco), and the U.S. (Terra). These were now slated to win First, Second, and Third Prizes; it remained only for the jury to decide how to rank them. The required music for Round 3 was one of Beethoven’s middle-period quartets plus a required Japanese work. In Round 3, the Indaco and Hono Quartets both impressed me as First Prize material. A sheen of beautiful sound, immaculate execution, perfection of balance, and an overall sense of refinement surrounded the playing of Quartetto Indaco, which also showed itself capable of projecting even the faintest trace of sound without effort and putting forth great volumes of sound with never a trace of ugliness. The Hono Quartet distinguished itself with stark contrasts of loud and soft, a highly expressive approach, and absolute perfection in technical matters. It was scarcely surprising that these became the First (Indaco) and Second (Hono) Prize winners two days hence with more Beethoven (choice of any late quartet) or, in the case of Quartetto Indaco, Schubert’s final quartet (G major), marking the first time First Prize was won with Schubert, not Beethoven.
A few words about the required Japanese work, Boids Again: It was composed by Misato Mochizuki (b. 1969) for the 2020 competition, but since this competition never happened, the Kronos Quartet ended up giving the world premiere in Osaka last year. The title refers to the phenomenon by which formations of birds (bird-oids) manage to fly in close proximity to each other, even in a multitude of directions, simultaneously without bumping into each other. (It does not attempt to duplicate how some New Yorkers pronounce the word “birds”!) Mochizuki’s approach was to apply this activity to string-quartet writing, resulting in a cleverly designed piece that was fun to hear but left one wondering if computer-generated sounds might have been just as effective. The quartet members did not so much interact as each go his or her own way, with textured layering effects providing the primary source of interest. Though the score indicates 4/4 meter, there was no pulse to the music. What we heard were the simulated peeps and cheeps of an aviary, the wails and whoops of marsh birds, and the quacks and grunts of large birds of prey. At six to seven minutes, it was just the right length to avoid tedium. To my ears, there was not sufficient difference in performances by the five quartets to render judgment. The composer herself is on record as saying that she does not expect the musicians to adhere too closely to the printed score.
Round 2 for piano trios and quartets was a truly exhilarating experience. Seven ensembles — six trios and one quartet — gave one extraordinary performance after another, each ensemble worthy of at least a second, if not a first, prize. The jury spent more time than usual deliberating before announcing the three that would compete in the final round: two from Germany (the Michelangeli Trio and Capybara Quartet), and one from France (Trio Pantoum). The Pantoum gave a ravishing account of the Ravel Trio (the ensemble’s name comes from the title of Ravel’s second movement), bringing a world of subtle hues and dynamic shadings to the score that at times shimmered and glistened. But the real standout, to my ears, was the Capybara Quartet, demonstrating the most homogeneous, perfectly blended sound of any of the seven groups. Its performance of Fauré’s Second Quartet revealed a level of finesse, refinement, and sheer beauty of sound unmatched throughout the day. There was delicacy without fussiness, and power, where required, without force. No surprise, then, that the Capybara won First Prize — a first for a piano quartet in Osaka — and Pantoum second.
The Capybara Quartet has now won seven international competitions, its members speak six languages, a capybara can grow to nearly five feet in length, the quartet’s members live in four different cities (Hanover, Frankfurt, Paris, Amsterdam) in three countries, have been together as a group for barely two years, and sound like one. And just what is a capybara? It is the world’s largest rodent, found in much of South America, but the Japanese have developed a special fondness for the animal, which thrives in certain areas of Japan as well; it has even been turned into a popular cartoon character (Kapibara-san). It is hardly a coincidence that two and a half members of the Capybara Quartet happen to be Japanese (one is half Japanese).
Day 6 of the Competition was Festa day. This is what makes the Osaka event really special. Festa is fun. Absent is the stress associated with the string quartet and piano trio/quartet competitions. It is informal, lighthearted, and yields a continuous succession of surprises. One never knows what to expect at Festa concerts. This year there were 84 applications from 30 countries. Among those chosen were such intriguing ensembles as a quartet of accordions from France, a marimba duo from Austria, a brass quintet from Switzerland, and folkloric ensembles from Mongolia, Moldova, and the U.S.
Festa is generally thought to be unique in the world. Originally conceived by Yehudi Menuhin, it allows anywhere from two to six instrumentalists of any age to perform any kind of classical or folkloric music before a jury of devoted music lovers living in Japan. The format has evolved somewhat over the years since Festa began in 1993. The procedure now is a kind of championship contest in which pairs of ensembles are pitted against each other, with the ensemble that the jury likes better in each pairing going on to the next round. This year, for the first time, initial pairings were held not in Osaka but in two outlying regions. Three winners from Mie and three from Toyama went on to the semi-finals in Osaka.
The Menuhin Gold Prize (equivalent to First Prize) as well as the Folkloric Special Prize went to the Mongolian ensemble Tenger Ayalguu (meaning “heavenly melody”). The five musicians, playing eight traditional Mongolian instruments and clad in striking red and black outfits, so impressed the jury that this ensemble won more votes (107) than the other two finalists combined.
My vote, however, would have gone to the French ensemble Quintette Le Bateau ivre (The Drunken Boat Quintet), which won the Silver Prize (Second). This ensemble consists essentially of a flute quartet (violin, viola, cello, flute) plus harp; or, seen from another angle, a flute/viola/harp trio plus violin and cello; or even as a string trio plus flute and harp. Regardless of the perspective, I was informed by its members that there exist about 100 compositions for their formation, mostly by French composers, and stemming from the ensemble formed in 1922 called Le Quintette instrumental de Paris. The star of Bateau ivre is its flutist, Samuel Casale, with a tone so gorgeous I would even call it voluptuous. His playing combines flair, panache, and technical wizardry to an extent that any orchestra in the world would be thrilled to have him as its principal flutist, should he choose to go that route.
The Bronze Prize (Third) went to an American duo, Stas & Tatyana, playing Russian folk instruments: a bayan (a relative of the accordion) and a dulcimer.
Eight-hundred-seat Izumi Hall, where the competition took place, is unquestionably one of the world’s most acoustically perfect concert venues — a hall that should win a prize itself. It is a scaled-down model of the design of the renowned Grosser Musikvereinssaal in Vienna, right down to the chandeliers and (in Izumi’s case, simulated) window paneling along both sides of the hall. All the more reason to look forward to the next Competition and Festa in 2026.
SECTION 1 (string quartets)
First Prize: Quartetto Indaco (Italy)
Second Prize: Hono Quartet (Japan)
Third Prize: Terra String Quartet (USA)
SECTION 2 (piano trios and piano quartets)
First Prize: Capybara Piano Quartet (Germany)
Second Prize: Trio Pantoum (France)
Third Prize: Trio Michelangeli (Germany)
Menuhin Gold Prize: Tenger Ayalguu (Mongolia)
Silver Prize: Quintette Le Bateau ivre (France)
Bronze Prize: Stas & Tatyana (USA)
Folkloric Special Prize: Tenger Ayalguu
Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi (Chairman)
*scheduled to serve but indisposed due to Covid-19
All of the above plus the following pianists: