by Daniel Hathaway
Sunday afternoon’s final round on January 17 offered a good-sized Warner Concert Hall crowd some great bassoon playing by the five finalists — as well as a couple of white knuckle moments and one session which ended abruptly when time was called. So it goes in the heat of competition.
As the audience took their seats, a special twelve member Oberlin string orchestra was tuning up under conductor and harpsichordist Webb Wiggins. The final rounds would require contestants to play the whole of Vivaldi’s 26th Concerto from memory as well as the last movement of Libby Larsen’s Concert Piece for Bassoon and Piano and a piece of each contestant’s choice.
Julie Link, a graduate student at the Cleveland Institute of Music was first in the batting order. Her spoken remarks (points were given for verbal as well as musical engagement with the audience and judges) began “Let me take you back to 1703…” for a contextual description of the Vivaldi concerto. Link played the bass line along with the orchestra in the opening tutti and emerged as soloist soon after. A bit of nervousness slowed down a few passages and rushed others, but her tone was lovely and she showed a fine command of rhythm, bringing out little inner details in the solo lines as much as Warner’s acoustics allowed. In her verbal introduction to the Larsen, she created a flapper named Nora who went out for a night on the town, then brought the image to musical life in a jazzy-bluesy version of Larsen’s third movement. Coordination with Oberlin professor James Howsmon was admirable. Link’s chosen piece was the slow movement of Weber’s second concerto, in which she floated a lovely tone and left very good impressions.
Shuo Li, an undergraduate at Oberlin, noted that this would be her first performance ever with an orchestra, a situation which didn’t seem to faze her at all as she turned in an well-conceived interpretation of the Vivaldi, treating the first solo entrance like a cadenza and skilfully setting up the real cadenza. She took complete possession of the third movement. Noting that the Larsen was a challenge for her (“we don’t play contemporary music as often in China as you do in the US”) Li went on to produce a neat and tidy version of the work. Her third piece was Henri Dutilleaux’s Sarabande & Cortege (characterized in her introduction as “full of humor and courage”) which she performed adroitly and lyrically from memory. Its climactic high note was amazing.
Briana Lehman, an undergraduate at Rice, kept her verbal comments “short and sweet, but mostly short”. She sat out the introduction of the Vivaldi, then took a gutsy and energetic approach to the piece, spreading gobs of rubato over the slow movement. Noting that the Larsen was written for her teacher, Ben Kamins, her cheekily rhythmic performance featured interesting and expressive treatment of the long notes and a shapely blues section. Her chosen work, Jeanjean’s Prelude & Scherzo (performed the night before by Monica Ellis) showed off her ability to make contrasts between the intense and the lyrical.
Laura Miller, a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, gave the audience a lengthy introduction to the charity ‘Ospedales’ in Venice then turned in a rich-toned version of the Vivaldi, driving phrases home, taking expressive liberties with the tempo in the slow movement, but losing her place in the last movement. Admirably putting that moment behind her, Miller played the Larsen with assurance and a laid-back style. Conradin Kreutzer’s Variations “they’re very cheesey, and I love cheese” were pulled off very nicely, but time was called before all the notes got played.
Last up was Northwestern University graduate student Amanda Swain, who gave a cute and engaging speech (mentioning along the way that the Vivaldi concerto had been arranged for bassoon quintet (!) while she was at the University of Texas). Her version of the Vivaldi was full of nuance and not quite as assertive as some of the earlier performances. Choosing not to play along with the opening tutti, she did join the orchestra at the end — a nice touch. The second case of nerves this afternoon led to a momentary blackout in the third movement, but Swain quickly climbed back onboard. Her Larsen was sprightly with a good sense of rhythm and line. Her choice of Weber’s Andante and Hungarian Rondo for the third work (in which she nailed everything) was an inspired way to end the afternoon.
We were impressed with how different five interpretations of Vivaldi and Larsen turned out to be (kudos to Webb Wiggins and his fine band and to James Howsmon for keeping all of those versions straight!) We’ll be intrigued to see how this quintet of very strong contestants will be ranked in the judging process.
Mike Telin contributed to this post.