Even though its so quintessentially English to start by talking about the weather I just can’t resist it, it’s FREEZING! -20 and dropping right now. Inside every building it is more than toasty warm it’s absolutely baking, and I have been checking in piles of layers at the huge coat check at the Conservatoire and wandering round in a summer t shirt. Never was I more glad of my beautiful furry hat that I bought earlier in the year in Rovaniemi, Lapland in a weak moment. The Russians aren’t wearing them but I don’t care!
The final of the competition today showed a hugely high standard. Alex Klein, who has recently been on the jury of the prestigious Geneva Competition, said the standard was far higher here and despite 4 of our finalists being teenagers he felt they would have given the Geneva lot a good run for their money. That may be partly because Geneva have a rather closed first round of just a recording, with an undisclosed panel. The Francophile bias was clear to see. Here we are open to anyone who can learn the hugely hard programme and get it from memory.
Today they played the Mozart Concerto and a beautiful arrangement of some of the Shostakovitch preludes for Violin and Piano. Alexei Utkin’s brother Mikhael did the arrangement, with just strings, and it feels like we suddenly have a new work for the repertoire for oboe and strings, and it’s very hard and very beautiful. It was a huge test to do both pieces together. Very few remained unscathed!
First to play was Emil Miroslawsky. The orchestra and conductor seemed hell bent on rushing him right off the rails but his technique was very much up to it. He was on much better form today than in the semifinal, consistency has been a part of very few performances actually, indeed only the first and second prize winners showed elements of it.
Next to play was another young player, Ivan Kobylsky. I had heard him aged 12, when he was about a foot shorter, in the Barbirolli Isle of Man competition I used to be associated with. We gave him a special prize there, but sadly he really didn’t play his best today. Afterwards, at dinner, we found out why.
In a scandalous bit of bullying blackmail a certain orchestra that this young man occasionally gigs with, a famous one, lent him an oboe to play in the orchestra for a series of performances. They said to him loud and clear that if he didn’t play that oboe in our competition he wouldn’t be working with that organization again. Of course he was hugely uncomfortable to be playing a rancid old oboe for only 10 days before the competition and it proved to be a mistake for him. Even his own teacher didn’t know what was going on and is furious.
There is occasionally something of gangster loyalty to the brand name of oboe we chose to in the world of the double reed. Oboists are fairly famous for being gangsters anyway, they are often the one chosen to speak up to a conductor, I sacked a conductor once from the oboe seat. We are often chairmen or on the boards of our orchestras and politically involved. Even though 4 of the 5 judges here play Loree oboes they are from 4 different ends of the earth, with very different careers and sounds, and anyway the person that won doesn’t play a Loree, even though he just won one today! So poor Ivan didn’t play his best but is for sure a deeply gifted young man. I hope one day he will realise that allowing yourself to be bullied is counter productive but for now he has to live with his decision. At least he will be going in to that orchestra again…
Next up was my pupil Kyeong Ham, aged 17 from Korea. He was nervous because in the short rehearsal yesterday he had a big memory lapse and that is enough to spook a young player, but today he walked on looking very smart, smiling broadly to the audience, and settled down to give a performance of the Mozart Concerto that stole the hearts of the judges. I have my criticisms of it, and we will be working on that piece for years probably, but it was so fresh, so confident, so alive, and he had written his own startlingly brilliant cadenzas, even if they didn’t have quite enough thematic material in them and a little too much technique! I was immensely proud of him and continued to be as he played the fiendish Shostakovitch piece.
The next youngest player, Ivan Kobylsky came next. He started wonderfully well, with a really beautiful, focussed, dark tone, which was also amazingly well projected and I really thought Kyeong was going to have a run for his money. His sounds floated over the orchestra so effortlessly and even though he made a few slips they didn’t matter to me, but as it later showed they actually mattered very much to him. It really showed me how experience is a thing perhaps most valuable of all the different traits of the performer. After a couple more slips in the last movement he completely stopped playing and in a Russian language miscommunication with the conductor he jumped straight to the cadenza, missing out a great chunk of music. He never really, and quite unsurprisingly, recovered from that and I for one was very sorry for him. He’s just a year older than my oldest son, and I really felt the pressure for him. All of the judges felt we were dying as it went wrong, we didn’t dare breathe for about 3 minutes. I’m absolutely sure we will be hearing about this slim, fair haired young man in the future, and I hope he learned some lessons from what happened today.
Finally was the Novosibirsk born Maxim Khodyrev. The oldest of the competitors at the old age of 21(!) he proved his strength, stamina and massive technique from the outset. He has almost the perfect finger technique, despite huge tension in his right shoulder and arm. He is technically an oboist’s oboist, and I was literally open mouthed at some of the accuracy and speed of his playing. There was, however, a sense of closed-ness that let him down in the end. His perfection was beautiful to hear, and has required many years of hard work, but we never really saw who he is, just a broad shouldered handsome young dark haired man.
I’m sure it was a very useful experience for these young men to perform with an orchestra, despite the difficulties that orchestra clearly faced in finding 5 different tempi for Mozart and Shostakovitch and for the conductor in bringing in the band after all those cadenzas!
After hearing 5 Mozart Concertos and 5 Shostakovitchs we retired to our room and voted. We voted for people in places 1-5 so that the person, when you added up the scores, who had the lowest score was the winner. They then did some maths to work out the average place or something, it was mostly in Russian, and then translated into German. We had a clear first prize winner in Kyeong Ham. I couldn’t be more delighted for him and proud of all the hard work he put into it. It also appears that this Competition may be about to join the International Association of Music Competitions, which would mean that Kyeong would not have to do Military Service in Korea if they accept that this competition is included. Fingers crossed. Alain De Gourdon of Loree very much wanted Kyeong to have the first prize of the beautiful model 125 oboe, so we agreed to give him that too. It was revealed that Kyeong was the only performer who would have to pay a huge amount of tax on his earnings, and he brought his own pianist from Germany too and had endless expense getting a visa. I hope he goes hope with a little! Luckily he has also won the prize for the best performance of the new piece so that adds up nicely.
Maxim Khodyrev is the 2nd prize winner, not my choice actually but the marks spoke clearly. It turns out his instrument is very past it’s sell by date, and Alain De Gourdon agreed to give him a special extra prize of 50% discount on a new oboe. It’s typical of Alain to be so generous and thoughtful for young performers. Maxim also won, with our agreement, a gouging machine made by “reeds and stuff” who gave the prize. For the uninitiated a gouging machine takes part in the early part of the process of making oboe reeds. It’s a precision tool worth about 1300 euro.
3rd prize went to Emil Miroslawsky. He already has a gouging machine and a slightly better oboe so we were happy to give him just the award. Alex Klein also announced that all the finalists were invited for free to his amazing festival in Brazil in January, FEMUSC. Its a full scholarship, without travel, and very generous indeed. I will be teaching there at that time, and they will get daily access to me, chamber music, orchestra and hundreds of concerts to go to.
We were happy to dispatch our duties honourably and we then met with each candidate to discuss their performance and answer any questions they had.
Its a difficult thing to do well, but useful for them I hope.
After putting on layers and layers of clothes and the dead furry thing on my head again we headed for Cafe Pushkin, possibly the most expensive upmarket restaurant in all of Moscow, and had a beautiful meal where, despite the informal gathering, there were very formal, Russian style speeches honouring all of us. Very serious, very enjoyable, and I also bumped into Karl Lagerfeld in the loo, which rather made my evening. He was putting back on his leather fingerless mittens after washing his hands and I said ‘good evening master’…. I know…I don’t know quite what got into me, I was a bit flustered. There was a body guard who clearly doubles as a model at the door who was looking very nervous.
Tomorrow we have the prizegiving and final concert which Laszlo. Alex are missing, and I’m expecting a lot of speeches….