As we have come to know, it is a long established mandatory condition of the Queen Elisabeth Competition for all 12 finalists to spend the preceding 7 days to their finals appearance within the closed confines of the Chapelle Musicale Reine Elisabeth conservatory – so to focus physically and mentally and study the previously unpublished set work without external influence.
As we approach the Final round of this year’s inaugural cello competition, Berlin Philharmonic 1st Concertmaster VC Artist Noah Bendix-Balgley guest blogs about his 2009 violin competition experience.
“I performed at the Queen Elisabeth Competition in 2009.
At the time, I was living and studying in Munich, Germany. By that point, I had participated in many competitions already, and of course Brussels was on my radar, but I had serious doubts about going.
The repertoire list was huge: 12 pieces, encompassing over 3 hours of the most challenging violin music out there. I wasn’t sure I could prepare all of that. And we had to reserve at least 4 weeks to be in Brussels for the competition, which meant saying no to other good concert opportunities.
However, because of the candidate age limits, 2009 was my only chance to enter the competition, and it was an enormous challenge that I wanted to attempt. The Mount Everest of violin!
When I made the finals, I was absolutely thrilled. After the announcement, I had just two days before entering the Chapelle. I tried to practice, but it was hard to remain calm, especially with the intense and constant media attention that the Queen Elisabeth draws in Belgium.
I entered the Chapelle on the second day, together with Lorenzo Gatto, a week before our finals performances. At first, it was very quiet. Just Lorenzo, Ye-Eun Choi, and Vineta Sareika, and myself.
After turning in our phones, we received the music to the compulsory piece by Eun-Hwa Cho called Agens. It looked truly unplayable, full of seemingly random double and triple stops, all over the violin at breakneck speed. I spent 9 hours the first day just trying to find theoretical fingering solutions.
There was a friendly collegial atmosphere among the finalists. We were all in the same boat, and we knew it.
Practice breaks were spent wandering the grounds, playing ping-pong and badminton, and reading.
Each day, two more finalists entered. By the end of the week, when Nikita Borisoglebsky and Ray Chen came there were 12 of us. Slowly, we began to believe we could actually play this new piece. When Ray and Nikita came in, we decided to screw with them a bit. We acted like the new piece was really quite easy, and that most of us were going to play it by memory (none of us did). I don’t think they believed us for a second!
The week at the Chapelle was a unique experience, and I feel lucky that I was part of this little club of violinists that has gone through it.
In today’s world, with all the constant distractions we have from our electronics, the news, and the noise of everyday life, it was special to have a week that was completely devoted to practicing and working on my craft. I’ve never practiced so hard in my life.
When I left for my performance, taken by car to the Palais des Beaux Arts with my violin and my suitcase, there was a part of me that was sad to leave and return to the real world.
The challenge of the Queen Elisabeth competition was probably the hardest thing I have done in my career. It puts any other pressure-filled performance or audition I have faced into perspective.
Although I didn’t win the Queen Elisabeth, the exposure that the competition provided for my playing led directly to important further steps in my career. I believe strongly that one should not enter competitions to win prizes.
Bartok famously said “Competitions are for horses”, and in a horse race, there is a clearcut winner. Music isn’t so clear. However, competitions can provide a personal challenge, and if you approach them in that way by preparing well and improving your playing, then they are worthwhile.”