The Violin Channel recently caught up with 2020 Shanghai Isaac Stern International Violin Competition Co-Chairman, Mr David Stern.
Hi David. Why was it important to the Stern family to be involved with this competition?
"Isaac Stern devoted his life to performance but also to helping young talent. He firmly believed in the hope of youth and the power of music to make a greater future for all civilizations. He did, however, not believe in competitions, because, as we all know, music is about talent and individual expression. His efforts in aiding young careers was often to help these musicians avoid the competition circuit.
When Yu Long and the city of Shanghai approached us in order to establish this project, we at first objected. I came to realize, however, that today’s music world functions at a much faster pace and in a larger scope than the music system of the past. It is very difficult to be heard and taken seriously, and to be given opportunities to create a musical profile in the 21st century.
For this reason, my brother and I set out to create a competition that strives to uphold certain aspects of Isaac Stern’s musical persona. We insisted in including a Mozart sonata in the first round, so as not to concentrate only on the technical aspects of the imposed Paganini, but also to allow the candidates to show us their musicianship.
The second round includes chamber music repertoire that each candidate has to perform with the other members of a professional chamber ensemble. Our father performed a great deal of chamber music and always regarded it as the true mark of a real musician.
Also in the second round, the Mozart concerto, which is accompanied by orchestra, has to include a cadenza conceived by each candidate, in order to highlight their musical imagination. In the final round, we added a work composed by a Chinese composer in order to challenge each violinist to try to understand the cultural legacy of the host country.
Isaac Stern had an uncanny knack for different musical styles, an intuition that adapted to different composers in different eras. His understanding was not didactic, but wholly organic and sincere.
With all of these innovations in place, I feel it is important for my family to remain vigilant regarding the organization and structure of the competition, so that it will not lose its distinctive differences"
What is the main mission for hosting the competition – and what do you hope can be achieved?
"My greatest hope is that we will find the most complete musician, and not necessarily the best violinist of the group.
With each competition that we have had, I have implored the jury to take chances and not to vote safely, and I have encouraged the candidates to risk showing their musical will even if it is at the expense of musical dexterity.
The need to communicate through music is vastly more important than the mere display of technical talent"
How important do you feel competitions are for launching a young musician’s performance career?
"This question is of course a quandary. There is no perfect launch for any career, and it will take time for those who have won already to use the momentum from their success and advance as musical personalities.
I have however been pleased to see how many of those who have already won prizes are making headlines in the press as musical standouts. This gives me a great amount of pleasure"
There are many competitions today and many 1st, 2nd and 3rd prize winners, what do you feel are the differentiating elements that propel some young musicians to a successful and sustainable performance career?
"Let’s face it, in the past, many 3rd and 4th prize winners have, in the end, created better careers than the first prize winners. I think that is because the result in many competitions is to find the one candidate that is a compromise for all the jury.
If the competition has been fairly run, then the difference in opinion should be quite vast. This result is normal because musical taste can and should not be dictated. Unfortunately, I feel there is a tendency for many juries to accept a “safe” decision that doesn’t displease, and that doesn’t challenge the norm.
I don’t think that that is enough to ensure a real life in music. A sustainable musical career relies on the musician never losing the will to understand music in the deepest and most sincere fashion.
A life in music is not counted on the number of concerts so much as the connection through music to the public"
How important is fairness and transparency in your voting process? What initiative do you have in place to ensure an unbiased result?
"I think it is important to state from the beginning that there is no complete fool-proof system. Judging musicians on a subjective basis is exactly that: subjective. And subjectivity, regardless of the modern advances of artificial intelligence, is imperfect and very human.
Our major innovation has been to put all the jurors’ scores on the internet during the course of the competition. I do not hesitate to tell all the jury members that their votes will be seen and scrutinized. Any sense of abuse or favoritism is on display for the public to see and the jury member will have to face the consequences.
There are many ways for politics to enter the competition format, and while I cannot guarantee that everything will end up cleanly, our system has, in my opinion, held up its side of the bargain"
If someone wants to apply for your 2020 competition, how should they go about this?
The application is available at app.getacceptd.com/shcompetition and must be submitted by January 20, 2020 at 23:59 GMT+8. The video upload deadline is February 28, 2020 at 23:59 GMT+8.
The competition is open to participants of all nationalities between the ages of 16 and 32, born on or before August 4, 2004, and born on or after August 4, 1988.
It takes place August 4-23, 2020 with a gala concert honoring Isaac Stern's centenary on August 25, 2020. Complete information is also available at shcompetition.com/en.