The New York Times: Shanghai Violin Competition Celebrates Isaac Stern’s Legacy in China

The Japanese violinist Mayu Kishima was awarded the first prize at the inaugural Shanghai Isaac Stern International Violin Competition on Friday. Credit: Shanghai Isaac Stern International Violin Competition

The Japanese violinist Mayu Kishima was awarded the first prize at the inaugural Shanghai Isaac Stern International Violin Competition on Friday. Credit: Shanghai Isaac Stern International Violin Competition

The New York Times
By Amy Qin

More than 35 years after the violinist Isaac Stern made a groundbreaking visit to China, his legacy there lives on.

The inaugural Shanghai Isaac Stern International Violin Competition concluded on Friday after nearly three weeks of intensive performances by 24 young violinists from around the world. Mayu Kishima of Japan was awarded first place, taking home the grand prize of $100,000, the largest single award for an international violin competition.

“We were looking for the kind of spark and commitment to music that our father would have embraced,” David Stern, co-chairman of the jury committee, said in a telephone interview from Shanghai.

That Isaac Stern, who died in 2001, now has a competition bearing his name is somewhat ironic given his aversion to such events.

So when the conductor Yu Long, a towering figure in classical music in China, raised the idea of holding a competition about two and a half years ago, “it was not the easiest idea for the three of us to approach,” Mr. Stern said, referring to his brother, Michael, and his sister, Shira. “Our father did everything he could to mentor young musicians in order to avoid competitions.”

Isaac Stern’s dedication to training young musicians was perhaps most vividly captured in the 1979 documentary “From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China.” The film, which won an Academy Award for best documentary feature, chronicled Mr. Stern’s two-week trip to China for a series of concerts and master classes.

That visit, which came just as China was emerging from decades of self-imposed isolation and political tumult, is credited with having influenced a generation of young Chinese musicians, including Mr. Yu, who recalled sitting in the audience as a teenager during one of Mr. Stern’s performances in Shanghai.

“During the Cultural Revolution, we didn’t have many opportunities to play Western music,” Mr. Yu, now conductor of a number of ensembles including the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, said in a telephone interview. “Then, in that moment in 1979 when Maestro Stern came, we suddenly felt the difference in how we could understand music.”

Since 1979, classical music in China has grown tremendously, with gleaming concert halls being built around the country and some 40 million young Chinese studying the violin or the piano.

Still, Mr. Yu said, “The problem in China, and Asia more broadly, is that the players are more concerned about technical issues.”

So when it came to this new project, both the Stern family and Mr. Yu agreed that they wanted to make a more comprehensive competition that would reward musicians not just for technical ability, but also for all-around dedication to music.

After two years of discussions and planning, the Stern family and the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra came up with a competition structure that David Stern said his father, even with his distaste for competitions, probably would have approved. This meant including elements that were important to Isaac Stern, like chamber music and Chinese music.

For example, contestants in the semifinal round were required to perform two concertos: “The Butterfly Lovers,” a popular Chinese concerto composed in 1959 by He Zhanhao and Chen Gang, and Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 with a chamber orchestra (with original improvisation during the cadenza section). They also had to play a violin sonata, as well as the first movement of piano trio by Schubert or Brahms.

The 24 contestants represented several countries, including China, France, Germany, Japan, South Korea and the United States. In addition to the prize money, Ms. Kishima will also receive performance contracts with several international symphony orchestras.

Sergei Dogadin of Russia was awarded the second prize of $50,000, and Sirena Huang of the United States took home the third prize of $25,000. The violinists Zakhar Bron of Russia and Boris Kuschnir of Austria were among the 13 who sat on the jury.

The competition also presented an Isaac Stern Human Spirit Award of $10,000 each to two noncontestants: One, to Wu Taoxiang and Du Zhengquan, who founded the Einstein Orchestra, a middle-school ensemble in China, and the other to Negin Khpalwak, who directs an orchestra for women in Afghanistan, for “their outstanding contribution to our understanding of humanity through the medium of music.”

Most of the funding for the competition, which will be held every two years, came from corporate sponsors, according to Fedina Zhou, president of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra. The symphony has been expanding in recent years, forging a long-term partnership with the New York Philharmonic and, in 2014, unveiling a new hall where the competition was held.

For many musicians and music lovers in China, the competition represents further validation that China is well on its way to becoming a heavyweight player in the classical music world.

“At last the Chinese people finally have an internationally recognized competition of their own,” said Rudolph Tang, a writer and expert in Shanghai on the classical music industry in China. “It has everything that a top competition should have, like a top jury, great organization, and high prize money.”

“It is like a dream come true,” he added.