2017 “Final Forte”: No “Bracket Busters” Here

As usual, we get one champion (and four winners)

(Pictured above: Julian Rhee, Naomi Sutherland, Michael Wu and Yaoyao Chen, courtesy of Madison Symphony)


The last round of the Bolz Young Artist Competition, in which we are treated to four teen-aged prodigies at various stages of producing artistic fruit, is of course known as the “Final Forte.” It is a nod to the NCAA basketball tournaments—timely, as the season is commonly known as “March Madness”—but fortunately, creating and re-creating art has no scoreboard.

Still, there seems to be some deeply rooted human need to rate, rank and crown a champion, regardless of the pursuit. And if one were tempted this year to handicap the field of the four finalists who appeared with the Madison Symphony in Overture Hall last night, there would have been a twist.

In gambling parlance, one might say the deck was stacked, or at the very least, there was a very heavy favorite to win the top prize. Violinist Julian Rhee has been here before, and he won it. Since that happened in 2015, he was not eligible to compete last year, but still being in high school this year, the prize was available to him, and he went for it.

But first things first. It was great to see John DeMain back on the podium; he has spent the last month or so at Virginia Opera, rehearsing and leading performances of Puccini’s Turandot. The MSO sounded glad to have him back in a warm and sensitive reading of Debussy’s Danse sacree et profane. Of course, the real spotlight was on Naomi Sutherland, a senior from Viroqua, and a harp player of considerable promise. In her pre-taped intro, Sutherland mentioned that she was attracted to the harp in part by its “therapeutic” qualities, and these were abundant in the “sacred” first section of Debussy’s minor masterpiece. Even the more overt virtuosity of the “profane” section is gentle, relatively speaking, and therein lay Sutherland’s greatest challenge in this context: the work and instrument itself would be overshadowed by the fiery blockbusters to follow. But that’s part of the magic of “Final Forte,” we get to experience the musical roads less taken. Her playing was clean and assured, and one safely assumes she will grow in assertiveness, when the music requires it.

The next young artist was Yaoyao Chen, a Chinese violinist who wanted to come to the U.S. on her own for high school, and currently lives in Menasha. She is a senior now, and although she demonstrated several lovely moments and a solid technical foundation, the demands of the first movement of Sibelius’ Violin Concerto still exceed her grasp. Aside from demanding the highest level of virtuosity, often subtly applied, the piece has a sprawling structure that entails stamina and an interpretive maturity rarely found at this level. Consider Chen’s reading a sizable down payment on some significant future promise.

Frequently artists of this caliber impress far beyond their years, and never more than when the player is a freshman. Such was the case of Michael Wu, a ninth-grade pianist from Sun Prairie. He tackled the first movement of Saint-Saens’ Piano Concerto No. 2 with an impressive gravitas. Even the MSO seemed more engaged and polished than earlier in the evening, and Wu gave a thoughtfully proportioned reading that never lacked for sparkle. One wonders if we will have the chance to hear him tackle some Rachmaninoff one of these days…after all, he has three years of “eligibility” left.

Yet as impressive as Wu was, he and the ladies were up against a real ringer. Violinist Julian Rhee not only has the championship belt from two years ago, but is already putting notches in it. He had also won the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra Young Artist Concerto competition. That led to a performance of the first movement of the Brahms’ Violin Concerto in a Concerts on the Square event—and a full performance with the WCO of the work on their Masterworks series, last February 24. Wednesday night he brought the first movement of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto…boy, did he ever bring it.

Rhee embraces romantic urgency of the work; once or twice he nearly attacked some passages too fast—not because he was nervous that he might not get through them, but because he can darn near pull it off with his blazing technique. But the lasting quality of his reading is the subtlety he applied to numerous phrases both in the solo cadenza and when accompanied by a sumptuous MSO. One of the marks of artistic maturity is the ability to place one’s technical command in the service of the overall artistry, and Rhee is doing this at a level even beyond what we heard from him two years ago.

Throughout the evening, it seemed as each performer garnered more applause than the previous player. The reception for Wu had been strong and prolonged, but the roar that followed the final notes of Rhee’s exhibition was akin to an arena’s response to an emphatic slam dunk.

Happily, no one goes home from “Final Forte” empty-handed. Sutherland and Chen were both named honorable mention, and each received $1,000 scholarships; Wu was runner-up to Rhee, but each received a $2,000 scholarship. The rest of the sizable audience at Overture Hall were winners too; we left with more precious memories and inspiration of what is possible—and the reminder that what counts in music is simply the joy of sharing gifts and art with any audience that cares to gather.

As always, the “Final Forte” was broadcast on Wisconsin Public Radio at 88.7 FM, and telecast on Wisconsin Public Television. You can hear and/or see it (or re-live it, as I will) on WPT-2 on Saturday, April 1 at 3:30 pm, hear it on 88.7 on Sunday at 12 noon, and see it Sunday on WPT-1 at 2 pm.

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