By Laurence Vittes
Twenty-two-year-old American violin virtuoso Hao Zhou wins the first prize at the 2019 Concours Musical International de Montréal—a student of Martin Beaver at the Colburn School, Zhou was one of four American finalists.
While Mercedes, Ferraris, and Red Bull Racing Hondas were revving their engines in the streets of Montréal, getting ready for the weekend’s Grand Prix du Canada, six ambitious young violinists Choi, Lim, Zhou, Lee, Mohri and Pichlmair were competing for glory at the Maison Symphonique. They played concertos by Bartok, Sibelius, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Brahms with the Orchestra Symphonique de Montréal conducted by Alexander Shelley. It was the 2019 edition of the Concours Musical International de Montréal.
First prize went to the 22-year-old American Hao Zhou, a Colburn student of Martin Beaver, and part of a strong American contingent that included Elli Choi, Christine Lim, and Anna Lee.
Zhou took on Shostakovich’s First Concerto with an almost anti-virtuosic approach; his serious yet serene sense of pace was in tune with the composer’s codes. As the dimensions of the piece became more complex, he stayed the course and swept the audience away with him.
As his reward Hao Zhou takes home $30,000 from the city of Montreal, the Joseph-Rouleau career development grant of $50,000 offered by the Azrieli Foundation, an artist residency at Canada’s Banff Centre for the Arts, and an Italian recital at next year’s New Generation Festival in Florence.
He was also presented onstage with a visually striking, still to be varnished violin handmade by the Maker’s Forum.
Zhou’s competition was fierce. Choi, the youngest contestant at 17, played an elegant Bartok Second; Lim (24), who will join the Philadelphia Orchestra’s second violins full-time this fall, played a darkly melodramatic Sibelius; and Anna Lee (23) presented an unusually pure vision of Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 2.
Johanna Pichlmair from Austria, who is a permanent member of the first violins in the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, won second place with a comprehensive, spontaneous Brahms (29), and Fumika Mohri (25) from Japan took third place with a hypnotically compelling Sibelius and a gorgeous low register.
On both nights the Orchestre, working with Shelley for the first time, sounded like they were old friends with wonderful colors from the woodwinds, majestic brass and, no surprise, deeply sympathetic strings. They were engaged and alert—it was clear they always had each soloist’s back.
It was also encouraging to see how the Concours, under its general and artistic director Christiane LeBlanc, continues in the spirit of André Bourbeau, the beloved, founding president of the Concours and of the jury who died before last year’s Concours. A year later, with new president of the jury Zarin Mehta in place, the competition continues to be like Montréal: in love with music, committed to culture and education, and as creative as the contestants.
This year’s innovation was an international junior competition called Mini Violini whose five contestants ranged in age from 11 to 14, coming from Japan, Canada, Hong Kong, Singapore, and China. “They were amazing,” Hao Zhou told me. Also new this year, each of the finely tuned contestants was sponsored like a Grand Prix racing team on the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.
During an interview, LeBlanc hinted that things to come might include a return of the iconic lobster dinner, which Bourbeau hosted each year at his estate at the country, and the first appearance at the Concours by a woman conductor, perhaps in time for the 2020 Concours for Piano.
Overall, for the minis and the maxis, the audiences were knowledgable and generous, and full of kids. Amidst a half dozen warmly enthusiastic ovations, the thunderous applause for Hao Zhou’s Shostakovich stood out from the rest, so it was no surprise when he also received the Radio-Canada Audience Award.
By coincidence I sat across the aisle from Hao Zhou on the flight back to Los Angeles. He grew up in Orange County before finding his way to Colburn. Besides a keen interest in the history of his instrument, his chamber-music work has already considerably enlarged his horizons, as has his commitment to the importance of period instrument practice and style.
Between our chats, he studied what looked like advanced mathematical theory, listened to music to which he occasionally waved a hand as if conducting, and read from Margaret Campbell’s The Great Violinists. Even for Concours winners, of course, success does not come overnight. His first slated appearance as a hometown hero won’t be until the fall at Boston Court Pasadena when he will lead his Viano Quartet, headed for the Banff International Quartet Competition in August, in Schubert’s late G-major quartet.
Perhaps the most inspirational finalist was second-place winner Pichlmair. This was her last competition after many dozens; and she concluded it by playing the Brahms with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal. “I was so happy and thankful to be there that I played like never before,” she said.
At such moments of achievement when personal and musical goals are fused, as happened throughout the six performances, they represent the highest form of return possible on a committed cultural investment that in the case of the Concours comes straight from the heart of Montréal’s classical-music community.