A marathon of music-making:  The showcase of new talents at the XVII Tchaikovsky Competition (Moscow and St Petersburg)

Angel Wang (2nd prize) performing at the second round of Tchaikovsky competition

The second half of June 2023 was marked by one of the biggest musical events in Russian cultural landscape – the Tchaikovsky competition for young musicians (you have to be under 32) in 6 different categories: piano, violin (the three consecutive rounds were held at the Great and Chamber Halls of Moscow Conservatory), and cello, voice, brass instruments and woodwinds, where the rounds took place in St Petersburg, with the spaces of St Petersburg State Capella (brass), St Petersburg Philharmonic Hall (cello), Repino Concert Hall (woodwinds) and the new stage of Mariinsky Theatre (voice) used for scheduling all the participants. It was a very busy, almost impossible schedule for the observer, as almost simultaneously the rounds were held in Moscow and St Petersburg, often overlapping and forcing a difficult choice of where to go and who to listen to, but sometimes giving a critic the opportunity to use the windows in other categories in order to listen to only one of them. All auditions were held in the city centers, but there was one exception of Repino Concert Hall, a unique hall built by Valery Gergiev and known as his own private music hall, where special events and recordings are occasionally held. The acoustics in this hall were developed by a world-famous acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota, and French architect Xavier Fabre was responsible for its Scandinavian ascetic design and a huge window behind the stage. Visiting it for free during the days of the competition was indeed a unique occasion that was worth the day of commuting. It was open for free for all the viewers during the two first rounds for woodwinds, but required a 1,5 hour journey from the city centre to the shore of the Finnish Bay. The white nights atmosphere, the calmness of the bay, and the unique beauty of the building that resembles a meditative hall for prayer gave the woodwinds rounds of the competition a truly unique tinge.

The Opening Gala of the XVII Tchaikovsky Competition, June 2023

For the XVII competition the musicians came from Russia, Kazakhstan, South Korea, China, France, Canada, Great Britain, the USA and Australia, with young talents from many European countries (including the neighbouring Finland and the Baltic States) conspicuously missing. Nevertheless, the atmosphere of the competitions and the quality of young musicians in all categories was astounding and truly inspiring. It is such a pleasure to spend every day attending the rounds, choosing your favorites, supporting them, overlooking the work of the juries and getting home after midnight every day with the mind and memory full of wonderful renditions of the chosen audition programmes. Among the invited jury participants from China, South Korea and Europe were also Russian specialists in chosen categories, including famous singers like Hibla Gerzmava who chaired the board, Olga Borodina and Albina Shagimuratova for voice category, musicians like Kristóf Baráti, Yuri Bashmet, Pavel Milyukov (violin), Alexander Knyazev, Alexander Ramm and Suren Bagratuni (cello), Denis Matsuev (chair of the piano jury) and the concertmasters of the respective instrumental sections of the Mariinsky Orchestra (Nikolai Mokhov for woodwinds, Alexander Afanasyev and Alexei Lobikov for brass).

There were obviously the discoveries that the competition has made, as it has always served as a powerful springboard for new names, fostering their careers, as it is Valery Gergiev position to support the winners (up to 6th place) and chosen participants further in their careers, to actively promote them and invite them to concerts and events at the Mariinsky Theatre. Apart from the structural support, obviously each of us the music lovers picked their own favorites during the rounds of competition and promised ourselves to follow the ones we were falling in love with further on during their careers. The atmosphere of attendance, discussions, online commentaries and general buzz during these days was quite extraordinary: people were asking for tickets at the sold-out audition tours at the Great Hall of Moscow Conservatory for piano category, were travelling to Repino by city buses and electric trains and sharing their experiences with fellow music lovers (I spent two hours on my way back from Repino sharing my impressions with two musicians). There was also an online stream in social media (Vkontakte) and on YouTube, with employees of Mariinsky Theatre (Nina Nachkebiya), St Petersburg Philharmonic Hall (Marina Monakhova) and Rimsky Korsakov museum (Lydia Ader) serving as anchor women, while famous music journalists and producers (Alexander Malich) helping them to lead the streams for all the categories in Russian and English, organize mini-interviews in live format with participants and comment the competitions for the general audiences. I think it was very well organized, and the number of views was exceeding the expectations – I also had to recur to watching streams when I couldn’t attend two events at once. The streams could also be watched in front of the Halls, and some free tickets were given out by registration or a few hours before the concerts if free places remained. Also I was quite impressed by the lighting of the Halls, with the huge profile of Tchaikovsky towering over the audience and with live flowers feeling the halls with summery scents. It was really a festive occasion, and my heart jumped and the soul exalted with every day of attending the Competition. As a bonus, the journalists were gifted with a nice backpack, a notebook and a thermal cup in order to be able to sustain the stress of non-stop listening and musical appraisal and audio or written commentary on these events.

The winner of Tchaikovsky Competition Grand Prix, mezzo-soprano Zinaida Tsarenko

My own strong impression were singers and musicians from South Korea and China, British and American pianists, as well as some new Russian names in voice category that I hope to hear and see on the stages of Mariinsky and Bolshoi in the near future. Please pay attention to a unique young horn player Zhicheng Zin from China (2nd prize, brass) – at the age of 17 he sounded like an accomplished musician, with his rendition of Horn concerto in B-major by Reinhold Glière at the final round of the competition causing a stir and awed silence from the audiences of the Mariinsky Concert Hall. The horn sounded powerfully, as a true solo instrument, with grace and musicality that I have never heard from this instrument, and while Zin Zhicheng himself is not emotional and very concentrated during his appearances, all the emotional power is transferred to his instrument. The 16-year old trumpet player Semyon Salomatinkov (1st prize, brass) will also hopefully have a great career in front of him – his sound is very dynamic, phrasing interesting and clever, his stage presence is audacious and charismatic.

My second discovery were the unique and very beautiful voices of South Korean and Chinese male singers: the Chinese baritone Zhenxiang Hong (3rd prize, a very beautiful voice and stature), the South Korean bass Inho Jeong (2nd prize) and the owner of the unique voice, the South Korean tenor Jihoon Son who left me trembling by the dissonance of my expectations on seeing this small young man and hearing his voice that transferred and punctured the Mariinsky Theatre, while he was alternating between such different characters as Lensky expressing his love before the duel or, most unforgettably and properly fitting him, the powerful ruler Mao Tse-tung in the opera Nixon in China by American composer John Adams. This is the talent who can master any world stage, so please remember this name too.

I shouldn’t forget and the winner of Gran Prix Gold Medal of the XVII competition, the mezzo soprano Zinaida Tsarenko who was especially marked out in his final Gala concert speech by Valery Gergiev and in a period of a month since her victory has appeared in several debuts at the Mariinsky Theatre, including Marfa in Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina and Joan in Tchaikovsky’s The Maid of Orleans (a fairly rare case of the leading part for a mezzo). Zinaida is the cerebral singer who is in perfect control of her phrasing and her vocalization, but might need time to add the passion and allow herself to open up on stage while she is performing. Surely, this is the singer with huge potential who will conquer Russian and world operatic stage in the future. Also, the participant of Bolshoi Theatre Young Singers Program Maxim Lisiin (baritone, 2nd prize) with his clever intoning and very mature presentation of his arias surely deserves a mention.

Mezzo-soprano Zinaida Tsarenko, the winner of the Tchaikovsky competition 2023

Last but not least, the passions sparkled at the Great Hall of Moscow Conservatory where pianists held their tour auditions. My favorites were the virtuoso British pianist George Harliono whose rendition of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto was as beautiful as mature and persuasive. Quite impressive with another style of performance was  American pianist Angel Stanislav Wang who stood out with his expressive, rhythmical, very artistically tuned in performance of Britten’s Piano Concerto in D-Major. Wang and Harliono, as well as Russian pianist Valentin Malinin got the Silver medals and 2nd prizes at the Competition. And surely, everybody’s favourite was young Sergey Davydchenko whose performances were always crowned by standing ovations. Sergey also received a special prize from the Yantze River piano production company and also Alexander Toradze prize. The atmosphere during the piano performances was probably the most heated and intense, as the Tchaikovsky Competition has historically been associated with famous piano performers, starting from its first winner (1958) Harley Van Cliburn.

The XVII Tchaikovsky Competition culminated in two Galas – the first one at Zaryadye Concert Hall and the second one at the Mariinsky Theatre, the second one going till 1.30am, with prize winners in all categories following each other and showcasing their skills in small extracts from their programme or in specially prepared pieces. Almost everyone was half exhausted and half exalted, including the audiences. It was sad to think that not so many international members of the audience could enjoy this event in person due to current political tensions, and hopefully the XVIII Tchaikovsky Competition will be held in the peace atmosphere and with many talented musician flooding to Moscow and St Petersburg to compete during the audition tour and pave the way to their fame and glory.