The Joseph Joachim International Violin Competition is considered one of the most prestigious violin contests in the world. Every three years, young talents meet in Hanover to measure their musical talents.
On stage, 24-year-old Moldavian violinist Alexandra Conunova-Dumortier looks as though she's stepped out of herself: Deeply concentrated, eyes half-way shut, and occasionally swaying gently with the rhythm, she plays the solo in Jean Sibelius' famous Violin Concerto in D Minor, op. 47. Her interpretation shows immense passion and drama. The performer's fingers fly across the strings effortlessly, and technical problems appear to be completely unknown to her.
A search for personalities
Alexandra Conunova-Dumortier, along with five other participants, has made it into the finale of the competition, which takes its name from the famous violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim. Starting in 1852, he lived for nearly 15 years in Hanover as a choral director, soloist and teacher. The contest participants must of course have a piece of his in their repertories.
In 1991, Polish violinist and professor Krzystof Wegrzyn initiated the competition in the state capital of Lower Saxony. He had one clear priority, he said.
"We are looking in particular for personalities. Technical skill is merely a basic requirement of all participants. But among them, there are also exceptional figures who have an artistic message," he explained.
The contest, which takes place every three years and is now among the world's most important venues for young violinists, places high demands on performers. They don't just bring a couple of pieces to play; they must have mastered a wide-ranging repertoire. A renowned jury keeps a close watch on them through the multiple rounds of the competition in which they demonstrate their abilities in solo works as well as in chamber and orchestral settings.
Those who make it to first place earn a high sum of prize money, a CD recording with an international label, concert dates in Germany and abroad and a valuable baroque violin, made available to them for the following three years.
The other finalists also receive significant amounts in prize money.
Well-known in East Asia
35 participants from 20 different countries travelled to Hanover for the September 29 event. Half of them came from Japan, South Korea, China and Taiwan, compared with 14 from all of Europe and Russia. Krzystof Wegrzyn says that's due to the fact that more is invested in musical training and education in East Asia.
The candidates were almost evenly divided between men and women this time - and interestingly so, said jurist Agnieszka Duczmal: "It's with a certain satisfaction that I can report that the men have outed themselves as violinists once more."
And Duczmal's colleague on the jury Ulf Schneider said he was impressed with the quality of the performances.
"I have to say that they were really exceptional, fantastic and moving concerts performed at a very high level," he said.
Everyone prepared intensely for the contest, including Tobias Feldmann, the only performer from Germany: "The extensive repertoire demands a lot of practice. It's a program of more than three hours, and most of it is played from memory."
After their performances, the candidates don't make their way back to anonymous hotel rooms. Instead, they stay with guest families, who cheer them on at the concerts - yet another aspect that sets the Joseph Joachim Competition apart.
Many view winning first prize as an important springboard for their careers. Conunova-Dumortier, who studies with Krzysztof Wegrzyn in Hanover, is no exception. But there are other things on her mind, as well, she says.
"A career is something that has to be built; it's something where contacts play a role, as well as education, character and lots of luck," she noted.
That's a gracious way of putting things. After all, the Moldavian violinist shared first prize with South Korean player Dami Kim at the 2012 competition.