How to Win a Stringed Instrument Performance Competition

The 2011 Primrose International Viola Competition champion, judges, and others discuss the components of a convincing performance

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Gold medal winner Ayane Kozasa impressed judges with her mental toughness.

The last windy days of May marked the start of the 13th Primrose International Viola Competition at Robertson and Sons Violin Shop and the University of New Mexico–Albuquerque. For one week, 29 quarterfinalists from around the country and abroad vied for the title of Primrose first place prizewinner, an honor that has propelled the careers of violists Nokuthula Ngwenyama and Lawrence Power, to name a few.

Before a panel of nine international judges, the violists played a vast amount of repertoire by Walton, Bach, Zimbalist, Rochberg, Mozart, Paganini, Stamitz, and Peter Askim, among others, with the stronger competitors moving onto the semifinal recitals and the best starring in the classical concerto final round at UNM with the New Mexico Chamber Orchestra.

In the end, it was a tearful Ayane Kozasa who at UNM’s Keller Hall accepted the coveted prize—a Jardón Rico viola, $5,000, a gold-mounted Arcos Brasil bow, and select solo performances with orchestras across the United States and Europe.

Kozasa, 24, a student of Misha Amory and Roberto Díaz at the Curtis Institute of Music, played with enviable tone, unmistakable musical personality, and brute endurance. Her performances also revealed an amiable and sometimes cartoonishly goofy demeanor. In an environment full of powerful talent and artistry, along with a new Olympics-style instant scoring system to add to the anxiety of performing, Kozasa managed to not only stand out in the competition but dominate.

What It Takes to Win

In the spirit of the late violist William Primrose, who encouraged camaraderie as much as excellence, Kozasa, her fellow competitors, competition collaborators, and judges speak freely about what they feel makes a Primrose champion.

“For me, the prizewinner of the Primrose Competition must be someone who represents the viola worldwide,” says Luis Magín, a competition judge and president of the Spanish Viola Society. “The music comes first—they must be an artist of the first rank, someone who touches the soul. Obviously, technique is necessary to do this.”

James Holland, collaborating cellist for the chamber-music component of the competition, adds: “It’s just that sort of presence. It’s hard to put into words . . . some of [the competitors] just have an intangible sense of ease.”

Taiwanese judge Judge Che-Yen Chen agrees. “To win, you have to show a lot of heart. If you really want to capture the judges, a certain type of quality needs to
be there, above the mastery of the instrument and musicality,” Chen says. “If you have humanity in the music, it makes you an artist.”

The general consensus among the judges was that the winner must have certain attributes: consistency, endurance, technical prowess, musicality, humanity.

It’s deceptively simple in theory, but it boils down to an immense and seemingly unachievable list in practice—that is, until you talk to the prizewinners, who all agree that the key to winning a competition lies in psychological preparation and a positive mind-set.

“I think the main reason why I was successful in this competition is that I had so much fun playing,” Kozasa says. “Each round I was able to approach the music head-on, and I was learning as I was performing. I played the way I wanted, the way I thought the music should be played. Ultimately, you have to play well enough to beat any scoring system.

“The thing that helped me the most while preparing is that I started performing a lot. I started doing full recitals with the repertoire to understand how performing each piece would feel. I’m not sure how the other competitors prepared, but I think it’s important to understand.”

Ngwenyama, a laureate and two-time director of the Primrose Competition, could not agree more. “[Kozasa’s] endurance really set her apart,” Ngwenyama says. “She may have started off not as strong but she kept going and she got stronger and stronger.

“There were people who fatigued mentally and physically. She was able to endure in order to show her true level of artistry. You have to play to that fatigue and push yourself to the highest limit.”

In addition to first prize, Kozasa won the Mozart and Askim awards, the latter of which was given to the best performance of composer Peter Askim’s “Inner Voices.”

“The one thing I’m looking for is to be convinced by someone’s interpretation,” Askim said mid-competition. “It’s a very technically difficult piece. Ultimately, I want to be moved by the performance so that you don’t notice the technical issues. I’m looking for a convincing emotional trajectory.

“There have been some performances that really took me to a different place. I really went there with them and discovered new things. . . . It’s kind of moving actually.”

A sub for the Philadelphia Orchestra, Kozasa earned her bachelor’s degree at CIM, where she studied viola and violin with Kirsten Docter and William Preucil.

Outside of her school, solo, and orchestral work, Kozasa plays in the Iannis and Juniper string quartets. Kozasa has also won prizes at the Irving M. Klein International String, Skokie Valley Symphony Concerto, Cleveland Institute of Music Concerto, and Kingsville International competitions.

For the Primrose, Kozasa insisted on maintaining her musical integrity: her priorities were to communicate how she felt about the music and focus on what she does well. And in the end, it was Kozasa’s mental and physical endurance that allowed her to capture the top prize.

“You have to get out there and you have to dominate,” Ngwenyama says. “That’s how it’s won."

*This article appeared in Strings October 2011
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