Winner’s tour for Nikki Chooi, 2013 Michael Hill Violin Competition: a finished artist

Nikki Chooi – violin, Stephen de Pledge – piano and Ashley Brown – cello
(Chamber Music New Zealand and the Michael Hill International Violin Competition)

Mozart: Sonata for piano and violin in E flat, K 302
Smetana: Piano Trio in G minor, Op 15
Beethoven: Violin Sonata in E flat, Op 12 No 3
Jack Body: Caravan
Ravel: Tsigane

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 20 June, 7:30 pm

Canadian Nikki Chooi won the 2013 Michael Hill International Violin Competition and this concert was in the middle of a series of sixteen concerts and recitals around New Zealand, which forms part of the prize.

Oddly, the biographical notes in the programme only listed the competitions in which he’s had success, orchestras with which and places where he has played. It neglected to say where and when he was born and had his early music education. Almost all the concerto engagements mentioned, like those in New Zealand, seem to have followed competition successes, mainly in Canada and Belgium.

He was born in Victoria, British Columbia, to parents of Chinese descent, began to learn the violin at the Victoria Conservatory at the age of four, and at  fourteen entered the Mount Royal University in Calgary. In 2012, he graduated Bachelor of Music from the Curtis Institute of Music and was awarded the Milka Violin Artist Prize upon graduation. Though no website discloses his date of birth, he was under 28 when he won the Michael Hill Competition. He now studies at the Juilliard School of Music in New York, under Ida Kavafian and Donald Weilerstein.

Chooi played three programmes round the country, the common pieces throughout being Ravel’s Tsigane and the piece Jack Body was commissioned to compose for the competition itself.

Wellington’s allocation began with one of Mozart’s two-movement sonatas (in E flat, K 302) that he wrote for his ill-fated Paris tour of 1778.  The players eschewed any attempt at ‘historical practice’ since, after all, few halls are equipped with a fortepiano or harpsichord and one such as the Michael Fowler Centre would lose a lot of the sound. In truth, the character of Chooi’s playing seems to flourish with the music of the 19th century, with its warm, voluptuous tone and his genuine instinct for expressive ‘Romantic’ music.

These sonatas are titled with the piano first and the violin seeming to be the accompanying instrument. But there was no sign here of the violin being secondary, their contributions were equal and in accord. The two movements are not strongly contrasted, as the second, Andante grazioso, though different in rhythm and mood, was not markedly different in tempo.

Chooi’s violin was flawless, its tone opulent. It might have been a Beethoven of 20 years later.

After the interval, they did play Beethoven of 20 years later: the last of Beethoven’s first three violin sonatas, Op 12. It is common to approach Beethoven’s early, pre-1800 music as if it was more like Mozart and Haydn than his own later music. But the current broadcasts by RNZ Concert of Michael Houstoun’s piano ‘re-cycle’ series of all the piano sonatas last year has illuminated the gulf that exists between even his early works and his predecessors.

This E flat sonata was evidence. Again, the two musicians were in total sympathy in this, the most sophisticated of the set, with its combination of bravura and melodic inventiveness. In the slow movement, with charming quavers rippling from the piano, there was delightful ease and gentleness quite without self-attention. Can musicians who produce music of such evenness, tonal beauty and fluency really get to the heart of Beethoven? Well, yes, in this instance.

I became familiar with Smetana’s piano trio when it seemed to be quite frequently played, twenty years or so ago – perhaps in the days when Czech musicians used to visit more often; perhaps it was coincidence that led me to think it was somewhat central to the trio repertoire. But what prompted its inclusion here? It flows from the piano trio phase of the competition, in which cellist Ashley Brown was involved.

The Romantic character of the piece seemed to suit the players, especially the violinist for whom Smetana’s elegiac and tempestuous music offered broad scope. Opening with the violin, alone, in a strong, sombre announcement of the work’s prevailing character, even the first movement develops in various ways after cello and piano enter.

The Trio section of the second movement is divided into two distinct parts, continuing the quixotic mood changes that characterize the whole work, and which the players handled with aplomb. Often passionately rhetorical, occasionally calm, then agitated, this music offered the players scope for more passionate and grieving performance than they actually embraced, especially the violinist, whose commitment to producing beautiful sounds played down the pain in the music.

The last two pieces fall into the class of bravura, designed to tax the player(s) to the utmost. Caravan, for solo violin, might have seemed a little out of character for Jack Body for, in spite of its origin as a Persian song, there seemed little Persian in the style of the ‘arrangement’, as it was rather overwhelmed by the flamboyant music that proved ideal for its purpose. Chooi had its measure and delivered a spectacular performance. The same went for Ravel’s Tsigane in which the violin has a long, virtuosic, solo introduction before the piano entry. The piece is no mere aural spectacle however; it has musical substance and both musicians handled its pianissimo phrases and subtlety with considerable musical discretion.