The College of Fine Arts School of Music held a concert Dec. 2 for the winners of the 2021 Bach competition. The winners include undergraduate prize winner Sofia Janssen, grand prize winner Yingchen Zhang and co-winners of the graduate violin prize Yeonji Shim, Cheng-Yeh Tsou and Molly Tucker.
The competition took place on Nov. 18 and students auditioned live on the concert hall stage in the CFA. The judges were all faculty members. Students auditioning played unaccompanied suites and partitas by Johann Sebastian Bach.
“There’s 12 masterpieces written by Bach for unaccompanied strings, and they’re amazing music,” said Michelle LaCourse, chair of the string department and the performance and applied studies and associate professor for viola in the School of Music. “They’re also very difficult and they’re staples of the repertoire.”
Students who entered played Bach’s partitas for violins or his suites for viola, cello and bass. The winners are all violinists. Five out of six sonatas and partitas for unaccompanied violin were represented at the concert. A total of 12 students auditioned for the competition.
Janssen, the undergraduate prize winner, is a sophomore violin performance major. She began playing violin at age 11. For the competition, she played Partita No. 3 in E Major and performed selections of the same piece at the winner’s concert.
“I decided to do the competition three weeks before it was happening because I was feeling really stuck with what I was learning,” she said. “I wanted to set myself a goal to see if I could accomplish it and re-spark my life’s joy in music-making.”
Zhang, a first-year doctor of musical arts student and the grand prize winner of the competition, played Sonata No. 3 in C major, for both her audition and two weeks later the concert.
“My mom took me to the park one day when I was like 4 [years old] and we saw a group of musicians playing there and at that point, I didn’t know what violin was at all but then I was drawn to the sound,” Zhang said. “I wanted to play it.”
Zhang began playing violin at 4 and a half years old.
She said her friend told her about the competition and since she was working on the Bach sonata at the time, Zhang didn’t see a reason not to compete.
Tsou, one of the co-winners of the graduate violin prize, played Sonata No. 2 in A minor for the competition and concert.
“The reason I auditioned for the competition is to give myself a chance to prepare a complete Bach sonata with limited time,” Tsou wrote. “I think participating in this competition would be a good challenge for me.”
LaCourse said Bach is an essential piece of the string repertoire.
“Bach also just teaches us everything about playing the instrument,” she said, “how to phrase, how to shape sequences, double stops, when you’re playing more than one note at a time and chords … There are all sorts of complications in playing Bach.”
Janssen said that while she does not have a personal connection to Bach, she said all string instruments have some connection to the repertoire.
“I think all string players really connect to Bach in some way just because he wrote these three partitas and three sonatas for violin and six suites for cello,” Janssen said. “So for all strings, they’re these six really important big works of music.”
Zhang said her favorite part of the concert was the third movement to Largo which “holds a special place in my heart.”
“It’s like a combination of simplicity and complete complication, few words can describe,” Zhang said. “On sheet music, it’s really complicated, but then at the same time, it’s really natural in a way and very simple.”
Tsou wrote that the concert on Dec. 2 was also a great way to learn from fellow students.
“My favorite part of the concert is to listen to other outstanding peers perform on stage,” Tsou wrote. “It is always very interesting to listen to the interpretations of Bach of others since it could differ a lot.”
Molly Farrar, features editor, competed in the competition but was not featured in the concert.