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The Hunger Games of Violin at Carnegie Hall: The Story of a Juilliard Violinist Concertmaster's Broken Bow

02/10/2015 05:23 pm ET | Updated Apr 12, 2015

In any competition there is only one underlying mantra: Winning. We saw this beautifully played out at Carnegie Recital Hall (Weill Hall) last January 11th during the final round of the Violin Competition, called "Getting to Carnegie", in which four top violinists from the best conservatories in the world went on stage. Unlike other classical music competitions, there was no jury. Instead, it was up to the audience to decide the winner.

To apply for the competition, the violinists submitted the YouTube links of their best work to the contest organizer. Four finalists were chosen online as violinists from around the globe uploaded their best work on YouTube. The netizens selected the best from them by evaluating their two video recordings. The first was a freely chosen 3-5 minute recording for either solo violin or violin and piano, from the standard classical violin repertoire. The second is a required sonata movement to be performed either solo or with the preferred piano accompaniment.

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Julian Gargiulo

The brainchild of pianist/composer extraordinaire Julian Gargiulo, who jokingly refers to it as "The Hunger Games of violin, with a different kind of bow", this is America's Got Talent meets Carnegie Hall. But what happens when a confluence of external factors (more commonly referred to as 'life') changes the outcome of the game?

Julian organized this competition born out of a desire to make classical music be known and appreciated by more people. He remarked, "I just had no idea it would be so successful." The tickets to the January 11th concert at Carnegie were sold out quickly. The four finalists each had to perform one movement of Julian's four-movement "Sonata for Violin and Piano", thus making this the U.S. premiere of the work, albeit a very unusual one.

Nuné Melikian (Moscow Conservatory), Margarita Krein (Manhattan School of Music), Carter Coleman (Cleveland Institute of Music), and Haeji Kim (Juilliard School of Music) took to the stage one by one. The performances were spellbinding. Such concentration. Such complete immersion in the music. Such different musical and onstage personalities. After each performer played, they were then introduced to the audience, who got a chance to interact with them briefly. Julian's signature style of presentation, something between Saturday Night Live and a lecture recital, helped the somewhat nervous players to relax and the audience to start to converse, resulting in an interesting mix of serious and playful.

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While the votes were being tallied up, the four violinists were invited back to the stage for what seemed more like a talk-show than a concert. "I'm finally getting to fulfill my dream of being a talk-show host," Julian quipped. The audience seemed genuinely pleased to get a chance to interact with the young musicians.

In the end, it was the Korean violinist from Juilliard, who, by just four votes, prevailed over the Armenian from the Moscow State Conservatory. The audience was excited. The artists were thrilled. After all, they had just performed at Carnegie Hall. Haeji was ecstatic, hugging Julian saying, "I can't believe I won!" Her prize, to fly to the Virgin Islands, leaving sub-zero New York for the Water Island Music Festival that will take place January 16-18, 2015. She would be the featured violinist, performing the entire Sonata as well as other works.

Details were finalized. Plane tickets purchased. Repertoire discussed. The following day Julian received a phone call from the Dean's office at Juilliard. The tone was ominous. Haeji had not gone through the proper channels, did not get the required approval in advance from the school, and thus was not at liberty to just pack up and go. This situation must have happened in the past especially in a school such as Juilliard and in the demanding world of classical music in general. The whole concept of the "lucky break" is based on the unexpected happening. Surely Juilliard must take this into account? Apparently Haeji was free to go if she wanted, but in exchange she could expect to be stripped of her concertmaster status in the orchestra, receive a very low grade, and very likely, will not graduate. Was she really being given a choice?

The four violinists probably all deserved to win. A few people remarked that the names of the schools should have been omitted, as this information may have influenced some people's vote. Ironically, in this case, it was the very school which nullified her victory. Who is to say what the long-lasting positive or negative effects will be. However, one thing is for sure: The audience voted for Haeji, but 'life' instead chose Nuné.