Japan’s Daichi Deguchi takes the top conducting prize at the 2021 Khachaturian International Competition

ArmeniaArmenia 17th Khachaturian International Competition, 2021 (II): 10-12.6.2021. (CC)

Daichi Deguchi wins the First Prize 0f 10,000 USD and two concerts

Second Round, Day 1, 10.6.2021

Armenian State Symphony Orchestra / Daichi Deguchi (conductor, Japan)
Khachaturian – Symphony No.2 (‘The Bell Symphony’), first movement (performed by all competitors)
Tchaikovsky – Symphony No.5, third movement

If the Armenian State Symphony Orchestra reacted well to Deguchi in the first round, the rapport increased exponentially for this second round. Deguchi captured the drama of the opening of the first movement of Khachaturian’s Second Symphony beautifully. It is a difficult piece and includes some moments of amazing scoring (a bassoon solo over very low bass later a case in point). Under Deguchi, the piece appeared white-hot; the woodwind solos in general were beautiful, the brass respondent.

When it comes to the Tchaikovsky, how the players took the opening from Deguchi I will never know – but they did. This is the Waltz from the Fifth Symphony, and it was infectious. The strings were superb at speed, very together. And Deguchi understood the relevance of the arrival of the symphony’s motto theme towards the end. Fabulous.

Armenian State Symphony Orchestra / Ian Niederhoffer (conductor, USA)
Khachaturian & Dvořák (Symphony No.9 (‘From the New World’), second movement

It is a lovely thought that as second round progressed, we got to hear the various movements of Khachaturian’s Second Symphony in order, albeit separated by movements from other composers.

The second movement of the Khachaturian is wonderfully scored (including orchestral piano), full of accents and very fast repeated notes. Again, Niederhoffer achieved fine results, particularly the brass fanfares against the long string melodies. This movement of the symphony settles into a far darker stretch, which Niederhoffer shapes well.

The famous slow movement of the ‘New World’ Symphony attained grandeur here; detail was marked, including a lovely string tremolo underpinning woodwind solos. Taken this slowly, the movement becomes remarkably dark and glowering. Stimulating fare,

Armenian State Symphony Orchestra / Yu-kuang Jin (conductor, China)
Dvořák – Symphony No.9 (‘From the New World’), third movement & Khachaturian

Nice to start with the jaunty third movement of the ‘New World’, here very technically correct from the conductor if not absolutely together from the orchestra. One does wonder if conductors in competitions try extreme tempos to make themselves stand out: the Trio was, to be kind, luxuriant, and just worked via a dollop or so of affectionate phrasing. One certainly felt the contrast between the two plateaux of this movement.

The third movement of the Khachaturian begins with low piano, a memorable beginning to a superb piece of music that Jin clearly understood: he did not rush the funereal aspects, and yet found excitement later on.

Second Round, Day 2, 11.6.2021

Armenian State Symphony Orchestra / Elias Brown (conductor, USA)
Tchaikovsky – Symphony No.5, second movement & Khachaturian

Elias Brown delivered a well-shaped performance of Tchaikovsky’s famous slow movement, timing the climax well, but there was a mistake in that he left the beat before a brass outburst to chance and the strings didn’t quite know what to do with it.

The Khachaturian though was less compelling in this performance, at least until the closing pages of the score – a pity as the work contains a terrific moment of destabilising piano. Interesting too that at the climax it does rather feel that the music could easily tilt towards the Spartacus Adagio (it doesn’t). The bell-saturated ending is glorious, especially as the bells resonate on, and Brown managed to do it justice.

Armenian State Symphony Orchestra / Pablo Devigo Vázquez (conductor, Spain)
Dvořák – Symphony No.9 (‘From the New World’), third movement & Khachaturian

This was exciting. Batonless, Vázquez inspired the Armenian players to scampering, spectral sounds; a pity the ensemble became shaky later on. This is the most difficult movement to conduct, arguably, of the four of the ‘New World’.

Vázquez was more restrained in his approach to the Khachaturian third movement – high on mystery but less so on the idea of an onward march. But the positive here is Vázquez’s ability to highlight the colouristic elements of Khachaturian’s scoring, and we heard the ‘Dies Irae’ more obviously here.

Armenian State Symphony Orchestra / Yoona Jeong (conductor, South Korea)
Tchaikovsky – Symphony No.5, first movement & Khachaturian

Quite a meaty programme here for Yoona Jeong, and disappointing in realisation, unfortunately. The pacing of the opening of Tchaikovsky’s symphony was well considered, but then the music sagged. The performance was disciplined, but in a negative, regimented way. Ensemble was not always together, and although not available in the concert hall, there was a distinct urge to fast-forward this (I didn’t!). At times, this first movement felt like a slow movement; a propensity to get faster when the music got louder did not help.

That exercise-like rigidity affected the Khachaturian finale, too, which felt insubstantial. One needs to hear the humour and playfulness in this music, too, and it was almost entirely lacking. The end was underwhelming, and Jeong’s final gesture of a ‘slam dunk’ with a supplementary gesture off to the side just looked odd.

Closing Gala Concert: Presented by members of the Khachaturian Piano Trio. Armenian State Symphony Orchestra. Aram Khachaturian Concert Hall, Yerevan, 12.6.2021.

Beethoven – Symphony No.2, first movement (cond. Ian Niederhoffer)
Mansurian – Intermezzo from Partita (cond. Yu-kuang Jin)
KhachaturianSpartacus: Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia (cond. Alexandr Iradyan)
Khachaturian – Symphony No.2 (‘The Bell Symphony’), fourth movement (cond. Daichi Deguchi)

Plenty on offer here: archive film of Khachaturian himself, a film of the history of the competition (including references to the digital competition last year). Speeches galore, and we got to see the judges. This is clearly a popular event (I am not sure I saw too much social distancing – Armenia is currently on the amber list here in the UK).

Ian Niederhoffer was awarded a special prize for the best interpretation of a piece from the classical period in the first round and conducted the first movement of the Second Symphony again; it felt as if the opening was a touch slower this time to give maximal contrast to the fiery Allegro. Ektoras Tartanis received a prize for his performance of the Khachaturian in the first round, but he had already left Armenia …

The Polish Ambassador to Armenia presented Alexandr Iradyan who will conduct at the Warmia-Masuria Philharmonic Orchestra’s concert hall in the 2021/22 season. He conducted the Adagio from Spartacus here, to great effect (and many cheers). Yu-kuang Jin won the best interpretation of a work by an Armenian composer in the first round and conducted the Mansurian Intermezzo, while it was left to the overall winner, Daichi Deguchi, to conduct the finale of Khachaturian’s Second Symphony with the composer’s own baton as part of the prize (he also receives 10,000 USD and two performances in Armenia during the 2022/3 and 2023/4 seasons). Deguchi’s performance was if anything even more electric, charged from first to last. A worthy winner.

Daichi Deguchi, conducts the finale of Khachaturian’s Second Symphony
with the composer’s own baton

In full, the awards given were:

Special prizes

1) Best interpretation of a Classical Symphony (1st Round) – Ian Niederhoffer
2) Best interpretation of a work by Armenian contemporary composer (1st Round) – Yu-kuang Jin
3) Special Prize after Gagik Gabrielyan for the best interpretation of the Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia (Spartacus Suite No.2) by Aram Khachaturian (1st Round) – Ektoras Tartanis
4) Special Prize after Yuri Davtyan for the best interpretation of the Symphony No.2 (‘The Bell Symphony’) by Aram Khachaturian (2nd Round) – Yoona Jeong
5) ‘Audience Award’ Special prize (voted online) – one concert performance with the Armenian State Symphony Orchestra during its 2022/23 concert season – Ian Niederhoffer
6) Special Prize funded by the Feliks Nowowiejski Warmian-Masurian Philharmonic in Olsztyn – a symphonic concert in the 2021/22 artistic season with the symphony orchestra at the Warmia-Masuria Philharmonic’s concert hall – Alexandr Iradyan

Prize laureates

1st prize – USD 10,000; two concert performances in Armenia during 2022/23 and 2023/24 concert seasons offered by the Organizing Committee of the Competition – Daichi Deguchi
2nd prize – Yu-kuang Jin
3rd prize – Elias Brown
4th prize – Ian Niederhoffer

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