All up at the Top - Interview with Anne Rodda
Michael Hill Violin Competition Executive Director Anne Rodda talks about the recent success of her Competition amid financial challenges and post-covid difficulties
Regarded as one of the finest violin competitions in the world, the Michael Hill International Violin Competition is one of New Zealand´s key iconic events. Among its past winners are Joseph Lin, Ning Feng, Nikki Chooi, Joseph Špaček and Suyeon Kang. Its digital reach is profound: the 2023 livestream attracted 350.000 views from around the world, and the event´s total digital reach was just under 2 million.
Long hailed as a covid-free country, New Zealand adopted a long isolation and a strict quarantine system which made it close to impossible to travel from and to the country. 2023 marks the first Michael Hill Competition after the 2019 edition as well as the complete 2021 competition had to be cancelled.
WFIMCnow spoke to Anne Rodda, Executive Director, as well as to the 20-year-old winner of the 2023 First Prize, Yeyeong Jenny Jin, a student of Itzhak Perlman at Juilliard.
WFIMCnow: it must have felt wonderful to finally have the competition back…
Anne Rodda: The artistic standard was head and shoulders over what we've had before. You know that when you get down to your final list of candidates: there are the ones that are really strong, viable contenders, and then the ones in a pretty big middle ground. But that middle ground was all up at the top. That, I think, is a result of more applicants and of course the ever-rising standard that was more noticeable over a four-year break.
Anne Rodda with Sir Michael Hill
The winners of the 2023 Michael Hill Competition
scenery at Queenstown, New Zealand
Auckland Town Hall
Still, you had quite a lot of applications?
160 to be exact. There could be more, but there is a financial commitment to enter, and an artistic commitment to make, too. We ask for a lot in the application to weed out those who would never really be contenders. We are quite happy with this number because it makes it possible to have a panel getting together, listening in live time and making decisions in the same headspace and in the same room. It took a full week this time- I think, around 35 hours- of listening together, and that offers a degree of integrity that we really like.
And you are with them all the time?
Yes, I am. The first couple of rounds are blind for the panel – they’re listening only and don’t know the applicants’ identities. I’m keeping track of everything but also actually playing the videos and watching my screen to ensure there has been no editing.
I read one interesting point in your regulations, which I wanted to ask you about. It says that during the evaluation, the executive director can pick some people who have not gotten through and make the panel re-vote on these people.
What I'm trying to do is avoid jury fatigue, after lunch for example. I throw recordings back in without the panel knowing to make sure applicants are not eliminated for lack of attention. But the panel is so attuned, they have always noticed when they think they have heard someone before.
I think that's a great idea.
It´s a great way to make sure their vote has been correct. They´re only human beings, and there are five of them. So if there is a disruption- a lawnmower or something that´s interfering, and I think that they were not focusing enough, I´ll add the recording back in. Or, if there is someone who, on paper, is an absolute standout such as a major prizewinner elsewhere but was eliminated early, I’ll reinsert them for a fresh listen later in the same round.
I have done this now a few times for every edition, and it´s not a lot of candidates, maybe three or four. But I think, out of all those years, only one candidate actually made it into the selection cohort.
160 applications is rather pushing the envelope for the jury to do the selection the way they do. There are other alternatives audition methods that could be considered, like doing it remotely, or discussing candidates. But at the Michael Hill, they just vote. They don´t ever converse. One hand, one vote - unlike the international jury who anonymously cast their votes, the panel members know who the others selected because it’s a show of hands for reasons of efficiency. But there is no discussion.
Has it changed after four rather than after two years?
I think that the selection has become stronger after four years. Also, for the first time, we didn´t have to dip into our alternate pool. That was astounding. All 18 candidates showed up! It made for an incredible artistic program. As for the voting, The Michael Hill works only with a ranking system for each jury member’s first to last placement preferences - no points are allocated (which does away with any ‘weigting’), and each violinist much earn a majority vote from the full panel of judges. This year there was a real clarity about a handful of players that were everyone´s favourites. After a very interesting chamber music round, we ended up with a well-balanced yet diverse final: three different concertos, three different style players. The artistic outcome was fantastic. We ended up with a winner who will really know how to use the first prize, how to take advantage of it. Jenny is very elegant, very mature, and it was a very solid win for her.
Moving on to the second prize: the woman who won second prize was much more dynamic, she took a lot of risks and maybe just pushed it a little bit too far for some of the judges. This is the every-present tension in a competition – to play it safe or to push the boundaries. Claire certainly has a huge future ahead.
How did you do financially?
The sponsors were very happy. We did really well and overachieved our sponsorship and our donation budgets. This was the first time we did not attract a grant from central government’s arts agency and I think this is reflective of priorities for equity and accessibility which is, as we all know, in sharp contrast to the pointy-end of European traditional art forms. Other projects were funded ahead of ours that had less artistic merit than ours, in my opinion. But that just seems to be the pendulum swinging way over to one extreme right now, and it will invariably settle at some stage. Our sizeable community and educational components were well-supported by municipal government and by grantors with youth beneficiaries as their objectives.
Another problem was the ever-rising airfares. We had secured a higher budget for air travel, but not sufficiently. Timing was a big problem: when we needed to make our international bookings, the flight schedules to New Zealand were still very sparse, with little competition in the market. We had to pay premium fares and later had to make last-minute changes, for example when a Ukrainian competitor could not fly via Australia since she didn´t have a transit visa.
In terms of audience, we didn´t perform as well at the box office as we did in other years. Our live audiences were down around 30%, which I have since learned was similar to audiences in Australia. Just advertising and having publicity was not enough, it took a lot of effort to work with partners in order to invite people and motivate them to come.
Another reason for our lower attendance was that people got lazy, I think. Why go out if you can watch at home, on your sofa, in your pyjamas… New Zealand has also suffered from the Netflix phenomenon, but people are just accustomed to being at home, not making the effort to go out.
Finally, there was also still some COVID fear from audience members, particularly in the Queenstown rounds which normally attract a lot of senior age travellers. In fact, it was just last week that our government removed all remaining COVID restrictions. The trade off to the world’s lowest Covid death rate was that everything here has been lagging behind: vaccinations, border openings, everything.
What programs did you offer for local artists?
We had a fellowship program that created a bridge between the international and the high-performance New Zealand artists for six tertiary-aged violinists. We simply do not have the scale here that other places can offer. New Zealand is very, very good all the way through secondary school and the start of university, but once a serious talent reaches their late teens or early twenties, we see that that finishing school happens overseas where there are more options.
But the fellowship program worked very well. The artists did half a dozen community performances in Queenstown, which was wonderful. They were hosts on stage, they had to present concert talks, and audiences reacted very positively. Besides, we also had a mini string festival that ran for three days in Auckland to take advantage of the calibre of violinists in the country, which was hugely successful. It pretty much buried me and my staff because it meant running a festival at the same time as the competition, but it was amazing, because it provided a visible link between the international and domestic players, a link that had been missing. We´re a small country that is very aware of its “boutique-ness”. Here, the string festival provided opportunities for competitors who did not advance to mingle and perform alongside their peers from New Zealand, and together with the next generation.
What is your next project?
Our Covid experience was to create domestic projects, so our three-year cycle now includes a regular New Zealand string competition, a music festival in Queenstown and an instrument bank for local players. Our next Michael Hill Competition project is a long way off- it’s the winners´ tour in October of next year. It will be a 12 or 13 city tour, possibly followed by some performances in Australia in 2025. This was one of the advantages for us moving from a 2-year to a 3-year rotation. It gives us more oxygen over everything, so it doesn´t all have to be so congested and jam-packed, and it will offer more flexibility for presenters.
This means your next competition will only be in 2026?
Yes! And happily, that is also the same pattern as Sydney. We´re in lockstep every three years. They were every four and they´ve moved to three, and we were every two and we´ve move to three. Great!
Pictures: ©James Robert, Michael Hill Int’l Violin Competition
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