World Class Players in the Living Room

An Interview with Gilbert Varga, Chair of the Jury at the International Violin Competition Henri Marteau


WFIMC: Mr. Varga, could you tell us a little about Henri Marteau?

Gilbert Varga: Henri Marteau was born in 1874 in Reims, France, and had the bad fortune of having a French father and a German mother. This was not an advantage at the time, to say the least. At first, his career started off well. He performed in Vienna, London, Paris and in the USA. In 1908 he became the successor of Joseph Joachim at the University of Berlin. But soon, things became difficult: the Germans called him a French spy; the French suspected him to be a spy for the Germans. He lost his position in Berlin and was put under house arrest. His life was not an easy one… but in the end, he settled in the very place where our competition takes place today: in Lichtenberg, Upper Franconia- in a very beautiful corner of southeastern Germany. What a gorgeous house! When I first saw it, back in the 80s, it was just 500m away from the East German border. Very isolated, a beautiful, grand old building. And this is one of the signature features of our competition: it takes place in the house of its namesake. 

Gilbert Varga

Haus Marteau, the venue of the competition

Living Room

The Living Room at Haus Marteau


Jury and laureates in 2017

There is a concert hall in the house?

The first two rounds of the competition take place in the large, stylish living room of Henri Marteau. Only the last round takes place in the nearby city Hof, with the Hofer Symphoniker. The living room is something really special. You smell the old walls, you sense the history of the house. You really have to come see it! Every visitor loves Marteau´s house. He is still there, actually: he is buried in the garden, together with his wife, just a few steps from the house. It´s really moving… I think there are few competitions so closely associated with their patron.

And you can live in the house as well?

No- you cannot live in the house. But the building is now owned by the regional government of Upper Franconia, and they have academies and masterclasses there all year long.
Actually recently, the regional government has invested quite a lot: a concert hall has been built next to the house- not huge, just about 100 seats or so- but I have not seen it yet. It was just completed! Do you know the name Peter Sadlo, maybe?

new concert hall
The spectacular new Concert Hall alongside Haus Marteau

The late timpani player of the Munich Philharmonic?

Yes! He initiated this project, actually. He was very active at Haus Marteau, even as Artistic Director, for many years. After he suddenly died in 2016 he was succeeded by the conductor Christoph Adt. There are lots of masterclasses in the house all the time, and once every three years the violin competition takes place.

How many people fit in the living room of Henri Marteau?

Around 100 people.

That´s not a small living room…

Exactly, but it is really special and very atmospheric. There are other rooms for practicing and preparation, but no rooms to stay overnight- the candidates mostly live with local families.

And you are working with the Hofer Symphoniker for the finals?

Yes, they have been involved in the organisation of the competition since 2008 and actively support us in a wonderful way. I myself began working for the competition in 2008 as well. Inaugurated by the Freundeskreis Haus Marteau (Society) the competition took place for the first time in 2002 and then again in 2005. Since 2008 there have been four competitions, one every three years, with one more having been cancelled due to Covid. We are now preparing the 8th taking place in 2023.

You have some great composers writing for the competition…

Yes, we are always looking for interesting people! Do you know the Chinese composer Xiaogang Ye? I´ve actually recorded a whole disc of his works with the Scottish National Orchestra in Glasgow- he has written a piece for us, likewise Fazil Say, Steven Mackey and Søren Nils Eichberg.

How has the competition changed over the years, as it became more well-known?

Well, we´ve had very high profile winners right from the beginning. Andrei Baranow went on to win the Queen Elisabeth; then there was Tobias Feldmann, Fedor Rudin, and Lorenz Chen. But maybe this is a good time to talk about a few points that make us different from all the other competitions. You see, I´ve been in the jury at several other competitions. Let´s be honest: these video-recorded preselections, I don´t think they work very well. You have candidates recording their performance in a concert hall, and then there are others  recording in their living room, especially if they don´t have the means to make a professional recording. And you simply cannot compare the two. Especially their sound: how do you want to compare them?
Here at the Marteau we have decided not to do a preselection. Everyone who wants to come can come. Last time, we had over 102 candidates playing the first round!

And how long do they get to play, if you have over 100 candidates?

15 minutes. Honestly: After 15 minutes everyone knows whether someone can play. 15 minutes are enough. They really get 15 minutes, and I´m not cutting them off with a bell or something.

But that way you need quite a few days until you have listened to those 100 players…

Yes. The first five or six days, we work from 9 in the morning until 9 at night. We don´t mind that- the atmosphere is great in that living room, and we really want to give everyone the same chance. After the announcement at the end of the first round, everyone who dropped out gets feedback too: each of the jury members has a little table and everyone can come and talk to them about their playing.
We try to finish the first round around lunchtime so that we have the whole afternoon and evening for feedback. Sometimes there are long lines, but we really want to make it worth their while for everyone to travel to our competition.
It´s long, but we have a great kitchen in the house, and there is a comfortable area reserved for the candidates where they can get refreshments, food and drink.

Gilbert Varga, Chair of the Jury, with 2nd Prize winner Yukino Nakamura (2017)

But what happens to someone who, let´s say, plays on the first day? Can they stay another 5 days until the results are announced?

Absolutely. They can stay for the whole competition, if they want. We have host families for everyone. It is a wonderful exchange between the musicians and the community, because of course the host families are interested in the progress of “their” candidate, which they follow closely. Through this, the competition has really become an integral part in the cultural life of the region.

Another important point of the Marteau Competition is that we don´t accept students of jury members at all. Unlike other competitions, where a certain jury member might just not vote for their student, at our competition, if your teacher is in the jury, you cannot participate. We have very strict and detailed rules regarding this.
Despite these rules, it actually happened last time that the student of a jury member applied. During the preparation, the jury member recognised the candidate that they had taught and in line with the rules, the candidate was barred from the competition. It is tough, but you know: being strict with this issue really helps the jury too. It can be very stressful for someone whose student performs at a competition, especially towards the end of the competition. Your reputation is on the line, so to speak. At the Marteau competition, you simply don´t have to worry about this. We´ve left all these issues behind, there is no chance of a quid pro quo, no tricky situations anymore.

Has anything changed at the competition due to the pandemic? Have you been streaming performances in the past?

Yes, I believe we already began with streaming in 2014, and now you can follow the entire competition online.
Unless there are new restrictions next year- you never know- it will be more or less like before.
As I said- it´s a wonderful place to visit and I would like to invite everyone who is interested. It will be a great competition, once again!


©WFIMC 2022/ fr