The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Are the rules of the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s Bolz Young Artist Competition fair? Or do they need to be changed? | April 1, 2017

By Jacob Stockinger

Everyone The Ear has spoken to agrees: The Madison Symphony Orchestra’s concerto competition that took place last Wednesday night — and which was broadcast live over Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR) and Wisconsin Public Television (WPT) — was an extraordinary and inspiring artistic event.

All of those people had nothing but the highest praise for all four teenage finalists – (below, from left) violinist Julian Rhee, harpist Naomi Sutherland, pianist Michael Wu and violinist Yaoyao Chen — who performed under the baton of MSO music director John DeMain.

The Ear can only endorse the fantastic review of the event by local music critic Greg Hettmansberger:

And you can find out more about at the contestants at this past posting, which has links to biographies and biographical YouTube videos about them and also lists the REBROADCAST TIMES ON TODAY AND SUNDAY:

But several people The Ear knows also raised a difficult question that the MSO, WPR, WPT and seems to have avoided:

Is it fair that the impressively talented 16-year-old violinist Julian Rhee, from Brookfield, got to win the first prize for a second time?

Curiously, there was no mention of his previous win in 2015 – a younger Rhee is seen below — when he played the first movement of the Violin Concerto by Brahms. That win went unspoken during this year’s live broadcast, and even in the pre-event publicity or in the post-event publicity.

It almost seems as if the organizers recognized that pointing it out would sound funny, awkward or questionable.

Also, no mention was made that the gifted Rhee also won a competition with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and then played at Concerts on the Square; or that just a month ago, Rhee appeared on the regular season of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, playing the complete Brahms concerto under WCO music director Andrew Sewell.

Such experience probably qualified Rhee – a maturing prodigy — as a professional or at least a semi-professional, assuming he got paid for the WCO appearance, rather than an amateur.

Let’s be clear: This year, Rhee played the opening movement of the Violin Concerto by Tchaikovsky stupendously well. It is hard to argue with the decision of the three judges to award him first prize.

In short, Rhee did nothing wrong and everything right. His winning was not in any way tainted. He won fair and square. He played brilliantly, beautifully and engagingly.

What some people are questioning is not Rhee’s victory, but whether the rules themselves are unfair by allowing a previous first prize-winner to compete a second time. It certainly appears to put the other young competitors with less experience at a disadvantage.

Now, the rules do allow for a performer to win multiple first prizes. Historically, a couple of contestants have indeed won again, performing on different instruments for each appearance.

And no one seems to object that a second-, third- or fourth-prize winner gets a chance to try again to do better and win.

True, the eligibility rules do require that one year passes before a first-prize winner can compete again.

But the question seems to be: Are the rules fair? Or should they be modified, so that the playing field is more even for all the young participants?

Should first-prize winners be excluded from competing again?

That is the question that is being raised, however it is answered.

So The Ear and others want to know:

What do you think?

Are the rules fair or unfair?

Should first-prize winners be allowed to compete again?

Should the rules be changed or stay the same?

Leave your point of view in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


  1. Quando estiver mexendo e também a volume for ficando consistente,
    você vai chegar ao sinal de cambalhota da volume do brigadeiro.

    Comment by — April 10, 2017 @ 12:51 am

  2. Are there “rules for the Bolz” competition posted anywhere? I could find none.

    Comment by FFlambeau — April 1, 2017 @ 9:21 pm

    • I believe the rules are only listed on the application form, which will likely not be available for viewing again until the competition reopens in the fall. One could potentially contact the MSO’s Education office to obtain a copy.

      As a former entrant, I’m of the opinion that it is unfair to allow a former (first-place) winner to compete on the same instrument. The field is narrow enough at the very top that it deprives other talented young players of already scarce opportunities when the same person is allowed to win again. (In a case like that of Alice Huang, who made the Final Forte on both violin and piano in consecutive years, the issue is moot – talent on that level on multiple instruments is worthy of the extra recognition.)

      I do not, on the other hand, have a problem with competitors who have been paid to play professionally, even with major orchestras. Building a career as a young player is immensely difficult, and I see no reason to punish a gifted soloist by excluding them from youth competitions for the crime of having accepted a professional engagement. (Whether orchestras ought to be engaging 16-year-olds as professional soloists at all is a separate question.)

      Regarding Greg’s comment (that you should have to compete against the best), I think it mis-identifies the purpose of these competitions. The whole point of picking four soloists to perform with orchestra is to spread the opportunity around, and this is part of the symphony’s educational mission, not its regular concert programming. Playing with orchestra is an incredible learning experience for a young musician totally unlike any other, and I think it’s in the interest of the orchestra to try to make that available to as many different players as possible – a goal toward which a rule that first-place finishers may not compete in consecutive years already aspires.

      Comment by Mikko Utevsky — April 4, 2017 @ 12:02 pm

  3. Two questions have been raised: 1) should past winners be allowed to re-enter? and 2) should professionals be allowed to enter? The first question can be a fairly easy answer (though, as noted below, would a past winner be disqualified in general, or only on the same instrument?). The second is a little stickier – many high school students have played a wedding or two for money, Would that make them professionals? Is that the same as being paid to perform as a soloist with a professional orchestra?

    Comment by Steve Rankin — April 1, 2017 @ 8:08 pm

    • Good breakdown but I think #1 is more troublesome than you give it credit for. If the purpose of the competition is to encourage new and upcoming artists how does having a repeat winner play into that? As to professionals, I see nothing wrong with playing for a wedding or family for a small gratuity; but giving public concerts and getting money in return is in a different league entirely. Performing for the likes of the Pittsburgh and Milwaukee symphony orchestras is not like playing at a wedding. It should be a disqualifier.

      Comment by FFlambeau — April 1, 2017 @ 9:24 pm

  4. The young Rhee is obviously a professional violinist if he gets paid already for his performances. However, he should be allowed to compete in any competition which would advance his courier. I think the rule was as I remember, that the 1. place winner had to wait 2 years before entering the competition again. But the rule may have changed.

    Comment by Irmgard Bittar — April 1, 2017 @ 1:57 pm

  5. And this is an excellent discussion topic.

    Comment by George Hesselberg — April 1, 2017 @ 9:19 am

  6. Each year is a different competition. Past winners can compete in every discipline I can think of: art, literature, athletics, marbles. Unless or until there is a rule against it, to be the best you have to beat the best. I thought the competitors this year were outstanding, and that the winner was a notch above and deserved it. Next year, maybe not.

    Comment by George Hesselberg — April 1, 2017 @ 9:18 am

  7. I do not think first prize winners should be permitted to compete again.

    Comment by Deb — April 1, 2017 @ 7:24 am

    • I will add my rationale: we want to encourage young people and help promote their development. Let’s do that for more young musicians not continue to reward the same.

      Comment by Deb — April 1, 2017 @ 7:29 am

  8. Are there actually any rules? I could find none, anywhere.

    Comment by FFlambeau — April 1, 2017 @ 7:16 am

  9. It depends on what the purpose of the contests its: if it is to encourage new competitors, then past winners should not be allowed to compete again. If it it to recognize talented young people, no problem. I think the bigger question here is: if Rhee performed for money in Pittsburgh and perhaps elsewhere, is he really an amateur? I would hope that the contests would be limited to amateurs.

    Comment by FFlambeau — April 1, 2017 @ 7:07 am

  10. My memory is that, when I entered some years ago, previous first place winners were prohibited from reapplying on the same instrument. That clearly must have changed, or I am recalling incorrectly.

    Comment by Mikko Utevsky — April 1, 2017 @ 1:42 am

  11. Of course, again I totally agree that the Young Artist’s concert was superlative. Actually, I thought Rhee had won 2 times before but it is a legitimate question: whether a past winner should compete again. If nothing else, prohibiting a person to appear more than once would open the contest to another player. According to his bio, he’s performed with the Pittsburgh Symphony. This kid has a charmed life ahead. NO doubt about it.

    Comment by buppanasu — April 1, 2017 @ 12:12 am

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