Inevitably, the buzz around town this week has been the Michael Hill Violin Competition. With last weekend's Queenstown eliminations over, and all performances still available online, the contestants and adjudicators have come north.

Two Thursday masterclasses had judges Dmitry Sitkovetsky and James Ehnes commenting with insight and sometimes waggish humour on violinists playing everything from solo concertos to Bach fugues.

Sitkovetsky excelled with Shostakovich, likening a cadenza's notes and silences to an actor's measured speech; Ehnes thrilled us whenever he took up his instrument as well as taking witty issue with just how much ink Bach must have used.

The suspense came with the Chamber Music Semifinals, in which six players had their opportunity to form a dream trio with pianist Michael Houstoun and cellist Ashley Brown.


Accidents will happen. A few years ago, we had a weighty Teutonic banquet in the final concert, with three Brahms concertos; this year, five of the six semifinalists chose Mendelssohn for their chamber music selection.

Over two evenings we heard the cream of the cream, thanks to the competition's scrupulous selection processes. And, although these trios are an important component in the final result, earlier Queenstown performances also count.

Two Canadians go through to the final concert: Nikki Chooi, already a prize-winner for his subtle exploration of Jack Body's test piece Caravan, and Boson Mo, whose infinitely flexible and insinuating Ravel rounded off the Mendelssohn mini-festival.

German Sarah Christian, whose almost demonic Mendelssohn scherzo is still ringing in my ears, will join them.

Some highlights came from players who will not be performing on Saturday. In particular, Romanian Ioana Cristina Goicea, who was one of the best in terms of projection and musicianly involvement with her colleagues.

Natalie Lin, the second New Zealander to reach this level of the competition, also formed a spirited trio with Houstoun and Brown, but her lines did not always maintain focus.

Tonight is the grand concerto finale. Chooi plays Sibelius, Christian has chosen Brahms and Mo moves from Ravel to Prokofiev. Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra will be conducted by Garry Walker in a night not to be missed.

• Michael Hill International Competition Final Round, Auckland Town Hall, tonight at 7.30

What: Michael Hill Semifinals

Where: Auckland Town Hall Concert Chamber

When: Wednesday and Thursday