For almost two decades, the biennial Michael Hill International Violin Competition has been a major focus and global showcase for our country's musical energies.

The final round is the culmination of a weekend's solo recitals in Queenstown for all 16 competitors and two Auckland evenings of Mozart quintets for the six semi-finalists. In the grand final, the top three compete for the ultimate $40,000 prize, with generous bonuses including a 2020 New Zealand concert tour.

Jevgenijs Cepoveckis from Latvia, along with South Korean Anna Im and American Eric Tsai, were not unknown quantities, thanks to online performances from earlier in the week. Some of the audience may already have picked favourites, won over by the persuasive sweetness of Im's Tchaikovsky or Tsai's dashing Paganini.

Cepoveckis charmed me twice: with soulful Bloch on viola, after a cheery Kia Ora greeting and when his well marshalled Mozart quintet brought a special solidarity and ensemble to the players around him.

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It was Im who came out on top, consolidating the judges' cumulative decision-making with a thoughtful Sibelius concerto. Her lingering Andante di moto was indeed beautiful, with conductor Giordano Bellincampi drawing out exemplary woodwind playing from an Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra that ran on high octane all evening.

Cepoveckis and Tsai had chosen more radical repertoire with Shostakovich's First Concerto, a searing score, far from the bittersweet romanticism of Sibelius. For me, Cepoveckis had the edge in terms of projecting its power, despite his determination to face conductor rather than audience. He ended up third to Tsai, whose heart wrenching Passacaglia gave its Andante the emotional gravitas of an Adagio.

Despite his third placing, Cepoveckis not only carried off the audience prize but, perhaps significantly, was given two years' custody of a rare 1645 Amati violin, handed to him by Sir Michael Hill, without whose vision our city, our country and indeed the violin world would be immeasurably poorer.

What: Michael Hill International Violin Competition final
Where & when: Auckland Town Hall, Saturday