Born into musical family in Bochum, Germany, Benjamim von Gutzeit has played viola since the age of four, and has been an international touring musician since he was fourteen. Jazz soon caught his ear and he took Jazz Studies at the Conservatory of Amsterdam. A New York resident since 2010, von Gutzeit became the first violist to earn a Master's Degree from the Jazz Department of the Manhattan School of Music. He has been a member of the Turtle Island Quartet
since 2012. For this semi-final, von Gutzeit chose Wayne Shorter's "Juju," Arthur Altman's jazz standard "All or Nothing at All" and Seifert's "Love in the Garden." Beginning with the jazz standard, von Gutzeit laid down an early marker with extended, lightly dancing solos either side of one from Wania. A highly melodic player, von Gutzeit demonstrated great finesse on the ballad "Love in The Garden." Though fluid, von Gutzeit placed more emphasis on melodic embellishment than displays of dazzling technique, and left room for a brief, but nicely weighted solo from Mucha. Without pausing, an unaccompanied viola feature formed a bridge to "Juju." On this more up-tempo tune, driven by the rhythm section, von Gutzeit showed a little more of his chops with some rapid runs, though there was always the sense of his serving the tune and not the other way around. Returning to the leading melody, the violist closed out with a final flourish -elegant as ever. Greg Byers
The sole cellist of this year's semi-final, Greg Byers began studying the instrument at The Family Suzuki School of Rochester at the tender age of two and a half. Fast forward to 2010 and the Frost School of Music where Byers became the first person to double major in Instrumental Performance/Studio Music & Jazz on cello and bass, graduating Summa Cum Laude, no less. Byers leads his own projects as well as freelancing, and released his debut EP, Some Dark, Beautiful Morning
in 2011. For this performance Byers began with the cello-piano composition "Falling Grace" by Steve Swallow
. A soulful opening, falling neatly between blues and classical idioms was lent impetus by Wania's entrance. Byers upped the tempo, playing with controlled passion. When Wania soloed in turn, Byers switched to walking-bass, playing with a Charles Mingus
-like intensity. Bowed cello drone announced Seifert's lament "Song for Christopher." With the drone on a loop, Byers embraced the haunting melody. Replacing the drone with a bass ostinato, Byers' bowingwith sympathetic, sotto voce support from the rhythm sectiondisplayed a sensitive side to a musician who wears his heart on his sleeve. The original composition "Rubidium Mind," by way of contrast, was a stormy affair, with Byers on electric cellostrapped to his shoulders, away from his bodyurging the rhythm section on. With a physical energy that translated to his instrument, Byers worked his strings feverishly, sounding like an electric rock guitarist. A closing rumble with Fortuna capped an eclectic performance of some substance. Mario Forte
Algeria-born but a true world citizen, the much-traveled Mario Forte was appearing in his second Seifert Competition, having finished third in the second edition in 2016. Associate Professor of Music at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, Mario is now based in New York City and has been a key member of Richard Bona
's band, with whom he has toured widely. Forte also co-founded the Artempo Festival in 2015. Opening with a high-octane version of Seifert's "Turbulent Plover," Forte demonstrated not only tremendous virtuosity, but a bold harmonic concept as well, which kept Wania in particular on his toes. With such a short slot, Forte eschewed a breather and instead went directly into an unaccompanied violin solo, a bold, seemingly through-composed piece that veered between abstract and very concrete ideas. Without pausing, Forte ushered in the rhtyhm section for the final number, the original composition "Russian Doll." A fast-walking bass simmered as Forte and then Wania explored complex, post-bop terrain at breakneck speed. Switching to a swing rhythm, Forte employed his pedal board to effect a strangely synthetic sound -jazz-fusion for the twenty-first century. A looped pizzicato ostinato served as the foundation for a strummed/plucked soloagain, pedal-filteredthat felt like a completely unrelated composition. Still, for his breadth of imagination alone, never mind his virtuosic playing, this performance impressed on many levels.
The hall emptied and the judges retired to consider the twelve performances of the semi-finals. Several hours later all the musicians assembled to hear the results, announced by Michal Urbaniak. The five finalists selected to advance to the next day's finale were: Benjamin von Gutzeit; Layth Sidiq; Gabriel Terracciano; Mario Forte and Cécile Delzant.