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4th Zbigniew Seifert International Jazz Violin Competition

4th Zbigniew Seifert International Jazz Violin Competition
Ian Patterson By

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Black lives matter, black artists matter. The history of jazz would not exist without black men and black women… —Greg Byers, winner of the Journalists' Jury Award 2020
4th Zbigniew Seifert International Jazz Violin Competition
Cricoteka Museum, Kraków, Poland/Various international locations on-line
July 8-10, 2020

When the fanfare and drum roll had died down the big moment arrived. After three days of on-line competition, the six finalists waited anxiously in front of their screens, in Israel, The USA, Austria, France and in Brazil, to hear who would be crowned the winner of the 4th Zbigniew Seifert International Jazz Violin Competition. Ten thousand Euros and the prestige of coming out on top of an initial field of over forty entrants were at stake—a potentially pivotal moment in a musician's career. The job of announcing the winner was left to the competition's MC, Piotr Metz, who had conducted proceedings in the Kraków studio with warm professionalism from the competition's start. And, without raising an eyebrow, he announced that there would be no winner this year. There were two third places and two second places, but no first place.

There have been music competitions in the past where two musicians have shared first prize, when it has been simply impossible to separate two outstanding contestants. Such cases have occurred in the world of classical music, sometimes with psychodramas worthy of a film. But in the case of the 4th Zbigniew Seifert International Jazz Violin Competition, judges Miroslav Vitous, Michal Urbaniak and Ernst Reijseger may have set a global precedent, as far as jazz is concerned, with their no-winner decision.

It was a confusing and, in many ways, an unsatisfactory result, and one that will possibly leave a bitter taste in the mouths of some of the participating musicians.

Background

The Seifert Competition, as it is more commonly and economically referred to, was founded with the principal aims of promoting the legacy of the great Polish jazz violinist Zbigniew Seifert (1946-1979), and of jazz in general. Seifert, who was lauded for his highly original approach to jazz violin and for his virtuosity, led his own quintet from 1966-1973, and was concurrently a member of Tomasz Stanko's quintet from 1968-1973.

When Stańko's quintet dissolved, Seifert began a brief but brilliant solo career that was sadly truncated when cancer claimed him in 1979, at the age of thirty-two. Still, over forty years later, not all of Seifert's handful of LPs have been reissued on CD, and he remains, to some degree, one of jazz's lesser known geniuses.

Yet Seifert is gradually emerging from his underground, cult status into the international spotlight.

In 2009, on the thirtieth anniversary of Seifert's passing, the violinist was celebrated in the three-day, Zbigniew Seifert in Memoriam festival, which was held in Seifert's hometown of Kraków. In 2010, Aneta Norek-Skrycka and Prof. Janusz M. Stefański co-founded the Zbigniew Seifert Foundation, whose aim is to promote jazz and, naturally, Seifert's legacy.

The Krzysztof Penderecki European Centre for Music, in Lusławice, Poland, staged the 1st Zbigniew Seifert International Jazz Violin Competition in 2014, and has been home to the competition every two years since then. The global COVID-19 pandemic threatened cancellation of the event in 2020, but unbowed, the organizers took the bold decision to hold the competition on-line.

Blindfold auditions were held, and from over forty applicants, twelve violinists and two cellists were selected for the semifinals. Each musician had to perform three pieces, including one compulsory Seifert tune. Given the exceptional circumstances of this year's competition, contestants were able to submit pre-recorded videos, although at least one piece had to be performed live to camera. All the performances were broadcast live on YouTube, with distinguished guests in the studio offering insights into Seifert life, his music and legacy.

For the first time in the competition's history, a Journalists' Jury presented an award to its choice as outright winner. The jury consisted of the author (All About Jazz), Anne Yven (Citizen Jazz), Paweł Brodowski (Jazz Forum), Mary James (London Jazz News) and Martin Laurenthius (Jazz Thing).

Day One: The First Semi-Final

John Pearse

First up was John Pearse (England), who, backed by double bassist William Harris, pianist David Newton and Scott Hammond on drums, roared out of the blocks with a charged version of Seifert's "Turbulent Plover," sweat plastering Pearse's hair to his forehead. Delicate lyricism defined Pearse's playing on Guy Wood's ballad, "My One and Only Love," while for his solo live performance Pearse produced a gutsy, folk-tinged interpretation of Fats Waller's "Honeysuckle Rose." Pearse's classic jazz style suggested the Stephane Grappelli school, though it was revealing to learn that, in fact, his greatest influence was guitarist Joe Pass.

Youenn Rohaut

Already a prize winner for improvisation at the 2013 Stéphane Grappelli competition, and making his second appearance at the Seifert competition, French violinist Youenn Rohaut led a quartet comprised of Edouard Ravelomanantosa on piano, Sylvian Didou on double bass, and Lucien Renault on drums. Rohaut's pizzicato intro was picked by Didou, whose ostinato launched the quartet into Gil Goldstein's "Scylla," a fascinating tune that veered between lyrical impressionism and infectious groove. Rohaut really stamped his personality on both Seifert's "Pinocchio" and on his solo rendition of John Coltrane's "Wise One," where his flowing, conversational style was punctuated by computer-generated, gothic chords.

Dawid Czernik

Hailing from Poronin in the Tatra Mountains, Dawid Czernik was the sole Polish representative in the 4th Zbigniew Seifert International Jazz Violin Competition. In a bold move, Czernik, backed by Grzegorz Palka on drums, Mateusz Palka on piano and Alan Wykpisz on double bass, presented an abbreviated though impassioned interpretation of Seifert's little known "Concerto for Jazz Violin, Symphony Orchestra and Rhythm Section." With just a single static camera in an elevated position capturing the performance, Czernik's visual production values suffered a little in comparison to some of the more professional efforts by other contestants, though the excellent sound quality certainly did justice to his terrific playing, rooted as it was in the highland traditions that so fascinated Seifert. A tango-ish reading of Charlie Haden's "El Ciego" and Coltrane's jaunty "Moment's Notice," which saw Czernik handle walking bass and rhythmic violin roles in a three-way split-screen presentation, underlined his flair for melodic, roots-flavored improvisation.

Dominic Ingham

Playing to a backing track (vibraphone, piano, bass and drums), UK violinist Dominic Ingham opted to play live. Presenting three tunes from his debut album as leader, Role Models (Self-Produced, 2020), Ingham's handsome original tunes brought out the personal voice in his playing. Although the sound quality of the backing tape was poor, it was still possible to appreciate Ingham's writing strengths as much as his playing, particularly on the lovely slower number "Fall"— one of the best original tunes heard in the competition—and on "Pj's," where the chamber-esque framework invited Ingham's most lyrical playing. Seifert's "Coral" rounded out the set.

João Silva

Barcelona-based Portuguese violinist João Silva was the second contestant to play all his pieces live. Silva opened with an atmospheric version of Seifert's "Man of the Light," using a loop to embed a rhythmic foundation for a flowing, mellifluous solo. Two original pieces followed. The first, "Saudade," saw Silva loop rhythm and simple keyboard chords—the backdrop to a melodious improvisation of seductive charm that gained in pace. For the second self-penned number, "Voa Voa," Silva was joined by Italian vocalist Margherita Abita. Their harmonious, empathetic dialog was punctuated by dashing runs from the violinist, and whilst the joy in their communication was evident, this seemed like a slightly odd presentation in a jazz violin competition.

Omer Oshano

New York-based Israeli violinist Omer Oshano presented two video recordings of original compositions, lent support by Yoav Eshed on guitar, Oren Hardy on double bass, and Ofri Nehemya on drums. An elegant violinist of precise diction, Oshano's measured approach on "Go Find a Place of Peace" was pleasant if unmemorable. The meatier "Prima" was more satisfying, the greater collective energy pushing Oshano's playing in a more expansive direction, and to more creative heights. For his solo spot—from Israel, where he was in lockdown—Oshano performed Seifert's "Chinatown." With a backing tape lending contemporary atmospherics and a galloping rhythm, Oshano unleashed a dancing solo of some urgency. One of the most original Seifert interpretations of the competition.

Greg Byers

American cellist Greg Byers was returning to the Seifert competition following his frustrating 2018 appearance. Then, flight delays meant he arrived to Lusławice two days late, with practically no time to settle in and rehearse with the house trio. On a medley of Seifert's "Kilimanjaro"/"Pinocchio," Byers proved his multi-instrumentalist credentials with a split-screen video which showed him playing electric bass, double bass, rhythm guitar, drums, several percussion instruments and two cello parts. The heart of the piece, however, was Byers' sing-song dialog between bowed bass and cello. On the original number "Springing It Back Home," a delightfully upbeat number, Byers switched to electric cello, carried with a body harness that allowed him unrestricted movement. His playing was exhilarating, but it was his more pensive, solo rendition of Charles Mingus' "Duke Ellington's Sound of Love" that impressed the most for the soulful gravitas in his playing.

Day Two: The Second Semi-Final

Kristjan Rudanovski

Estonian violinist Kristjan Rudanovski got the second semi-final underway with Sonny Rollins' "Pent-Up House," his gypsy-jazz attack fuelled by Robert Nõmmann's fast-walking bass and guitarist Jaanis Kill's chugging rhythms. Rudanovski's fingers explored the entire length of the violin neck on Seifert's "Coral," executing some devilishly slippery glissandi, before allowing room for Nõmmann to solo. For his live performance, a solo rendition of "The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise," Rudanovski had slipped into a tuxedo, and perhaps appropriately; Rudanovski's beloved Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli had recorded this tune in 1949, but there was almost as much classical formalism in Rudanovski's virtuoso playing as there was gypsy-jazz swing on this old Gene Lockhart/Ernest Seitz ballad.

Over Rudanovski's shoulder, outside the dining room window, a small group of kids were jumping up and down and waving to camera during his performance. It was symbolic of the strangely hermetic existence enforced upon us by COVID-19, and a reminder of the ongoing isolation of musicians.

Clément Janinet

French violinist Clément Janinet opted for a completely live performance, beginning with two solo pieces of starkly contrasting character. "Autonome" was a visceral, folksy whirl of a dance, strewn with rapid, repetitious phrases like birdsong. "Avec le Cou"—dedicated to the Malian Bamana violinist, Bina Koumaré —saw Janinet loop a funky pizzicato rhythm over which his bow conjured quicksilver, and subtly modulating, Malian melodies. Joined by pianist Christophe Cravero, drummer Thibaut Perriard and Sylvain Dubrez, Janinet displayed his considerable jazz chops on a feisty rendition of Seifert's "Quo Vadis," and on the self-penned "Crions," an emotive tune that morphed from introspective lament to fiery exposition. Janinet's quartet was plagued by the poor sound quality of the set-up, though the violinist's quality shone through unimpaired.

Tadas Dešukas

A home sauna provided excellent acoustics for the solo violin of Lithuanian violinist Tadas Dešukas , who offered two pre-recorded originals. Infectious, the grooving pizzicato rhythm and cheery vibe of "Nail," a tune that conjured the absolute best of Michael Jackson -energy, groove, unforgettable melody and soul. By contrast, the balladic "Whisper," a vehicle for Dešukas' haunting lyricism, seemed to freeze time. More of this would have been welcome, but the compulsory Seifert tune saw Dešukas launch into "Turbulent Plover." Dešukas imposed his musical personality on this track with a wholly original, pre-recorded piano mantra and darkly twisted, gnarly lead lines unlike any heard thus far. His impressive performance finished several minutes early, however, prompting the studio to ask him to carry on. A little bemused, Dešukas returned to "Turbulent Plover," stoking his inner fires once more.

Johannes Dickbauer

Austrian Johannes Dickbauer cut no corners with a professionally edited production that captured the visual as well as the sonic characteristics of his quartet of pianist Sebastian Schneider, bassist Ivar Roban Krizic and drummer/percussionist András Dés. On the ensemble number "Lost Caravan" and the delicate "Breeze of Broken Reflections," Dickbauer proved himself a composer of sophisticated yet accessible songs of engaging ebb and flow, and an elegant violinist. For his live, solo spot Dickbauer, doubling on electric keyboards, embraced Seifert's passion with an energized interpretation of "Turbulent Plover."

Gabriel Vieira

Brazilian violinist Gabriel Vieira kicked off with Seifert's "City of Spring," ably supported by David Satori on piano, William Gow on drums, and Rafael Calegari on electric bass. It was perhaps a surprise that Vieira had not opted for Seifert's jazz-samba track "Passion," which featured the great Brazilian percussionist Nana Vasconcelos, particularly given that Vieira's playing was naturally infused with the folk and popular traditions of his country. Still, it was a bravura performance, from the violinist and his group. Vieira was on home soil with a lilting interpretation of César Camargo Mariano's "Curumim," cutting loose with a dashingly melodious improvisation. More personal still, was Vieira's tune "Dona Maria," played solo. Dancing forró rhythms, bolstered by recorded accordion accompaniment, formed the backdrop to Vieira's fluid soloing—characterized by rhythmic and melodious continuity. His wordless singing in unison with the tune's head reflected the joy in his playing.

Kristjan Krajnčan

Cellist, drummer, composer and film maker, Kristjan Krajnčan, is a multi-faceted artist. The Slovenian fused his twin passions of cello and percussion in an entirely live performance. On "Floating Sand," Krajnčan employed a host of effects; pedals; amplification; a drumstick on his strings; an Indian, table-esque rhythm rapped on his cello's body; prayer cymbals; melodic bow. It was a fascinating performance from a fertile imagination. Seifert's "Way to Oasis" invited more conventional bowing from Krajnčan, but the interpretation, in line with his performance as a whole, was an extremely personal one, utilizing pedals to conjure other-worldly textures. The original tune "The Leaving of Siddhartha," with its propulsive rhythms and the cellist's mesmerizing melodic lines, closed the performance on a high note.

Gabriel Terracciano

Portland, Maine-raised but New York-based, Gabriel Dowdy-Terracciano was returning to the Seifert competition, having won third place in the 2018 edition. With Michael Beling on organ and Gary Gemmiti on drums, Terracciano opened with a snappy version of George Shearing's "Conception." If that felt a little like a warm-up exercise, Terracciano found his groove and no mistake on a gorgeous, brushes-led reading of Duke Ellington's "Isfahan," with the violinist's achingly lyrical solo supplying one of the highlight of the semi-finals. Terracciano concluded with a solo performance of Seifert's "Quo Vadis." After a striking, loop-colored intro, Terracciano dubbed the main motif and an underlying pizzicato rhythm, before launching into an improvisation of constant melodic invention and rhythmic panache.

Day Three: The Final

Six musicians advanced to the final: Omer Oshano; Youenn Rohaut; Gabriel Vieira; Johannes Dickbauer; Greg Byers; and Clément Janinet. It was another chance for the three judges to assess the musicians' respective qualities. It should be stated that the Journalists' Jury, acting independently of the judges throughout the three days, had made their decision on the competition's winner after the semi-final stages. The reason for this was because one of its top four choices after the semi-finals did not make the final, and the jury was committed to its original criteria.

Omer Ashano

Omer Ashano's deft arrangement of the Walter Gross/Jack Lawrence ballad "Tenderly" proved the power of subtle playing to bewitch. There was no show of flamboyancy, but the interplay between the violinist and Yoav Eshed on guitar conjured transfixing textures. Cantering African rhythms and bright melodies colored "Tigrinya Lullaby," one of the most memorable original tunes of the competition. From gentle beginnings Oshano gradually gathered wind in his sails, before trading back and forth with the impressive Eshed. For his live tune, played to a backing track of his quartet, Oshano turned to Seifert's "Man of the Light." His elegant bowing and smooth phrasing belied the bite in his attack. A fine performance.

Back in the studio, MC Piotr Metz gave the first hint that the judges were preparing to spring a surprise when he announced: "Important information; the judges reserve the right to different allocation of awards and prizes. But we'll let you know."

Youenn Rohaut

Youenn Rohaut opened with Don Grolnick's "Nothing Personal," shifting between pockets of pedal-driven atmospherics and straight-ahead language that invited a swirling, bop-like solo from the violinist. Seifert's ballad "Song for Christopher" brought arguably Rohaut's most emotive playing of the competition, his legato phrasing gracefully conveying the melancholy spirit of the original. For his live piece, Rohaut's pedals lent a fuzz-toned edge to his bowless intro to "How Deep Is the Ocean." If the judges were rewarding originality, then the new robes Rohaut draped on this classic Irving Berlin tune must have registered with them; a delicate pizzicato entrée foreshadowed a fascinating bowed solo, which, starting from the simplest of foundations, grew into something free and majestic, with Rohaut transfixed throughout the journey.

Gabriel Vieira

Leading the same quartet as for the semi-final, Vieira chose to start with Seifert's "Turbulent Plover," leading with a refined, neo-classical intro. Calegari's fast-walking bass was at the heart of the quartet's drive, propelling Vieira to his most adventurous solo of the competition. For the live segment, and to a backing track, Vieira returned to música popular brasileira with Alegre Corrêa's breezy "Cunha Ta Aí." Vieira's wordless singing in unison with the uplifting melody was seductive, but as beautiful as it was, this tune seemed a vehicle of limited scope in the wider context. Bebê Kramer's "Como Manda o Figurino" followed a similar template, though its much livelier tempo asked more of Vieira. His precision and agility were plain to see, as was the joy in his endeavor.

Johannes Dickbauer

Once again, Johannes Dickbauer backed himself with two original tunes. The pre-recorded "Race Against 1.5" afforded generous space to pianist Sebastian Schneider, and to percussionist András Dés—over a vamp— but it was the violinist's smooth legato lines, not without pleasingly stormy rushes, that dominated. Live, exquisite pizzicato bookended "Quo Vadis"; Dickbauer's singular deconstruction of this Seifert classic invited some of the Austrian violinist's most arresting playing, with a vocabulary perhaps leaning as much towards classical as jazz, but marked by an unmistakable spirit of adventure, nevertheless. The second original number, "Breaking Isolation," seamlessly fused chamber, folk and jazz aesthetics, a hybridity reflected in Dickbauer's free-flowing solo.

The day before the video recording Dickbauer was stung by one of the bees he keeps, swelling and closing one of his eyes. Luckily, a quick dose of antihistamine did the trick. Even the bee, it seems, knew that Dickbauer had one eye on the top prize.

Greg Byers

A Minneapolis rooftop provided the setting for Greg Byers' recorded interpretation of Seifert's "Song for Christopher." Another cleverly edited production featured a total of five Greg Byers, backed by a tape of Javier Santiago on Rhodes, and Lawrence Buckner on drums. With cello leading, and viola, bass and violin providing rich chamber accompaniment, Byer's sophisticated arrangement accentuated the beauty of what is arguably Seifert's most haunting tune. For the live segment, Byers turned to his body-harnessed electric cello. Over a backing tape of percolating percussion, dreamy Rhodes and strings, Byers carved an enticing solo that struck a balance between lyricism and technical facility. A highly rhythmic cellist, Byers' final solo piece, "Metal/By Subway" utilized multiple rhythmic loops in a funky backdrop to a high-intensity performance of contrasting textures and atmospheres, which culminated in dramatic fashion.

Clément Janinet

Free of the technical issues of his semi-final appearance, Clément Janinet delivered a captivating set, backed for the two live pieces by Clement Petit on cello, and Hugues Mayot on clarinet. Unaccompanied, Janinet explored the wide sonic possibilities of the violin, conjuring Asian, African and classical sonorities on the aptly named "Schyzophénic." The three instruments combined beautifully on Seifert's "Kilimanjaro," with Janinet switching between plucked Malian motifs and devilishly intricate bowed pyrotechnics. Dark rhythmic contours underpinned Janinet's dashing improvisation on "Valse," with Petit's measured response closing the piece on a note of reverie. The studio recording, "Mauvais Temps," teamed Janinet with Bruno Ducret on cello, and Elodie Pasquier on clarinet; a showcase for the violinist's ever-musical virtuosity, this elegantly flowing chamber arrangement provided further evidence of Janinet's compositional flair.

The Results

The first winner of the evening was announced by Piotr Iwicki of the Association of Performers of Music and Music with Lyrics (SWAP), Holding an outsized cheque to the value of 1000 Euros, Mr. Iwicki announced Dawid Czernik as the Best Polish Participant of the competition. Who could argue with that? Czernik, of course, was the only Polish participant in this edition. Czernik was the recipient of another special award, a concert organized by the Krzysztof Penderecki Music Centre in Lusławice. With his debut solo album due for release before the end of 2020, we can expect to hear a lot more from this talented violinist.

The Journalists' Jury Award for the Best Violinist in this year's competition was announced by Anne Yven of Citizen Jazz magazine. Yven stressed that this jury operated under its own criteria, independently from the three main judges. She explained how the jury selected two musicians from each semi-final, before making a final vote. The four finalists were: Dawid Czernik; Greg Byers; Johannes Dickbauer; and Gabriel Vieira. The winner of the Journalists' Jury Award, collecting a cheque for 1000 Euros, was Greg Byers.

In his acceptance speech, Byers thanked his parents for their life-long support, as well as his sponsors. He made the point of acknowledging the turmoil afflicting American society today: "Black lives matter, black artists matter," Byers said. "The history of jazz would not exist without black men and black women..." Byers extended his thanks to the other competitors and, with what will have been music to the organizers' ears, to the Seifert competition, added: "I don't think I would be the musician I am today without this competition pushing me to grow," he graciously acknowledged.

The Audience Award for the Best Violinist, sponsored by the Zbigniew Seifert Foundation, went to Gabriel Vieira, whose performances proved to be extremely popular with the on-line viewers. In his acceptance speech, Vieira thank his family for its support, and his production team for all its hard work.

An additional award of 1,500 Euros, courtesy once again of the Zbigniew Seifert Foundation, and recognizing Artistic Merit, went to Kristjan Krajnčan. It was the second piece of good news for Krajnčan that day, having earlier been selected as a screen writer for an upcoming film.

Then, MC, Piotr Metz announced the judges' bombshell. Without further explanation, the two third prizes, each of 2000 Euros, were awarded to Omer Ashano and Clément Janinet.

The second-place prizes, each of 5000 Euros, went to Youenn Rohaut and Johannes Dickbauer. It would have been interesting to know how they felt about the allocation of prizes, and their experiences of this year's Seifert competition, but the only question they were asked was about their respective plans for the rest of the year. For Rohaut, composing music, and for Johannes, installing a kitchen. And that was that. The script, so enthralling for three days, deserved a better ending.

Wrap-up

That the 4th Zbigniew Seifert International Jazz Violin Competition went ahead at all is testament to the determination of the organizers not to surrender to COVID 19. That would have been the easy option, and nobody would have blamed the Seifert Foundation had it taken such a decision. In this noble act of resistance, in this refusal to give up when the going was tough, there was the fighting spirt of Zbigniew Seifert. Even when the cancer had sapped his strength, Seifert refused to give up, and continued to make music up until the last possible moment. For running the competition online, and for doing so with such professionalism, Aneta Norek-Skrycka and the Seifert competition team deserve great credit.

With fourteen musicians from eleven countries in different time-zones, the potential for technical cockups was great, but the production team in the Cricoteka Museum, Kraków, did a first-rate job. Not only does Zbigniew Seifert's reputation continue to grow thanks to the ongoing efforts of the Seifert Foundation and its flag-bearing competition, but once again a new raft of outstanding musicians has become known to a much wider, international audience. These have been the dual aims of the competition since its inception in 2014, and for these reasons alone it is to be hoped that many more editions of the competition lie ahead.

As COVID-19 has so dramatically demonstrated, however, nothing in life can be taken for granted. It would not take too many more 'no first prize' decisions like the one made by the judges this year, for the credibility of the Zbigniew Seifert International Jazz Violin Competition to suffer.

One wonders how many violinists, violists or cellists, from far-flung corners of the world, were watching this year's competition online, dreaming of participating in 2022 or beyond. What might they have thought of the judges' decision not to crown an outright winner? Is a musician in Cape Town, Buenos Aires, Sydney, San Francisco or Beijing going to pay a considerable sum to fly to Poland and compete for the chance to win If they thought there was the possibility that this might happen again?

If the judges considered that Youenn Rohaut and Johannes Dickbauer were the two outstanding contestants, then should they not have awarded them joint first place? Would that not have been the fairest and most logical conclusion? Not to award first prize felt akin to saying that there was no-one worthy of the first prize. At best, it seems like an error of judgment. After three days of brilliant competition, the result was deflating.

When decisions are as difficult to understand as they were, perhaps, to make, resulting in confusion and disappointment, do the judges not bear a certain responsibility to explain their thought process? In the vacuum of such a scenario people will naturally draw their own conclusions.

Perhaps Béla Bartók had it right, as the worthy 2016 Seifert competition winner Mateusz Smoczynski suggested in a studio interview on the final day; maybe competitions are only for horses after all.

Photo: Courtesy of Sophiea Owen

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