Monday, June 8, 2009

Whole Rest

First of all, a correction for my last post. Cristina Ortiz won the Cliburn in 1969, so it's been 40 years since a woman won the competition outright, not 43.

I spent today looking for English-language press coverage in the winners' home countries. Here's the write-up in the Korea Times. I talked with the reporter of this piece at the Cliburn afterparty. She's from Boston, and she was quite taken with Fort Worth on her first visit. Interesting to note that Yeol-eum Son will be playing again with the Takacs Quartet in Seoul 10 days from now. If you're in South Korea, you might want to see her compatriots give her a winners' welcome. By the way, the headline on this Korea Times article fooled me into thinking it was about the Cliburn. Asahi Shimbun has some in-depth stuff on Nobuyuki Tsujii. There's also this article on Tsujii's chamber-music performance from the Taiwan-based China Post, oddly enough. Meanwhile, China Daily has just bare-bones wire-service reporting on Zhang Haochen, as do the other English-language publications in mainland China. You'd think the rah-rah government-controlled press would be making more hay out of the kid's triumph. Maybe all that's in the Mandarin-language press coverage.

One of the out-of-town music critics asked me at the afterparty what I got out of the Cliburn. For one thing, it inspired me to lose weight. One month ago, I discovered I couldn't fit into any of my pairs of dress pants anymore, and resolved to diet and exercise until I could. Two weeks later, I was able to fit in my old clothes. I like eating healthier and having more energy. I'm going to keep doing it.

More importantly, I found several pianists whom I wanted to listen to again. As I said in my hastily written summary of the competition's first two rounds, it's not just the winners we come to hear. I got the chance to talk to Spencer Myer and Andrea Lam, who stayed and listened to the other performances after they were eliminated, and I told them how much I liked their music-making. The internet makes it easier than ever to follow classical musicians' careers. I'll be looking them up. (In Lam's case, I'll have no trouble remembering her name.) The field this year had a lot of pianists who, if I encounter their name in the future, will make me stop and at least look at what they'll be playing. That's more than I can say for 2005. The sense of music bringing together a community was great, too, but I think the city of Fort Worth well appreciates how lucky it is to have this big music competition here.

Now I get to go back to having my weekends free, watching movies, and not wearing a tie. Some acknowledgments before I sign off: Thanks to Sevan Melikyan and the gracious staffers in the Cliburn press room, who always accommodated me when I was frantically trying to post these missives in the 10 or 15 minutes between performances. Thanks to the friendly staffers at The Vault, the downtown restaurant that was generous (and canny) enough to provide free dinners to the press covering the Cliburn. Ethical considerations prevent me from making any good or bad comments about the food, so I'll just say it was a great place to decompress between sessions. Thanks to my fellow blogging music critics who engaged me in lively discussions and some passionate disagreements about the music and the musicians. It was a privilege working alongside you all. And most of all, thanks to all the readers who've been following this blog. I hope I've enhanced your understanding and enjoyment of the 13th Van Cliburn Competition. Hope to see you all at our next blog-worthy event.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Awards

They are as follows:

First Prize (Gold Medal): Awarded jointly to Nobuyuki Tsujii and Zhang Haochen.

Second Prize (Silver Medal): Son Yeol-eum.

No third prize awarded.

Best Chamber Music Performance: Awarded jointly to Evgeni Bozhanov and Son Yeol-eum.

Best Performance of New Work: Nobuyuki Tsujii.

Jury Discretionary Awards: Alessandro Deljavan, Lukas Vondracek, and Eduard Kunz.

Audience Award: Mariangela Vacatello.

Youth will be served, it seems. Funny, when Cliburn foundation president Richard Rodzinski mentioned during the speech that the Cliburn jury was asked to focus on the three-year commitment of concerts that goes with the top prize and who was ready to fulfill that now, I thought for sure the gold was going to one of the older competitors.

My fantasy of a woman winning this competition outright for the first time in 43 years is kaput. Well, at least we got an all-Asian medal podium. It was all headed in this direction, and now we're here. As for the two gold medalists, I'm not sure if this is too much too soon for them, but they are both undeniably prodigious talents, and they both had moments when they amazed me. Let's see where they go. I'll have one more post later to wrap things up.

Waiting for Results (the last)

The constant refrain I'm hearing in the press room is, "I wouldn't want to be the judges," but you hear this everywhere, not just at the Cliburn. Here are my picks.

First place: Di Wu. I had Son Yeol-eum pencilled in here after her last concerto and Wu's recital, but she edged back out in front with the Rachmaninov.

Second place: Son Yeol-eum. In the end, there's very little to choose between these two pianists, but they were clearly and consistently better than everybody else.

Third place: Evgeni Bozhanov. I'd feel a lot better about this pick if it hadn't been for his Rachmaninov, but the strength of his Chopin in the prelims, his Schubert in the semis, and especially his chamber performance make me fill in his name here.

Actually, I wouldn't mind too much if any of the others took third. Vacatello would give us three women in the medal spots, which appeals to me on a number of levels. I wish I liked her semifinal and final recitals better, but I do like her musical instincts. Tsujii's stock rose with me in the finals, while Zhang's stock fell. Without intending any malice, I'd like to see them both fall short and come back to the Cliburn in four or eight years as more mature musicians. I think Tsujii might have the higher ceiling, and though Zhang is a more finished product right now, it wouldn't surprise me if Tsujii were the better pianist in 20 years. In fact, I could see Zhang getting frozen and being essentially the same pianist at age 49 that he is now. That wouldn't be interesting. (Of course, just because I can imagine it doesn't mean it's fated to come true.) Good as he is right now, he still needs to develop. Then again, the competition isn't about future prospects but rather the performances on the stage. On that score, I'm not sure that Zhang (who was consistent but not always inspired) deserves third, though you could certainly make the case. On the whole, I feel better about this year's finalists, and indeed the field as a whole, than I felt about the Cliburn contestants four years ago. Let's see what the judges say.

Wu Di (Concerto II)

The best concerto performance of the finals. When I first heard this pianist I pegged her as a "cool, objective colorist." Clearly I spoke (or rather, blogged) too soon. She played the only Rachmaninov Third Concerto in this round, a change from four years ago, when four of the six finalists played it. Her performance was richly colored and resonant, though that was to be expected. What I didn't expect was the passion she put into this work that's far more emotionally direct than anything else she played before. The big swells in the second movement were volcanic, the quiet moments were rendered with glowing beauty, and the coda was an expression of unfettered joy. (After the music ended, she got a bouquet of roses from an admirer in the front row, and immediately gave one of them to Conlon. How nice is that?) She impressed us in the early rounds with her brilliance, but in this performance she opened her heart and overwhelmed us, and if this was her game plan from the start, it worked beautifully. What a way to end this competition!

Zhang Haochen (Concerto II)

Paul Ingram in the press room said that Zhang Haochen looks like the Asian version of McLovin. Ha ha ha! How did I not see that?

He played Prokofiev's Second, and just like we had with the two Rachmaninov 2s concertos, the two Prokofiev 2s offered up a contrast between an extroverted performance and a more restrained one. Only in this one, the comparison favored the extrovert. Zhang was plenty loud enough, he played with intelligence and great rhythmic verve, and his performance was far more effortless than Son Yeol-eum's. You always got the sense that he had something in reserve. Yet the whole thing left me curiously unroused. He played the scherzo second movement without the humor that we've heard from the other Prokofiev players, and there wasn't much buildup of dramatic momentum. (Granted, that's not the easiest thing in a piece that moves from climax to climax, but Son managed it.) He did finally catch fire at the very end, but the rest of it was lacking the personality that Son brought. Maybe I'm just missing the element of surprise: It was a jolt to find that Son was at home in this concerto, whereas that's not the case with Zhang. Still, this struck me as another of Zhang's not-bad performances. Will that be enough to get him a medal? We'll see.

Nobuyuki Tsujii (final recital)

Well, I could have predicted from the outset than Tsujii would be better suited to middle-period Beethoven than late Beethoven. He started his recital with the "Appassionata" Sonata, and he took the first movement slower than usual (slower than I would have liked, frankly), but it still worked from a musical standpoint. The second and third movements impressed me more than any of his solo playing. The second was done with sensitivity and tact, and the third evoked Beethoven's characteristic angst pretty well. Hmm, maybe the shallow first-round performance was the result of nerves, and he's settling down as a musician now that he's gotten comfortable with the crowds here.

He played Chopin's Berceuse next, a lullaby with increasingly complex configurations played over an unchanging soothing bass line. I liked the shaping he did on the piece's simpler melodic phrases, but I've heard it played to more spine-tingling effect elsewhere. It was a professional account of the piece. He ended with Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, and I always admire any pianist who plays it without being intimidated by the specter of Bugs Bunny. Tsujii took a middle-of-the-road approach that I liked, not trying to speed it up and show that he can play it superhumanly fast, and not slowing it down and trying to show that it's a serious piece of music. (Because it's not.) This pianist still isn't all there as an interpreter, but more than ever I'm convinced that greater emotional depth and intelligence will come in the future. He has everything else he needs to make a career.

About the Asians

They're handing out the hardware today. I can't believe this competition is almost over.

No Asian-born pianist has ever won this competition (Jon Nakamatsu is an American of Japanese descent), and chances are currently looking pretty good that one of the Asians in this competition will take home the gold medal. That brings me to something I've heard from more than one concertgoer at this Cliburn: "The Asian pianists sound the same."

My first impulse is to say that's wrong. Lang Lang doesn't sound like Li Yundi, and in the context of this competition, Di Wu doesn't sound like Zhang Haochen, and neither of them sound like Son Yeol-eum. And as an Asian-American myself, I tend to ask whether the idea that Asians sound the same isn't a bit racist.

But then I think a little more and realize that the idea, while inaccurate, isn't totally disengaged from reality. We've heard Asian composers and American ones at this Cliburn, but most of the established piano repertoire is European. Many musicians in Asia and America grow up steeped in this music, but it's not encoded in their DNA. So when mediocre pianists from Asia and America play this music, they tend to sound bland and anonymous, however technically gifted they might be. On the other hand, mediocre Russian pianists are brought up in a particular tradition, so they can be counted on to sound a certain way. The same goes for mediocre French and German pianists.

We've heard mediocrity from many different quarters at this Cliburn. (You'd expect the same at any other major international piano competition.) However, the best pianists have dazzled us with their individuality and artistry, not just their technical equipment. Many of those have been Asian. It'd be a foolish mistake to dismiss an entire continent of musicians on the relative weakness of their middle-of-the-pack musicians. Classical music lovers thrive on hearing great performers, and to quote that wise critic Anton Ego, a great artist can come from anywhere. As we hear these last performances, let's keep his words in mind.