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.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

A Sports Update

Following up on my soccer notes from earlier, Bulgaria tied Ireland. This helps Ireland somewhat, but it really helps the Italians, who can now solidify their hold on first place. Speaking of Italy, I was wrong when I said they were idle today. They had a game, though it didn't count. Their friendly match against Northern Ireland resulted in a handy 3-0 win, pretty impressive given how well "Norn Iron" have been playing lately. South Korea finished off United Arab Emirates. The Koreans have also officially qualified for World Cup 2010.

Team USA recovered their stride with a 2-1 victory over Honduras, though it's worrisome that they conceded another early goal and had to come back. Also in North American qualifying, Mexico lost to El Salvador. Los Tricolores are a mess.

Mariangela Vacatello (Concerto II)

The Italian bounces back with a performance of Prokofiev's Third Concerto that reminds me why I liked her. The intelligence and clarity on display are refreshing, and even though she's playing a noisy piece, she gives an object lesson to Bozhanov on how to project sound against an orchestra without smashing the piano into splinters. (To be fair, any of the finalists could probably have given that lesson just as effectively.) She's particularly good with the composer's mischievous brand of slapstick comedy; the humorous interludes in the first two movements were grotesque without being clumsy. This wasn't an overwhelming performance, and I don't know if it'll be enough to salvage her medal hopes. However, it explodes my notion that she was running out of gas. In those instances, I'm always happy to be proven wrong.

Evgeni Bozhanov (Concerto II)

This performance of Rachmaninov's Second Concerto offered a neat contrast with Tsujii's. The Japanese pianist played with the orchestra, while Bozhanov played against it. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; FWSO seemed pretty amped up. But I spent half the time at this performance thinking "This is too much" and the other half thinking "No, this is just the right amount." (Okay, maybe it was 55-45.) The score wasn't so much interpreted as ripped off in great bloody hunks. The Bulgarian played very loudly, and sacrificed the beauty of his tone. Sometimes you have to do that for the sake of drama and emotion. Bozhanov seemed to be calculating for the occasion, trying to win the competition with sheer volume. Then again, he cut loose with everything he had, and I can't help but admire that approach even when it fails.

In the end, it comes down to your musical preferences. Do you want a performer with an outsize, eccentric personality who imprints it on everything he plays? Or do you want a musical conduit who effaces himself at every turn? You need both types of musicians in the world. Together they show you the possibilities that music offers up. Bozhanov is one of the former, and you either go with this type of musician and accept some overindulgent performances, or you don't. I choose to follow him.

The crowd leapt to its feet and cheered this performance. As I was walking out, I heard someone say, "Very entertaining." That it was, undoubtedly. I'm not sure if it was any good, but it wasn't dull.

Wu Di (final recital)

Just like she did with the Clara and Robert Schumann pieces in the semis, she played the first two pieces with no applause break between them. This time it was Bach's Toccata in F-sharp minor and Schoenberg's Klavierstucke. It takes nerve to program Schoenberg at any stage of the competition, and especially in the finals. (I would have been even more impressed if she'd chosen Schoenberg's Piano Concerto.) The Bach was played with precision and momentum, and the Schoenberg with great purpose, especially in the final piece. However, Ken Iisaka, sitting next to me for this session, noted that she missed quite a few notes. He's more familiar with this piece than I am, so I'll take his word.

Di Wu was our last shot at a satisfying Gaspard de la Nuit, and she came closer than anybody else did. I didn't need Ken to distinguish the measure she omitted from the early going of "Le gibet," which featured the repeated B-flat note throughout the piece being played in an atypically dry manner. The various renditions of Gaspard this year have all been missing the element of black magic, and Di Wu supplied it in spots, like the big swell of notes at the end of "Ondine," representing the mermaid taking her rejection (in a huff, judging by Wu's rendition) and swimming away. The pianist was at her best in "Scarbo," evoking the presence of the evil creature in spine-tingling fashion. This made me forgive some of the inexactitude in the piece's many leaping configurations. I wonder if fatigue is starting to get the better of Di Wu. We'll know more after her concerto performance tomorrow.

Nobuyuki Tsujii (Concerto II)

Okay, so I liked this performance a lot. Tsujii played Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto, and played it well from the opening chords, to which he applied a judicious gradual crescendo. He showed a good command of the idiom for a non-Russian player, his virtuoso runs in the second movement were nicely shaped, and he was emotionally direct in the famous theme from the third movement. The whole piece was taken a bit too slow, but I think this might be more on the conductor than the pianist. The soloist is supposed to push the tempo if the conductor is dawdling, but I'm not sure how the whole Japanese thing of deferring to one's elders might have come into play. I didn't get the chance to see the live concerto rehearsal footage on the web, so I don't know how Tsujii's relationship with Conlon played out. Perhaps someone who did watch it can enlighten me.

All in all, my theory that Tsujii is better in an ensemble than by himself is looking pretty good. I still think that his solo performances didn't merit advancement, but because the judges advanced him through the rounds anyway, he was able to show me strengths that I wouldn't have guessed at. It looks like the judges knew his capabilities better than I did. (Then again, they're supposed to.) I've made my peace with this pianist being in the finals. Let's see how the rest of the round unfolds.

Son Yeol-eum (Concerto II)

A scant 18 hours after playing her Chopin concerto, Son came out in a fiery red dress and outfit that was entirely appropriate for the work at hand. She played Prokofiev's Second Concerto, and bore no resemblance to the refined musician of the previous night. Instead, she smoked the damn thing, and good for her. One capability she hadn't shown in previous performances was the ability to make the piano roar, but she played this piece with a ferocity that even I didn't expect from her. Prokofiev eschewed a traditional slow movement when he wrote this piece, and the result is the musical equivalent of a Michael Bay movie, short on reflective moments and long on explosions and loud noises. This isn't music you analyze; you just sit there and let it blow you away. Son did a fair bit to shape the music, especially the runs in the third movement. She lost a bit of strength at the very end (not enough to damage her, as was the case last night), but the power game she showed here was one more facet of her astonishing versatility. I've come a long way in appreciating this pianist. She gets to rest now; all her performances are done. Rock on, girlfriend.

Zhang Haochen (final recital)

This is the second time I noticed the kid wiping off the piano keys with a cloth before he'd even started playing, and before anyone else had played before him. Why does he do that?

He started with Brahms' Variations on a Theme by Handel, and played it with a great deal of rhythm and alertness. I'm struck by the total lack 0f resemblance between this assured, strong-willed solo recitalist and the anonymous pianist he's turned into in a chamber or orchestral setting. Well, he gave a strong sense of each variation growing out of the original theme, and the different numbers seemed to progress logically one after the other, which is important when you're playing variations. Other than that, he also took pains to differentiate each number from the ones around it, and the final variation showed off his considerable skills as a contrapuntalist.

Unfortunately, Zhang's other recital item was Gaspard de la Nuit, and he prettified the piece, which is not only totally wrong, but was also a tactical error, since he can't match Bozhanov, Son, or Wu when it comes to beauty of tone. He had no sense of the piece's eroticism and violence. In "Ondine," he evoked the waters well enough but completely missed the alluring mermaid dragging sailors to their deaths. "Scarbo" was lacking the goblin's malevolent mischief. Without forward momentum, the work was reduced to an empty showpiece. All he had left was to show that he could handle the gigantic technical hurdles in the piece, and we already knew that he could. This was not a good selection for him.

Old Concerns, New Friends

The modern concertos await us in the next two days. It does make sense to have the Classical concertos played on the same days when you consider that they require smaller numbers of musicians. Grouping the modern works together means you don't need reinforcements standing by every day.

I asked this question four years ago: When are they going to let Miguel Harth-Bedoya conduct at this competition? No disrespect for Maestro James Conlon, who's done a pretty good job with FWSO so far, but this is Maestro Harth-Bedoya's orchestra, he's proved himself more than capable, and he's a rising star in the conducting world who could benefit from the Cliburn's exposure. The X factor would be, would MHB be able to match Conlon's commitment to mentoring these young pianists?

Once again I note the lack of risk-taking by these pianists when it comes to choosing their final concertos. Everybody has picked either Rachmaninov or Prokofiev, though it's worth noting that two of the competitors are playing Prokofiev's Second instead of the more popular Third. This is probably due to Joyce Yang winning a silver medal in 2005 with the Second. Still, 27 pianists chose something by the above two composers or the Tchaikovsky First. The only exceptions were Han Yoon-jung, who picked Liszt's First, and Natacha Kudritskaya, who selected Ravel's Concerto in G.

These competitors have proved themselves willing to play unusual pieces in their solo recitals, so it's sad to see that enterprising spirit go away when they get close to the big prize. What I wouldn't give to hear Bartok or Gershwin or Shostakovich. Or, for those who really want to go out on a limb, something by Kapustin or Medtner, Barber or Piston, or Rautavaara. I once heard Michael Tippett's Piano Concerto and thought that was a lot of fun. Manuel de Falla's Nights in the Gardens of Spain used to be popular, whatever happened to that piece? Heck, I'd even settle for Schumann or Grieg's concertos.

Wow, the press room is pretty full by now. Over the past few days I've had the chance to meet people such as Ken Iisaka, a prize-winner at the Van Cliburn Competition for Amateurs, who was recognized by Fort Worth Weekly for his Alkan performance there and who's now blogging for the Cliburn's blog. Our conversations about the contestants have been somewhat contentious, but he's been a great pleasure to talk to. The same goes for Ron DeFord, the Austin retiree who's been at every performance. He's easily recognizable for his long white beard and his wardrobe consisting of loud print shirts, shorts, and Crocs. The camera crews have been following him around, too, and no wonder, since his personality is as large as all outdoors. He loves piano music as much as anyone in the hall. Meeting fans like him is almost as much fun as the music on offer, and makes this competition worth tuning into.

A Sports Note

I'm so caught up in this competition that I'm missing out on all the other sports events that are going on: the NBA Finals, the Stanley Cup, the French Open, the National Spelling Bee, and this weekend's auto races at Texas Motor Speedway. I'm just grateful that I found time to watch Conan O'Brien take over The Tonight Show.

After Wednesday's concerto performances, I got to see the tail end of the U.S. soccer team getting skunked in Costa Rica in a World Cup qualifying match. The loss itself is probably just a speed bump in terms of qualifying for the big tournament, but the team's performance (dismal by all accounts) raises some questions. Now they've got another match tonight, a home game against Honduras. I'll be checking on the game after we're done this evening. Don't sleep on the Hondurans; they've got some talent.

Other World Cup qualifiers that might interest our finalists: Japan won their game this morning against Uzbekistan, becoming the first country to officially qualify for the World Cup, so if Nobuyuki Tsujii is a soccer fan, he has reason to cheer. Son Yeol-eum is more of a basketball fan, but she'll be glad to note that South Korea is currently cruising in their game against the United Arab Emirates. They're almost in the tournament as well. (In other Asian soccer news, North Korea tied Iran, which could have some political repercussions in the Middle East.)

Italy is idle this week, so Mariangela Vacatello has no rooting interest, but she and Bozhanov both might be following Bulgaria's home match against Ireland later this afternoon. Bulgaria badly needs a win, but the Irish (under their new Italian coach) have been awfully difficult to beat. If Ireland wins, they'll overtake Italy for first place in their qualifying group, but Italy will still have one game more to take back the top spot, so I Azzurri won't be too concerned.

As for Di Wu and Zhang Haochen, they're out of luck if they're soccer fans. China's soccer team was eliminated last year in a humiliating loss to Iraq. Well, as we saw at last year's Olympics, there's plenty of other sports for the Chinese to dominate.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Mariangela Vacatello (Concerto I)

Everyone else in the building seemed to like her performance of Beethoven's Fourth Concerto, but she left me cold. Her tone sounded harsh, though that might just be me hearing her immediately after Son Yeol-eum. Still, I'm used to hearing this piece played with a great deal more tact than refinement. Perhaps she was going for an unorthodox interpretation, finding Beethoven's Sturm und Drang beneath the piece's surfaces. If so, she didn't convince me. The second movement was done sensitively and sympathetically, but the outer movements seemed leaden.

Before the performance, Steve Cumming warned us to shut off our cell phones, specifically pointing to a nearly silent passage near the end of the second movement where a cell phone ring would be particularly disruptive. Wouldn't you know it? A cell phone went off at precisely that point in the performance. God give me patience.

Son Yeol-eum (Concerto I)

Okay, so this is the best concerto performance we've heard so far. After hearing Chopin's First Concerto the last two nights, Son Yeol-eum played his Second. She hadn't played Chopin at all in the earlier rounds, and all I can say is, if she'd played Chopin like that earlier, I would've come over to her side a lot sooner. Well, no matter.

Her account of this concerto was elegant and graceful, but then again, you'd have expected that. What I didn't expect was her handle on Chopin's idiom and her total confidence in the way she was playing. It was the same pleasant surprise that I got out of Di Wu's Beethoven: "Oh, so she can play this, too." Unlike the other performances, this one didn't vary in levels of quality between movements. This was good all the way through. (I thought I heard her touch getting a little heavy at the very end, but it wasn't enough to damage what came before.) The declamatory passages were authoritative without losing their beauty, and the soft passages were carefully molded while still sounding spontaneous. Everybody talks about this pianist's finesse and tone, but I've heard relatively little about her creativity and sharp musical mind. Is this because she's a woman and qualities like "touch" and "finesse" are more traditionally associated with women? It'll probably take more than the time I have between performances to figure that out. The important thing is, I wasn't completely sold on her before, but now I finally believe. This feels good.

Evgeni Bozhanov (final recital)

The Bulgarian was a bit unfocused at the start. He ran through Takemitsu's Rain Tree Sketch I without making a compelling case for it, and the first few numbers of Schumann's Davidsbundlertanze were indistinct, too, lacking the rhythmic swing that Di Wu played it with in the prelims. (As I mentioned before, these are supposed to be dances.) However, somewhere in the midst of his velvety rendition of No. 5, he suddenly regained his sense of the occasion and played the rest of the piece with the proper eclat. He wound up delivering a larger-scaled version of the suite, still less rhythmic than Di Wu's but plenty compelling on its own.

He finished with another piece that Di Wu did earlier, Liszt's transcription of the waltz from Gounod's Faust, but he was better suited to it than she was. He dove into the thing headfirst and conjured up visions of the 19th-century opera house in all its finery. He meandered a bit in the middle, but his tone and outsize personality brought this showpiece home and made it sing.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Zhang Haochen (Concerto I)

In my last post, I speculated that Tsujii might be better as an ensemble pianist than playing by himself. Now I'm wondering if the reverse might be true for Zhang Haochen. His chamber-music performance didn't make much of an imprint on me, but at the time, I chalked that up to the brilliance of the other pianists in that phase of the competition. Now his performance of Mozart's 20th Piano Concerto left me unmoved as well. It wasn't a bad outing for him, but the whole thing was pretty unremarkable, which certainly wasn't the case with his solo playing. Maybe Mozart simply doesn't fit him -- he didn't play anything close to Mozart in his solo recitals -- but if that's the case, then why didn't he choose one of the Chopin concertos to play? Those would seem to be a better fit.

At least, though, he didn't screw it up. In the context of a competition, when a pianist is assigned to perform music that he or she doesn't find congenial, it's more important to not screw up than it is to play distinctively. Zhang has avoided bad performances, and that'll get a pianist through the rounds of one of these things. Still, Zhang didn't do himself any good tonight. (Tsujii, on the other hand, did himself good.) For the first time, I've got questions about this player. However, there's reason to hope that those will be answered in the next few days.

Nobuyuki Tsujii (Concerto I)

I mentioned that Di Wu had a tough act to follow last night coming after Bozhanov, but Tsujii had to follow him, too, because he was playing the same piece as the Bulgarian: Chopin's First Concerto. The Japanese's rendition of it wasn't as fluid as Bozhanov's, and it certainly wasn't as polished. However, it was a creditable performance all the same, convincing on its own terms. (And that sound you hear is the sound of the comment-thread denizens gnawing on the bone that I just threw them.) Tsujii has more experience playing with orchestras than with chamber groups, and he did a good job of differentiating his instrument from the orchestra without banging on the keys. He showed some ability to modulate his sound (not enough in some spots, but still...) and he didn't race past the music in the second movement the way he did in the Chopin etudes in the prelims. Here's an intriguing question: Is he better playing with other musicians than he is as a solo recitalist? I think he might be. On paper, this concerto figured to be the part of his final round that was most likely to give him trouble, and he got through it with no major glitches. His other final-round performances look to be well-suited to his strengths. So that's good, then.

Son Yeol-eum (final recital)

As pointed out elsewhere, the Korean operates under the handicap of having to play on three consecutive days, something no other finalist in this competition will have to do. We'll see how it affects her.

She came out with a thoroughly German program, and it was the best-chosen recital program we've heard since Eduard Kunz' in the prelims. She started out with Egon Petri's transcription of Bach's Sheep May Safely Graze. (Fifty years ago this year, Petri made a recording of Busoni's Fantasia Contrappuntistica, and I heard it in college and was blown away by both the pianism and the piece.) She turned this into a pretty Late Romantic confection and then, without an applause break, went straight into two of Schubert's impromptus from D. 935, in B-flat major and F minor. These were also excellent, with the B-flat major played effervescently. Her powdered-sugar approach isn't for all tastes, but she does it extremely well.

Better still, she can do other things too, as she showed in her performance of Beethoven's Sonata in C minor Op. 111. This was the best late-Beethoven performance I've heard so far in this competition. The lengthy second movement was especially well done, with the majestic chords at the beginning played with unwavering rhythm but varying intensity depending on the moment, then giving way to the syncopated figurations that Son played with jazzy verve. The piece builds to a series of trills, and she rendered them in exhilarating fashion. (Not that this should win her the competition, but she's the best triller in the field.) Ending a recital with late Beethoven was a gamble that paid off for her.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Wu Di (Concerto I)

Di Wu had to follow Bozhanov, and it says a lot about her that she didn't seem diminished by the comparison. We hadn't heard any Beethoven yet from her in this competition, but she sounded to the manner born when she played his a coruscating version of his Second Concerto. She started off decently enough, but the second movement was just gorgeous, with each phrase finely wrought from the opening. The pianissimo notes were particularly exquisite; I don't think I've heard better soft playing in the entire competition. Having mesmerized the crowd with that, she then launched directly into the rollicking third movement right after the orchestra finished the second. She played it with a great handle on Beethoven's sense of humor, and brought it home with assurance. What a magical pair of concerto performances we heard tonight! Let's keep this up.

Evgeni Bozhanov (Concerto I)

The Cliburn finalists play two concertos, one from a preselected list of Classical Era concertos, and one of their own choosing. In the past, each session of the final round featured one performance from the former group and one from the latter. This year, though, they're playing the Classical concertos in the same sessions on the early nights of the round and then letting us hear the more modern works later. We'll see how well that works out, and if we get fatigued from listening from so much Rachmaninov and Prokofiev at once.

Bozhanov turns in an alert, commanding performance of Chopin's First Concerto. He's particularly stylish in the slow second movement, turning the piano part into delicious little curlicues of sound. Then he plays the third movement with great rhythmic zest. He magnifies his sound so that he stands out from the orchestra without losing the essential beauty of his tone, and he applies clever little interpretive touches everywhere in the music. This performance is thoroughly delightful, and as good as he's been, I don't think we've seen everything he can do yet. Can't wait to find out.

Mariangela Vacatello (final recital)

An Italian playing the Italian Concerto! If that seems a bit predetermined, Vacatello didn't play it that way, delivering an Italian with more point and less color than Vondracek, though there was still plenty of color. I particularly liked the gentle but insistent rhythm she put under the "Andante." She then played Chopin's Rondo in E-flat, a relatively obscure piece that she rendered with aristocratic elegance and no small amount of humor. She couldn't convince me that the piece deserved more of a hearing (I think she could have done as well with a couple of Chopin's waltzes), but the pianism was attractive.

Then things took a bad turn with Gaspard de la Nuit, the first of three performances of this in this final round, after we had only one in the prelims and none in the semis. There were some slips in "Le gibet" and "Scarbo," but I could have forgiven those if she played it with the right unwholesomeness. This is a piece that needs to smell like death, and so far we don't have any evidence that this pianist can conjure that up. There was no edge of menace in any of the sections, and "Le gibet" lost all forward momentum. There was so little tension in "Scarbo" that I wondered if she wasn't just running out of gas at this point.

She did manage to rescue herself a bit in Shostakovich's Prelude and Fugue in D-flat major, preserving the Russian dance-like character of the piece and even playing it with a ferocity that she really could have used in Gaspard. It was a rousing conclusion, though I'm still not sure about her prospects going forward in this competition. She's got the two concertos left to play.

Reading the Comments Thread (or, EPIC FAIL! Pwnage!)

I spent the off days tending to my other Fort Worth Weekly duties as well as reading the comments thread. I'm not talking about the one on this blog, of course, which is lucky to get a single comment for individual posts. (Though I have read all the comments here -- thanks to all four of you who've weighed in.) Nor are there many comments for the other local bloggers who are reporting tirelessly from the Cliburn: Olin Chism at KERA's Art&Seek, Matt Erikson at WRR Radio, and Scott Cantrell at's Arts Blog, whose contributions there have been augmented by Carol Leone and now Wayne Lee Gay. None of them are getting nearly the same traffic as the Cliburn's blog, which regularly scores high-double and triple digits when it comes to comments on individual posts.

The debates there have been contentious and sometimes acrimonious. I'm assuming that the worst posts were deleted by the moderators before I got there. It's important to remember that music by its nature inspires irrational feelings, and though words are the best medium we have for discussing music, they can still be pretty inadequate sometimes. Had the technology been around in the 19th century, we can only imagine what sort of mud might have been slung between Brahms' and Wagner's supporters. Plus, the competition format necessarily excludes some pianists at the expense of others, and that gives rise to both useful debate and useless bitterness. We shouldn't be surprised at the latter.

I didn't read all the comments on the Cliburn's blog (doing that would probably have taken me until the next Cliburn Competition) but some interesting topics came up in the ones I did read. The chatter in the press room was pretty polarized regarding Alessandro Deljavan, and so it's been in the blogosphere, too, though the online community talked much more about his facial expressions (distracting? faked? incidental?) than the critics did. There was also a great deal of sniping back and forth about Andrea Lam and Eduard Kunz. One commenter said Kunz was the only pianist in the entire field who played with any "artistry." (Paging Kara DioGuardi.) Kunz' champions were silent in the press room, though they chose to express themselves online. I don't think his semi performances warranted a spot in the finals, though I do find his talent to be worth following.

Cliburn poster L.L. Evans floated the interestingly cracked theory that the judges were promoting Nobuyuki Tsujii to the later rounds just to give him experience playing with chamber-music and orchestral ensembles, something he hasn't had much of. I don't believe this is the case, and if I did, I'd say that isn't what the competition should be for. Nevertheless, I found the idea intriguing because Tsujii's chamber-music performance impressed me more than anything else he did, and did a lot to convince me that he might one day be a major pianist. (Notice the words "might one day".) I've made it known that I don't think he belongs in the finals, but it's not a stretch to think that his Cliburn experience this year is going to do him good as a musician and help him be as good as he can be.

One commenter said Deljavan didn't deserve to make the semis because he was sloppily dressed and didn't tuck his shirt in in the prelims, which is just too stupid. Most of the numerous comments on the competitors' clothes were more amusing. Women's fashions tend to be more interesting than men's, so no surprise that their dresses drew more commentary than the men's suits. The most thought-provoking comment on this came from one female poster who said that the women shouldn't be playing in formal wear, because it's improper attire for the work at hand. I don't find the dresses a distraction. On the other hand, I have no experience playing the piano while wearing a ball gown and heels. Is that the best thing for a woman to be wearing while performing? Or is Kudritskaya's sensible (if eccentric) ensemble a better way to go? I wouldn't mind if the female pianists were wearing pants, or clown suits for that matter, if it helped them play their best. Can the women reading this blog offer me any perspective on this?

(If any men can tell me about playing the piano while wearing a dress, they can throw in their two cents, too. Judgmental as I often am, I don't judge that.)

Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Finalists Are Announced

The Tsujii Tsunami rolls on! The finalists are Evgeni Bozhanov, Son Yeol-eum, Nobuyuki Tsujii, Mariangela Vacatello, Di Wu, and Zhang Haochen. They voted for the blind guy. Call me dismayed but not surprised.

Not many surprises among the others. We did a straw poll of the critics in the press room, and just about everyone named Bozhanov, Son, Wu, and Zhang in their final six. After that, the vote fragmented.

I'm off to get some rest, though I'll probably have at least one more post between now and Wednesday, when the finals start.

Waiting for Results (Part 2)

Okay, so my picks for the finals are Evgeni Bozhanov, Andrea Lam, Wu Di, Zhang Haochen, Son Yeol-eum, and Alessandro Deljavan. I'm listing them in the order that they performed on Thursday and Friday. This one's not like my semifinal picks. I'm not completely sold on Son yet, but I'm willing to admit the possibility that my experience of her first-round performance (which I saw in the viewing room) might have given me an unfavorable initial impression. I suspect that Vacatello and Lifits might be intrinsically better pianists than her, but like many other things, the Cliburn isn't about intrinsic worth. It's about who's better on the day, and as we've seen, even if you're a tennis champion who's never lost at the French Open, you'll get knocked out if you show up without your game. I couldn't in good conscience choose Vacatello or Lifits ahead of Son on the strength of their semifinal performances. Perhaps the judges will disagree, though.

In addition to naming the finalists, the jury will also be handing out some discretionary prizes. Since there's no set criteria for those, I won't pick those. However, I will be recommending these picks for their other prizes.

The best chamber music performance was by Evgeni Bozhanov with the Franck Quintet. This wasn't close.

The best performance of a new work was by Andrea Lam with White Lies for Lomax. This wasn't close, either.

We can expect word from the judges round about 11:30. I'll be back then with the names of the finalists. I'm pulling hardest for Lam, but Wu and Deljavan are the ones who look like possible gold medalists to me. I've got some fingers crossed.

Son Yeol-eum (chamber music)

The two Korean women both play the same quintet on the same evening, but the Takacs players find a much more agreeable collaborator in Son. She delivers an impassioned, fiery reading. I mentioned earlier that I liked Brahms played with force and emotion, but this is a much more refined performance than Kim's. Whether you prefer Son's version of the Brahms or Deljavan's depends on your inclinations. The Italian's is the tasteful one that'll appeal to purists, but Son's is the muscular one that gives a more visceral experience. It's good enough, in fact, to make me alter my list of finalists. That's coming up.

Also, I note that Son didn't use a page turner for her performance, but instead turned the pages of her own printed score. Not quite as impressive as Tsujii performing the quintet from memory, but I found it worth mentioning all the same.

Alessandro Deljavan (semifinal recital)

The last semifinal recital is a good one, though you could have predicted that with Deljavan playing it. He plays Schubert's Sonata in D major (D. 850), and it was even better than Bozhanov's Schubert. Not many pianists can do Schubert and Liszt equally well, but Deljavan's skill in narrative building helped wrangle these unruly works into shape. His playing is clear and thoroughly unsentimental, and it'd be dry if he weren't so warm and full of feeling, without any unnecessary underscoring of the emotion. (Unless you count his facial expressions, that is. Some people would. I don't.) His understanding of the structure made this Schubert sonata a riveting listening experience, and he made great use of the coy theme from the fourth movement. I could listen to this guy play Schubert all day, and there are very few pianists I'd say that about.

He then played White Lies for Lomax, and he didn't understand it (so there is something he can't do!) though he was gorgeous to hear, so he has that advantage over all the other pianists who didn't get it. Andrea Lam is the one who really got it.

He finished with Scriabin's Fifth Piano Sonata, and he singed the air with it. (Of course, if you don't singe the air with it, you're doing it wrong.) This delicately colored work erupts into violence and eroticism, and Deljavan did justice to its luridity without ever losing his attractive tone. He built up the tension into a hair-burning finale. What a discovery we've made with this pianist!

Kim Kyu-yeon (chamber music)

She came out in the same simple black dress that she wore for the recital, and she played the Brahms quintet. She consistently swamped the Takacs players (noticeably sharper than they were in the afternoon session, by the way) with her full-bodied sound. You can see why she'd be an imposing concerto player, and it is nice to hear Brahms given the occasional volcanic treatment instead of the usual pretty, civilized performance. However, she used that sound too much, and though she had some spots where she made an effective chamber musician (especially in the second half of the second movement), this performance wasn't nearly as good as Deljavan's on Friday.

Michail Lifits (semifinal recital)

Crap. I think Lifits might have played himself out of contention. He started off with Liszt's Sonata in B minor, the fifth one we've heard at this competition, and by far the slowest one. I timed him at 33 minutes. I had an informal clock going on most of the other Liszt sonatas, and though we may want to check, by my watch none of the others were more than 30 minutes, and most were closer to 25. The slowness didn't prevent Lifits' octaves in the opening passage from being strewn with errors, though these were mostly cleaned up in the later portions of the piece. Had Lifits' performance persuaded me that his approach was the right one, I would have gone along. Instead, he just wound up noodling over the lyrical passages, and his pace seemed like a misguided stab at profundity.

His beautiful playing the slow movements in Hagen's Suite for Piano reminded me of the musician that I liked so much in the first round and the chamber performance. (I think Hagen's work is my favorite new piece in this competition.) He finished with Prokofiev's Seventh Piano Sonata, and his "go slow" approach worked for me in the famous last movement. I always thought most pianists played that movement too fast. It was good to hear it at that speed. Still, he dawdled again over the lyrical passages, and the second movement was filled with eccentric touches that misfired as often as they hit. I had my six finalists all ready to go. Now I have to rethink one of the slots.

Zhang Haochen (chamber music)

Another pleasurable performance from this pianist. Zhang isn't as used to the demands of chamber as Vacatello or Lifits were in this piece, but he shows mostly sound instincts in this more deliberate and less rhythmic rendition of the Schumann than the others'. We've had so many good chamber performances this year that this one stands out less than it would have in another year. Still, it was never less than pleasant to hear. He probably didn't need any help from his chamber performance to get into the finals, but he certainly didn't hurt his cause.

Nobuyuki Tsujii (semifinal recital)

Okay, so it wasn't the chamber music performance that exposed Tsujii's weaknesses, it was the semifinal recital. He started out with John Musto's Improvisation & Fugue. He's the only contestant playing this fast, scurrying piece, and he brought the same crispness and articulation from his first-round performance to this thing. He did all right there.

The trouble popped up in his other item, Beethoven's "Hammerklavier" Sonata. It sounded entirely too much like everything else he's played. There's too little variability in his frequently shallow tone, and some of the loud high notes came out downright harsh. He took the second movement way too fast, and while he took the third at the right pace, his tone was lacking the refinement that you hear from the best Beethoven players. The structure was all over the place, too. Simply, he doesn't understand the music (not that you'd expect any 20-year-old pianist to understand the "Hammerklavier"). Clearly, playing it was a gamble that backfired. If the judges put Tsujii in the final, they will be ignoring his performances and voting for the blind guy. And this undeveloped but talented musician deserves more consideration than that.

Sweating It Out

The pianists at the Cliburn have been complaining that the lights are too hot, but they're not sweating as much as I am this sultry afternoon. Pardon my appearance, but I'm driving an old car with a broken A/C unit that'll cost too much to replace. I was going to get a new car before the weather turned, but now I'm waiting for the auto-industry bailout plan to pass Congress. It's got a "cash for clunkers" program that'll give me an absurdly inflated trade-in value for my car. Before I was hot and stinky, but now I'm a smart consumer. This bailout may or may not be the best thing for the country, but it'll work out great for me. I wear my armpit stains as badges of honor! Okay, maybe not. But I'll still save a ton of money.

Meanwhile, I've been wondering: Does Takacs lead violinist Edward Dusinberre sweat at all? Violist Geraldine Walther and cellist Andras Fejer are wiping themselves off after each movement, and second violinist Karoly Schranz has a big cloth on the chinrest of his violin. Dusinberre (pronounced "dews in berry") is cool as the proverbial cucumber. What's his secret?

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Andrea Lam (chamber music)

The Takacs players were audibly fatigued as they started off the last performance of the day. No wonder; they start chamber rehearsals at 9:30 in the morning and don't finish up until the last performance ends, around 10:45 p.m. This explains the low-energy start to the Dvorak quintet with Andrea Lam. Yet the Australian looked fresher than anybody else on stage, or indeed anyone left in the audience. So she wound up carrying the string players, and everybody powered through it. She steadied the Takacs players with her rhythm, and twinkled in the upper register. (She's on the right instrument, playing one of the brighter New York Steinways available to the contestants as opposed to the mellower Hamburg Steinway.) She was too loud a few times, but she brought the piece home safely, and the audience recognized her achievement, giving her a lengthy ovation. Giddy like a schoolgirl, she gestured toward the string players during the applause and reminded me that with a few exceptions (Rupert Murdoch, Russell Crowe), Australians are pretty cool. Hope this performance advances her cause. I'd like to see her in the final.

Wu Di (semifinal recital)

An unusual program for Wu Di, and it paid off smashingly. She came out in a silver dress and played Clara Schumann's Mazurka from Soirees Musicales and then launched straight into Robert Schumann's Davidsbundlertanze, playing it with far more personality and rhythm than Amy Yang did in the prelims. The rhythmic element reminded us that these pieces are dances, after all, and gave each character piece its own character, teasing out the humor in No. 3, playing No. 2 with melting lyricism, and bringing the Sturm und Drang in No. 4.

Then she played Nikolai Medtner's Four Fairy Tales Op. 20 and made an excellent case that this contemporary of Rachmaninov and Prokofiev deserves to be considered on an equal footing with them. The pieces were played with limpid beauty and fire. Daron Hagen's Piano Suite came off better in the fast outer movements than Vacatello's, though not as good in the lyrical inner movements. That's a wash, then.

She finished with Moritz Moszkowski's Caprice Espagnol, and it was the first thing I've heard in this competition that made me grin like an idiot. That's what showpieces are for, and she took this out-of-the-way piece and made it electrifying. Are we looking at the next gold medalist?

Evgeni Bozhanov (chamber music)

More terrific stuff on the chamber music front from the Bulgarian. He played Cesar Franck's piano quintet, and I think I put my finger on why the Franck is so unpopular among Cliburn pianists. It's the darkest, most angst-ridden of the four quintets on offer, but most of the angst is expressed through the string players and not the piano. Most of the time, the piano is simply accompanying the strings as they saw away. It's seldom front and center.

Perhaps for this reason, and perhaps because this was the only performance of the piece that they had to play, the Takacs players sank their teeth wholeheartedly into the music. As for Bozhanov, he wasn't always comfortable in the background of the action, but he embraced his role and set the tempo efficiently, especially in the driving first movement. It added up to a powerful piece of music-making, the best chamber performance so far.

Eduard Kunz (semifinal recital)

He opened his program with Beethoven's "Waldstein" Sonata, which only roared fitfully to life during the louder passages in the second half. Other than that, it was pretty dull. I had higher hopes for his second recital item, Rachmaninov's Moments musicaux. The way he played the Siloti transcription in the first round made me think he'd be a natural Rachmaninov player. Oh, how wrong I was. The indifferent phrasing, muddy sound, and most of all the lack of emotion in these pieces were truly shocking. Sakamoto's version of this in the prelims was far superior to this. Kunz got here on the strength of his creative programming in the first round, but without that, he was exposed. He played White Lies for Lomax to wind up his program and couldn't get the rhythm down. Even though he added a few finger snaps to the end and acknowledged the audience by holding up the score for a round of applause (a nice gesture), it wasn't enough to rescue this performance.

As I was leaving the concert hall, an old woman walking beside me said in her imperfect English, "He just bang the piano." Um, yeah.

Mariangela Vacatello (chamber music)

Clearly the Italians have come loaded for bear when it comes to the chamber music portion of this competition. She came out in a different outfit (black top with pants) but wearing the same red bow in her hair. She's also an experienced chamber musician, and it showed in her performance in the Schumann Quintet. She didn't blend in as seamlessly as Deljavan did last night, or Lifits in this same work, but this was a solid B+ performance in a piece much more suited to her temperament than her solo program.. I have a feeling that she'd be a worthy finalist. I just wish I liked her semifinal recital more.

Ran Dank (semifinal recital)

The Israeli started off with Bach's Partita No. 4 in D major. I'm starting to think I'm no judge when it comes to Bach; I never get the feeling of mystical communion with the universe that you're supposed to get with this composer. Anyway, I found Dank's playing to be agreeable enough. He then drifted cluelessly through White Lies for Lomax. If you're keeping score, seven semifinalists are playing Lomax, while four are playing Hagen's Suite for Piano, and one is playing John Musto's Improvisation and Fugue. Nobody is playing Derek Bermel's Turning, probably because it's 17 minutes long, and who wants to give over that much of their recital to an unfamiliar work?

He then finished with Prokofiev's Sixth Piano Sonata, the first piece by Prokofiev we've heard in this competition. It only took us eight days. He made a big sound, and he was alive to the composer's grotesque sense of humor in the second movement. He lost his way in the lyrical third movement, and even in spots in the finale. He didn't have much eye for the drama in the piece, for the slow building of destructive momentum. The performance was all right for the most part, but the thing is, the piece needs to be shattering. Ran Dank needed to be shattering. He wasn't.


I got into the press room early to listen to Di Wu's chamber performance again. I had to slow down the player on the Cliburn's video webcast page to the lowest bitrate to get the audio flowing smoothly (which was the part that I cared about), and even then the audio kept cutting out if I tried to look at CNN's website on another page while the broadcast was playing. So I couldn't do the high-tech version of playing classical music while reading the paper.

No matter. I guess my ears were just jaded past the point of usefulness when I listened to her on Thursday night, because the performance I heard this morning with fresh ears was smooth and solid. The overplaying I heard on Thursday still popped up occasionally on the webcast, but overall the balance was much better than I remembered it. Di Wu and the Takacs players turned in a gently swaying second movement and a third-movement scherzo with the proper bounce. She sounded nearly as good as the subsequent performances by Lifits and Deljavan, and for someone without their chamber experience, that's pretty impressive.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Alessandro Deljavan (chamber music)

The chamber music performances just seem to be getting better and better. Deljavan is, I'm told, an experienced chamber musician, and it certainly shows in his performance of the Brahms quintet. I would have thought his tone and temperament were better suited to the Schumann or the Dvorak, but he's excellent in the Brahms. His dynamics (volume, to readers who are less familiar with classical music) are always spot on, and the piece has a constant forward momentum that it didn't when Ran Dank was playing. In a spot like the opening of the second movement, where the piano has to lead the string players, Deljavan is smooth and confident. It seems like he's been practicing with the Takacs for years, not hours.

I've mentioned the difficulties of pianists adjusting to a chamber setting, but it's difficult for audiences and judges to evaluate the pianists, too, because these works are supposed to be collaborative efforts with every musician playing an equal part, delivering accompaniment or melody as needed. Yet in the context of this competition, we're supposed to focus on one player, no matter what their role is at any given time. I'm still working out how to keep both the overall quintet's performance and the pianist's individual performance in sight. I just hope the chamber performances tomorrow and Sunday are as good as the ones we've had lately.

Son Yeol-eum (semifinal recital)

I watched her in the concert hall rather in the viewing room (like I did in the first round), and I gained a rather more favorable impression of her. She started with six Debussy preludes, and her candy-sweet tone came across. She gave "Les collines d'Anacapri" ("The Hills of Anacapri") a gentle, hushed beauty, but she could bring the power, too, in "Ce qu'a vu le vent d'Ouest" ("What the West Wind Saw"). There were some odd rhythms in "La fille aux cheveux de lin" ("The Girl With the Flaxen Hair"), but maybe she was working from a different edition than the one I learned the piece from.

She then went with Leopold Godowsky's Symphonic Transformation of Themes from Die Fledermaus. It got a huge ovation from the crowd. I liked the playing fine, but I didn't like the piece. It was written by one of the great pianists of his time, using some recognizable tunes from a popular opera and covering them in tons and tons of pianistic embellishments. It struck me like the musical equivalent of sculpting a butterfly with 20 tons of concrete. I would have been more impressed if she'd chosen Godowsky's studies on Chopin's etudes, which contain some passages that'll make even hardened piano virtuosos ask "How the hell do I play this?"

Then she played White Lies for Lomax, and this fourth performance to date was easily the second best so far. She concluded with Barber's Piano Sonata, and though it was more restrained than Beus', with greater attention to tone, I thought the structural nuances of this massive four-movement piece got away from her, especially in the middle movements. The crowd ate it up, though.

Michail Lifits (chamber music)

I got held up at the restaurant and arrived late to the concert hall, so I had to catch Lifits' performance of the Schumann quintet in the viewing room at Maddox Muse. It seems like the sound quality down there is truer to life for broadcasts of chamber music than when it's the piano by itself.

Lifits played Schumann in the prelims, so we know that he's on friendly terms with the composer. No surprise that he came through with a forceful, assured, idiomatic performance that improved upon Tsujii's rendition of the same piece from this afternoon. He blended in seamlessly with the Takacs players and seemed comfortable with the give-and-take of chamber music like nobody else we've heard so far. A fresh, full-bodied performance with no weaknesses I could discern from my vantage point across the street.

Kim Kyu-yeon (semifinal recital)

I was a bit puzzled when this Korean pianist made the semifinals, and I have to say, her solo recital didn't enlighten me much. She played a hazy and indistinct rendition of Beethoven's Op. 101 sonata. Late Beethoven often comes off as hazy and indistinct in the wrong hands. Then she played Hagen's Suite for Piano, giving a solid performance that wasn't as beautiful as Vacatello's yesterday.

She ended with Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, and showed off her ability to produce a great welter of lovely, burnished sound, especially in "The Great Gate of Kiev" at the very end. Yet she frequently took pregnant pauses in the lyrical parts that made "Il Vecchio Castello" and "The Catacombs" a chore to sit through, and she didn't have anything like the wildness needed for "Baba Yaga" (a piece about an old witch who eats children, for heaven's sake). If Kim has any interesting musical edges, I haven't seen them yet.

Nobuyuki Tsujii (chamber music)

I was expecting a disaster here. I figured Tsujii would hammer this piece into submission and be cruelly exposed. No such thing. His performance of Schumann's Quintet was well (not perfectly, but well) modulated, with the pianist showing an awareness of when to pull back and when to assert himself. He even adapted his sound to the composer's sonic world, something he failed to do in the prelims when he played Debussy. Chamber music depends on spoken and unspoken communication between the players, and I can't imagine the difficulties involved here, with a pianist who speaks no English and is blind as well. (I'm assuming none of the Takacs players speaks Japanese.) Yet this group played with an understanding of each other that bordered on amazing. There may be better performances of the Schumann quintet later on, maybe as early as tonight when Michail Lifits takes his turn. However, I'm starting to think that Tsujii has a bit more game than I initially gave him credit for. Let's see his solo recital.

Zhang Haochen (semifinal recital)

The kid didn't get off to the best start. He couldn't seem to take his foot off the pedal for the early Chopin Preludes. It was only when he played No. 8 that the performance suddenly shifted into focus, and after that he was generally better in the dark, stormy minor-key preludes (especially Nos. 16, 18, 22, and 24) than he was in the cheerful major-key ones, though he also gave excellent accounts of Nos. 17 and 23.

Then he played White Lies for Lomax, and though he couldn't match Lam for command of the piece's American qualities, neither was he completely adrift like Bozhanov. He tried to compensate with sheer volume when he wasn't sure, but he was still much closer to the former than the latter.

He finished with Liszt's Spanish Rhapsody, giving a drier, more pointed account of it than either Stephen Beus or Son Yeol-eum in the prelims. I would've said "tighter," but he dithered a bit too much in the slower portions of the piece. Even so, he gave the piece the proper panache and confirmed what we already knew about him: This is an exceptional young talent. Let's see what else he can do.

What's Wrong With Chamber?

As promised, here's my post on what's wrong with the chamber music portion of the competition. Right now, the competitors have to choose one piano quintet from the ones composed by Brahms, Dvorak, Franck, and Schumann. These are all great works, unquestionably. However, the scope is too narrow. We've already seen competitors whose talents and temperaments don't fit any of these quintets.

I understand that having such a narrow scope gives the judges and audiences a common reference point. We can compare Pianist X's performance of the Schumann with Pianist Y's. Since the competition abandoned the repertoire requirements for the solo recitals in the 1990s (the right move, by the way), it's more important than ever to be able to judge these musicians by comparing apples to apples, as Steve Cumming put it earlier.

Yet restricting the repertoire to four works seems unnecessarily severe. (And when you take into account the fact that the Franck Quintet is consistently less popular than the other three, it effective is three works.) At the very least, the competition should give competitors the additional choice of Shostakovich's Piano Quintet in G minor, a spiky underappreciated work with a weird Spanish-flavored scherzo in the middle. This would give competitors an option for 20th-century music as well as Russian music. Better yet, including some judiciously chosen piano quartets and trios would open up the field to Mozart, Beethoven, Debussy, Ravel, Rachmaninov, Faure, and Mendelssohn, as well as more works by Dvorak, Schumann, and Brahms. More contemporary composers might include Daron Hagen, Arvo Part, or local favorite Lowell Liebermann.

For all its inherent difficulties, chamber music should definitely be kept on at the Cliburn. It helps make the competition unique, and with ensembles as prestigious as the Takacs signing on, it gives the competition added sheen. I just think that with a few minor tweaks, this round would be more interesting for the audiences and more rewarding for the pianists.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Wu Di (chamber music)

The evening finished with Di Wu doing the Dvorak quintet. Everyone else in the press room seemed higher on this performance than I was, and I like her skills. I thought she overplayed almost as much as Eduard Kunz, though when you think about the difficulties in taking musicians who've trained as soloists and trying to make them over into chamber musicians, a certain amount of this seems inevitable. It's like taking a thoroughbred racehorse and asking it to run a steeplechase. The pianists who have experience in chamber music will be easy to spot, and they'll have a significant advantage in this phase of the competition.

I detected less energy but more precision from the Takacs players. The third movement missing the scherzo's joie de vivre, and the overall interpretation seemed indistinct. You know what, though? With all the weight of the voices against me, and with the goodwill I have left over from Di Wu's first-round performance, I'm going to listen to this performance again when my ears haven't been burdened with having listened to the same piece two hours earlier. Stay tuned.

Andrea Lam (semifinal recital)

I met her briefly this afternoon in the press room. She knew about our name being the same. Apparently she has an uncle who uses the name Lin. She seemed pretty nice.

She started with the same Haydn sonata that Vacatello played earlier and gave a performance every bit as good. For the first time, I felt like I got the musical jokes that Haydn typically embedded in his compositions. (I mean his piano stuff; I get the jokes in his symphonies.)

Then she played Brahms' Klavierstucke Op. 118. (The title simply means "piano pieces.") I must confess I have a soft spot for these compositions that Brahms wrote late in his life. Lam brought out all the warmth in these pieces, taking No. 2 (a personal favorite of mine) a little slower than I'd like, but playing No. 3 with truculence and bite. I forgot about the competition when she played these. The beauty of her playing made time seem to stop.

Then she played Stravinsky's Four Etudes Op. 7, effective showpieces from off the beaten path that started out like a cousin to Rachmaninov but ended as music that was recognizably by the same guy who wrote Petrouchka. Then she played White Lies for Lomax, and not unforeseeably did better with the American idiom than Bozhanov did. It still sounds like Gershwin more than it does like Muddy Waters, but it was fun to listen to all the same.

She ended with Ginastera's Suite de Danzas Criollas ("Suite of Creole Dances") and played them with tremendous rhythmic verve and beauty. Just a tremendous performance overall, and proof that her first-round performance was no fluke.

Eduard Kunz (chamber music)

The chamber music round features three performances of the Dvorak Piano Quintet, and two of them are tonight. If you're interested in how it breaks down, there are four apiece of the Schumann and Brahms quintets, and one of the Franck. Somehow it always seems that the Franck goes begging.

Kunz makes a few big slips and overplays in spots, but otherwise gives the Dvorak a full and vigorous going-over. For whatever reason, the Takacs players are much sharper now than they were in the afternoon. Over on the other side of the table, Scott Cantrell is using the word "trainwreck" to describe the performance I just heard. It may have been a bit ragged, but the spirit and the energy were there, and the third movement was played with real bounce. In any event, the bar has been set. Let's see if it can be raised.

I never noticed this before, but Eduard Kunz looks like Zach Braff.

Who was the kid in the second row wearing the Avenged Sevenfold T-shirt? Can't help but admire someone willing to signal their musical allegiances in an environment like this. And hey, as long as people give their full attention to the music, I don't care if they show up here in their beachwear.

Evgeni Bozhanov (semifinal recital)

This one didn't disappoint. The Bulgarian started off with a terrific account of Beethoven's Sonata in E-flat (Op. 31, No. 2), sparkling and very in tune with the composer's particular sense of musical humor. He then played Mason Bates' White Lies for Lomax, the title of which refers to Alan Lomax, the ethnomusicologist who recorded some seminal blues musicians in the 1930s and '40s. Honestly, if I hadn't been told, I never would have guessed the blues influence in this piece. The middle section, where the music gets to boogie, sounded more like jazz than blues. This was where Bozhanov was best in this brief work.

Points for sheer ballsiness for ending his recital with Schubert's Sonata in B-flat. This is the first Schubert we've heard in this competition, and I'm not sorry it took us this long, because badly played Schubert is pretty awful to sit through. Bozhanov's wasn't bad, though. In fact, it was strong, and executed with a pleasing tone. Schubert sonatas can be tough to get a handle on, especially in terms of form. Bozhanov lost me through a bit of the slower second movement, but he picked me back up in the concluding movement, shaping the outer movements into coherent narratives. It was a gamble that paid off, judging by the audience's enthusiastic reaction. Pianists don't often get standing ovations by playing Schubert unless they're deserved. This one felt deserved.

Ran Dank (chamber music)

The overwhelming impression I took away from his performance of Brahms' Piano Quintet can be boiled down to two words: Too loud. That's definitely what he was in the portions of the piece in which the piano was the main player, and his contributions were anonymous in the parts where the piano was a collaborator. At no point did he sound like a natural Brahms interpreter.

However, this might not be his fault. The Cliburn only makes four pieces available in the chamber music round, and Dank had to pick one. The Brahms may well have been the one that was the least bad fit for him. This plays into what I think the fundamental problem is with the chamber music portion of the competition. I'll have more on that in a later post.

As with the 2001 and 2005 competitions, the Takacs String Quartet played alongside the piano. with new violist Geraldine Walther. (Steve Cumming erroneously said she was the second violinist.) They were capable in their roles, but they couldn't rescue Ran Dank, nor was it their job to do that. They've done more than enough in the past to deserve the benefit of the doubt. Let's see how well they do with a pianist who's more suited to the work at hand.

Mariangela Vacatello (semifinal recital)

She comes out in the same outfit she had in the prelims (red dress with matching bow in her hair). If she was wearing the same dress because she thought it was lucky, it didn't work. The semi was a bit of a comedown.

She started with the fourth version of the Liszt Sonata in B minor that we've heard so far, and though it was solid and occasionally beautiful, she couldn't match the theatrical fire that we heard from her compatriot Deljavan in this piece.

All the Cliburn pianists play one of four contemporary piano pieces by American composers pre-selected by the jury, and she chose Daron Hagen's Suite for Piano, picking herself up a bit from the Liszt. She was especially good in the lyrical middle movements, the "Sarabande" and "Aria," and pointed in the faster outer movements.

Her Scriabin selections weren't up to scratch, though. She played an undistinguished Nocturne for the Left Hand, and while she kept the melody together (no easy feat amid the piece's wide-ranging arpeggio accompaniments for the same hand), it was more of a technical achievement than anything else. She then concluded with the composer's Third Piano Sonata, and while it was tonally gorgeous throughout, this work needs to be explosive and molten. Based on what we've seen of Vacatello so far, I don't think she does "molten," though she got somewhere close to where she needed to be at the very end. Not a well-chosen program, really. That's disappointing, but maybe she'll be better in her chamber music selection later on.

The Next Round Starts

Spent the day off doing other work for the Weekly. Four years ago I got to spend the day between the prelims and semis at a screening of Mr. and Mrs. Smith. It was a relief getting a big sugary dose of pop culture amid all the classical music. No such luck this year, but given how well I like many of the semifinalists, I'm not complaining.

While we were waiting for the semifinalists to be announced on Tuesday night, I went across the street to Ferre and got caught up in a different kind of drama, watching LeBron James almost pull out another victory in Game 4 of the Cleveland-Orlando series. Sobering to think that if it hadn't been for his Game 2 last-second shot, the Cavs would have been swept by now.

As in previous years, the eliminated pianists will be taking part in a piano marathon, performing the semifinal and final-round recitals that they would have played had they reached the later rounds. This year, it's at McDavid Studio on Jun 1-2. Looking over the semifinal programs, I must say I would've liked to hear Vondracek play the "Appassionata" Sonata and Debussy's Pour le piano.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Semifinalists Are Announced

In alphabetical order, they are: Evgeni Bozhanov, Ran Dank, Alessandro Deljavan, Kim Kyu-yeon, Eduard Kunz, Andrea Lam, Michail Lifits, Son Yeol-eum, Nobuyuki Tsujii, Mariangela Vacatello, Di Wu, and Zhang Haochen.

The question uppermost in my mind is, what do the judges have against Stephen Beus?

Still, I'm actually pretty pleased overall with the selections. I'll be looking forward to quite a few of the semi performances.

I'm coining the term "Tsujii Tsunami" for future use, but I'm hoping the actual phenomenon doesn't happen. Everyone would be better off if he lost now, came back in four or eight years a more mature musician, and won.

Well, I'm off to take a break from all the piano music tomorrow. My ears will welcome it.

Waiting for Results

And we're done with the prelims! We're all waiting for the software to tabulate the judges' results. I've found that in the past, word of the selections tends to filter to the press room some minutes before they're announced onstage in Bass Hall. I wonder whether I should be one of the first to find out, or whether I should wait in the hall and be surprised.

It's time for me to pick my 12 choices for the semifinalists, and wow, my job is easy this year. There are exactly 12 pianists whom I like much better than the rest of the field. There's no agonizing, no borderline picks, nobody I'm putting on the list just to make up the numbers. In the order that they played in the first round, my semifinal picks are Stephen Beus, Spencer Myer, Eduard Kunz, Di Wu, Michail Lifits, Alessandro Deljavan, Mariangela Vacatello, Evgeni Bozhanov, Ang Li, Andrea Lam, Zhang Haochen, and Mayumi Sakamoto. Please note that these are not predictions as to who'll advance. My list of favorites tends to bear little resemblance to the actual roster of semifinalists. This is only who I'd choose if I had a vote. I have an uneasy feeling that the groundswell for Nobuyuki Tsujii will be too difficult for the judges to resist, but we'll see. I'll be back with the names of the semifinalists.

Mayumi Sakamoto

Hey, I have a cousin named Mayumi! That, however, is the least of the reasons why I like this Japanese pianist's performance so much. I was struck by her face, a tableau of serenity even when playing the most tumultuous passages. I've got nothing against pianists who wear the music's emotions on their faces while they play, but clearly the "channel everything into the music" approach is working for her.

She played an extremely well-chosen program, starting with Bach's Toccata in E minor. She played sharp, purposeful Bach, brimming with confidence that she knew exactly what she was doing, a rare quality in young pianists whatever music they're playing. She then segued effortlessly into Mendelssohn's Variations serieuses, a piece that used counterpoint in much the same way as Bach's, but for more emotional ends. Her convincing performance made you wonder why Mendelssohn is regarded as a distant third to Chopin and Liszt among his contemporaries.

With her plangent, warm, gorgeous sound, she'd seem a natural for the Russian repertoire. Her concluding piece was Rachmaninov's Moments musicaux, and it was the best Rachmaninov playing we've heard so far. (Strange that she doesn't have any more Russian music scheduled for the later rounds.) The six selections gave her a chance to showcase her formidable technique, and she invested them with galvanizing emotional power. If there's a weakness in her game, I haven't found it yet.

Son Yeol-eum

The rain traps me in the Maddox-Muse Building, where the press room is. Since I'll get soaked if I cross the street to Bass Hall, I opt to watch the performance in the viewing room in Maddox-Muse's Van Cliburn Recital Hall. The piano is pretty closely miked, so you don't get the reverb that you get in the hall, and you don't get a sense as to whether the sound from the piano is filling the space. It's like you're in a recording booth with the piano. You also get to see the pianist from multiple camera angles, including the camera on that boom that swings in graceful arcs behind the musician on the stage (out of the pianist's sightlines, I'm assuming). It's not as good a viewing experience, not least because the seats are impossible to sit comfortably in. However, it does have the considerable advantage of being free of charge.

Son comes out in a fetching pink dress and plays three pieces that other pianists have played before. This isn't her fault, of course, but the comparisons don't do her any favors. She performs the same Haydn sonata as Di Wu and can't match her for color. She performs Schumann's Fantasiestucke, but without the emotional oomph that Andrea Lam gave the piece. And she finishes with Liszt's Spanish Rhapsody. This is her best piece, and she's pretty good with it, but she still doesn't have the last ounce of panache that Stephen Beus gave it. Chalk this up as another casualty of the competition format. If she were playing by herself, I might be more impressed.

Kim Kyu-yeon

After a hot, sunny day, it's raining so hard outside the hall that everybody in the press room got up to watch the downpour. Nature seems determined to put on a show of its own tonight.

The afternoon sesh wound up with another wildly mixed program, this one from Kim Kyu-yeon. She started off with the same Haydn sonata in C major that Di Wu played earlier. The performance was nondescript, and I sank into torpor. However, it only took the first few notes of her Schumann Kreisleriana to shake me out of it. The suite of pieces was named (probably) after a series of humorous essays by E.T.A. Hoffmann that featured a crazed musician character named Kreisler. Kim's roaring performance of the first piece convinced me that there were some serious dingbats loose in the guy's head. It was a promising start, and the rest of the performance occasionally lived up to it. However, she couldn't make sense out of the quieter passages. The same pattern held true for her performance of Bartok's Three Etudes. She had beautiful tone, a big sound, and reasonable command of the different demands of the two composers. There's reason to think this 24-year-old might mature beautifully later on. She's not ready now.

Han Yoon-jung

So far, every day I've found the second pianist in the afternoon sessions to have something on their fellow competitors. Today, that streak comes to an end. The South Korean pianist played the same Haydn Sonata in E-flat that Deljavan played earlier, and didn't have anything like the Italian's lucidity and pleasing tone. She finished with "El amor y la muerte" from Granados' Goyescas, and she didn't have any of the Spanish flavor or passion that Andrea Lam brought to her Granados selections. In between those came Chopin's Fantasy in F minor, in which she didn't suffer by comparison with anybody else, but her performance was boring in the slow, contemplative parts, only sparking to life in the loud, virtuoso passages. She played these with some skill and some fire. Still, sitting through this was like sitting through a movie with a couple of good action scenes, but dull everywhere else.

Amy J. Yang

The Chinese-American pianist, who bills herself with her middle initial (which stands for "Jiaqi") came out in a glittery orange dress and flat sandals. Except for her and Kudritskaya, all the other female contestants have worn heels. I've always wondered how you work the pedals in those shoes. Is that easier or harder? Is that like driving a car in heels?

She started with a lively, crisp reading of Bach's French Overture, and then finished with Schumann's Davidsbundlertanze, which means "David's Club Dances." The David's Club was Schumann's name for his circle of friends, whom he imagined as Davids fighting the Philistines of the musical establishment in his time.

(Schumann wrote a lot of music specifically about his friends. If he were around today, he'd have a MySpace page and would constantly chatter with his friends through their pages, and music critics would call them all an insular bunch of poseurs, though the smarter critics would notice that Schumann's music was pretty good.)

Anyway, Yang's Bach performance was good enough to make me consider placing her on my personal list of semifinalists I'd like to see, but her Schumann made me reconsider. Not that it was bad; her tone was consistently beautiful, and her pacing was all right. However, she didn't have the emotional depth that we've heard from other Schumann interpreters in this round like Michail Lifits and Andrea Lam. By that standard, she falls short. Oh, well.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Zhang Haochen

All the evening sessions so far have run a good half-hour over, but tonight's actually got out at a decent hour. Zhang Haochen is the last pianist today, and he's no relation to Zhang Feng. They just share the world's most common surname, according to the latest data. Zhang H.C. is only 19 years old (the youngest contestant in this field), but you can't accuse him of lacking ambition. He started off with late Beethoven, the same sonata that Ilya Rashkovskiy played earlier. I wasn't as taken with this performance as many of my fellow music critics were, but the maturity on display was enough to give me pause. The same held true for his performance of Chopin's Polonaise-fantasie in A-flat, a troublesome work for a pianist who's not prepared for the intricacies of its structure. Zhang was strong in the piece, and played passages of considerable beauty.

He finished with Stravinsky's Three Movements from Petrouchka, and delivered the most astonishing display of pure technique we've seen yet in this competition. It was more explosive and powerful than Vacatello's rendition last night, but it had a crystalline quality to it as well. Zhang found the music within the technical obstacles, but really, analysis doesn't do much good in the face of something like this. Check it out online and just sit back and marvel at it. Nobuyuki Tsujii is a project, but this kid is much more of a polished performer. What can he achieve in the future? We can only hold our breath and wait to find out.

Andrea Lam

I take special note of Andrea Lam's name because her surname is a variant of my own last name, Lin. She's Australian, and she starts with a terrific account of Schumann's Fantaisiestucke ("Fantasy Pieces"), playing with limpid beauty in the lyrical pieces (Nos. 1 and 3), tinging the tempestuous pieces with some genuine menace (Nos. 2 and 5), and swinging with great rhythmic verve in the triumphal numbers (Nos. 6 and 8).

She follows those with two selections from Granados' Goyescas, and though there's a high-profile smudge in "Los requiebros," she made a great show of the Spaniard's impassioned sketches. She finished with Aaron Jay Kernis' Superstar Etude No. 2, an homage to Thelonious Monk, and she gave the thing the proper shot of bebop flavor while negotiating the treacherous waters of this abrupt, explosive contemporary piece. The rest of the press room is raving about Andrea Lam. She merits it.

Ang Li

At last, some first-rate Brahms! Not to be confused with the similarly named Taiwanese movie director, Ang Li competed here four years ago, but seems to have come of age since then. Representing the country of Canada, she gave an excellent reading of Brahms' Third Piano Sonata, an early work in which the German composer was laboring under the influence of Liszt. The fast movements were sprightly, and the slow movements featured the same full, round, juicy tones that I've heard from the best Brahms interpreters. Varying her sound and demonstrating a lucid understanding of the piece's far-flung structure, she guided the audience through this lengthy and complex work.

Then she did a clever version of Debussy's "Minstrels" and a performance of "Feux d'artifice" that was less pretty than Spencer Myer's, but brasher and more evocative of fireworks. She ended with a toccata written in 1957 by English composer Edwin York Bowen, and made a case for this unfamiliar piece as worthy of standing beside other toccatas such as Schumann's and Prokofiev's. An excellent program, all in all.

Ilya Rashkovskiy

The afternoon session rounds out its trio of pianists of Slavic descent with Ilya Rashkovskiy. It's all Asian pianists from here until the end of the prelims. There's already been some stories in the press asking "Where are the Russians?" No doubt the absence of players from the former Soviet Union has been a major factor in the paucity of Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, and Scriabin being played in this first round. I remember in 2001 it seemed like half the field was playing Scriabin.

Anyway, that's a backdrop to Rashkovskiy, who competed here four years ago. I didn't remember his performance from then, and he doesn't look to have developed significantly as an interpreter since then. He played Beethoven's Sonata in A major (Op. 110), our first taste of the mystical compositions that the German composed late in his life. These pose special interpretive problems, and Rashkovskiy wasn't nearly up to the challenge of breaking this down. Heck, even the much more straightforward Chopin Ballade in G minor that followed it was too much for him. He couldn't differentiate between the melancholy opening of the piece and the wild outbursts of despair that came later.

Only when he finished with Rachmaninov's Second Piano Sonata did this player seem at ease. His performance didn't shed any new light on the work, but it was a relief just to hear this sonata played with an idiomatic Russian sound and a feel for the emotions. (Something Zhang Feng pointedly didn't provide in his version.) It wasn't quite enough to rescue Rashkovskiy's first-round performance, but it was still a reminder of the glory that was the Russian school of pianism.

Evgeni Bozhanov

Bulgaria isn't known for producing great pianists; the best-known is the polarizing Alexis Weissenberg. Bozhanov gave a very attractive performance, with beautiful gem-like tones throughout. His Mozart Sonata in D major (K. 311) was much more pointed than Stanislavsky's Mozart in the earlier session (so much for my ears going dull), and then he played Chopin's rarely heard Rondo a la Mazur with some rhythmic verve, though he couldn't quite convince me that the piece was any more than a trifling early work by the great Polish composer.

He finished with Chopin's B minor Sonata, with the same beauty as Naomi Kudo's version of the piece earlier but with much more attention to the drama in this four-movement work. I particularly liked the gentle cascade of notes in the middle section of the third movement. His performance captivated me until the final movement, when he played with rather more prettiness and less destructiveness than I generally prefer in the finale of this piece. However, this is a worthy semifinalist in my book.

Victor Stanislavsky

No danger of the concert hall being deserted, as I speculated earlier. The hall had a pretty good crowd for Victor Stanislavsky, whom I assume is no relation to the famous Russian acting teacher. He came out in a shiny gray satin-y shirt that reminded me of this.

His program bored me, not to put too fine a point upon it. He played Scarlatti, Mozart, and Schumann's Humoreske, a long, sprawling work that fell apart. I tried to find something to latch onto: Tone, technique, temperament, suitability for the idiom. All of it was fine, none of it was exceptional. Even the thorny Capriccios by the late Gyorgy Ligeti that ended the program couldn't make any sort of impression on me.

I worry that instead of the pianist, it might be me having listened to too much music in too short a time. If my ears have gone dull this early in the competition, that's a bad sign for me. I hope that's not the case.

Happy Memorial Day

The streets are deserted. Hope the same isn't true for the concert hall. It's worth reflecting for a moment that cultural activity and discussion, whether they're about classical music or something more middlebrow like movies, are only possible when there's peace and stability on the homefront. Spare a thought for the soldiers through the centuries who gave their lives to make our domestic tranquility possible.

The diligent Cliburn staffers found out for me that Stephen Beus is a Mormon. I found that interesting because the Mormons seem to be turning out classical pianists these days, as well as other types of musicians. Clearly the old image of the Osmonds and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is out of date. I wonder whether they're doing anything differently from the general population when it comes to musical education.

I also wonder what would happen if the 5 Browns decided to compete here. The siblings hardly need the exposure that the Van Cliburn provides, of course, but it'd still be interesting to hear them on their own and see how they stack up against the rest of the competitors.

By the way, yesterday's New York Times Book Review featured this essay by Joe Queenan on books with the word "piano" in the title