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

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Mariangela Vacatello

Italy was well represented at the 2005 Van Cliburn with four pianists in the competition, two of them making it all the way to the final round. That country only has two this year, and yet it wouldn't be strange if there were two Italians in the finals again. Neapolitan Mariangela Vacatello came on stage in a dress in a well-chosen shade of red. She started with Haydn's Sonata in C major (Hob. XVI: 50) and gave a bright, acute reading of it. Then she essayed Busoni's Variations on Chopin's C minor Prelude, in which the Italian composer turned the funereal original into an elegant waltz and even a tarantella. Vacatello made an impressive case for this unfamiliar work.

Then came the showpieces: Liszt's Transcendental Etude No. 10, which she dared to treat as a real piece of music (with mostly good results), and Stravinsky's murderously difficult whirling dervish called Three Movements from Petrouchka. Vacatello couldn't fill the hall with her sound the way some of the male competitors have, but she could do everything else, rendering these with a combination of good taste, objectivity, and phenomenal technique that reminded you of her countryman Maurizio Pollini, only with more flair for the big occasion. She may or may not be cut out for the later rounds, but she has gotten her competition off to a promising start.

Zhang Feng

And we're back to me sitting in genial incomprehension while another Haydn performance washes over me. Zhang Feng did recover from that during his Mendelssohn Prelude and Fugue in E minor, which he played without sounding like Bach. (At times, trying a bit too hard to not sound like him.) He launched straight into Liszt's St. Francis of Assisi's Sermon to the Birds, a hushed piece that's almost entirely confined to the upper register of the piano. It doesn't get nearly enough play, and Zhang managed to get the spirit of religious rapture that pervades it.

His Romantic plunge into Mendelssohn raised my hopes for his performance of Rachmaninov's Piano Sonata No. 2, but those were quickly dashed. He got the notes right and the overall architecture of the piece, but he missed the deep-seated Russian melancholy in the work. It was an emotionally shallow rendering. Then again, maybe I'm just missing the plummy, pearly sound that I've heard from competitors (Russian and non-Russian) over the years put into this work. (It took us until the third day of competition to hear any Mozart or Rachmaninov. Strange.) Overall, Zhang's performance goes down as a wildly uneven effort.

Lukas Vondracek

The heavens opened up while we were on break, and judging by the clouds immediately to our south, it might not be done raining.

Lukas Vondracek (pronounced LOO-kash von-DRA-check) hunched over the keyboard as he raced through a decent but unexciting performance of Bach's Italian Concerto. He followed that up with two Chopin nocturnes and Liszt's "Harmonies du soir" ("Harmonies of the Evening"). All of these pieces were beautifully played, and Vondracek didn't miss the dramatics in the Liszt piece. His primary strength is as a colorist, though, and we've got better ones in the field. That's the trouble with the competition format: If you heard his performance in isolation, you'd say it was perfectly nice. Here it seems inadequate.

He finished with three of Smetana's Czech Dances. (Vondracek is scheduled to play Czech music in every round. That's representing your country.) He could have used a bit more grit in the "Furiant," but his "Skocna" brought his program to a lively conclusion and drew repeated curtain calls. I wish I could have shared everybody's enthusiasm.

Alessandro Deljavan

I suppose that with all the different pianists playing Haydn in this round, the odds were pretty good that one of them would eventually get through to me. Congratulations, Alessandro Deljavan! The bearded Italian started with the Sonata in E-flat major (Hob. XVI: 52) and produced a light, supple performance that I could follow from beginning to end.

He followed it with Liszt's Sonata in B minor, and honestly, I was rather dreading the prospect of a third hearing of this piece in two days. However, his Liszt sonata was easily the best one so far. He played with an authentic fire that was missing from the other two performances, and it was coupled with an airy, sun-kissed tone that seems to be second nature to Italian pianists. He took the lighter passages with an enviable gossamer touch, and wrangled this massive half-hour work into a narrative that flowed so smoothly that I never checked my watch. Terrific stuff.

He had a couple of odd stage mannerisms. He worked the soft pedal with his left foot as one is supposed to do, but during some of the more impassioned parts, he'd take his foot off the pedal by leaning back and kicking his left foot forward between the pedals and the piano leg. Also, when his right hand was playing a soft passage by itself, he'd sometimes raise his left hand with his palm up, as if to help himself play more gently. As good a musician as he is, he could play standing on his head for all I care.

Michail Lifits

What is it with the second slot of the afternoon sessions? I liked the performances in that slot in previous days (Stephen Beus, Di Wu), and the same holds true for this German pianist of Uzbek descent. He played only two pieces, Mozart's Sonata in D major (K. 311) and Schumann's Fantaisie, and the constant in both of those were Lifits' clarity, lucidity, intelligence, and a beautiful burnished tone. He didn't even allow the cell phone going off in the slow movement of the Mozart to distract him. However, the real glory of his performance was the sprawling Schumann work, which he played with great emotional fervor without losing the melody amid the thickets of bass notes. This complex work can fall apart in the wrong hands, but Lifits led the audience through it without ever losing the thread. This is one pianist who doesn't need a conventional showpiece to display what he can do.

Zhou Ning

The thin, bespectacled Chinese pianist started by delivering a fine version of Ravel's Miroirs, with his "Alborada del gracioso" done with a lighter touch than Di Wu had. It was all downhill after that, though. He followed it with Liszt's Vallee d'Obermann, a piece named after a novel by Etienne Pivert de Senancour, and not after Doberman pinschers. Zhou frequently lost the thread of this discursive piece.

He removed his glasses after that piece, going without them for Liszt's Mephisto Waltz No. 1. He was sweating pretty profusely by then, and probably didn't want the distraction of sweat dripping onto his glasses. (I can personally testify that you don't want that in the heat of performance.) Zhou's performance was really strange, going from loud to soft and fast to slow in a seemingly arbitrary fashion. If he was trying out new interpretive ideas, he failed massively.

Raindrop Prelude

It's starting to rain here on Day Three before we start the afternoon session. Hey, if you're going to be sitting in a concert hall all day, it should be a day like today. The month of May has been pretty mild so far.

There was some debate in the press room yesterday about Steve Cumming's little spiel last night about his radio station for the blind. Like I said, I think he gave out quite a bit of information that'll be helpful for blind listeners in the hall and viewers on the internet, as well as people who know them. In the wake of Nobuyuki Tsujii's performance, Cumming probably saw what our president would call a "teachable moment." Still, it didn't seem fair to Naomi Kudo, who had to play immediately after that. Hope it didn't adversely affect her performance, or the judges' perception of her.

A stray link: So-yeon Lee has a sister named Lee So-eun who's a pop star in South Korea. Our program says the two of them have performed together on occasion. As far as classical/pop musician siblings go, maybe they could match wits with North Texas' own Ben Loeb and Lisa Loeb.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Zuo Zhang

The Chinese pianist was the last contestant this Saturday night, and she came out in a good-looking red dress and played another Haydn sonata. I notice that this year there are more pianists playing Haydn than are playing Mozart in the first round. Haydn's music is a bit pricklier and more humorous than Mozart's piano sonatas, and it hasn't been thoroughly picked over the way Mozart's music has been. Anyway, Zuo played it with a lot of sparkle, as she did with her other pieces, including Liszt's "Feux Follets" ("Will O'the Wisp") and Chopin's Etude Op. 10, No. 7, which she performed better than Nobuyuki Tsujii did.

Still, she had to prove that she could do more than just glitter, and that hung on the piece anchoring her program, Liszt's Sonata in B minor. It was a gamble that paid off. Her rendition wasn't galvanizing, but it was a lot more listenable than Varvaresos' performance of this piece. She took time over it and produced a performance that made sense from beginning to end. This just might be enough to get her to the semis.

Fans of the Liszt Sonata can rejoice, because there's another performance slated for tomorrow afternoon, and there may be even more depending on who qualifies for the later rounds.

I'm going to get some sleep before tomorrow's session. Special thanks to everyone who wished me a happy birthday.

Naomi Kudo

Before the next contestant began, our host Steve Cumming gave a lot of information about blind pianists, who don't use Braille music notation because piano music is too complex to render into Braille. Nobuyuki Tsujii, like other blind classical pianists, learns largely by ear. Cumming knows this because he is the station manager for a radio station for the blind during the day. He gave out quite a bit of useful advice.

This was a tough act for Naomi Kudo to follow. I heard her at the TCU screening recitals as well, and promptly forgot every aspect of her performance. I was listening a bit more closely today, but her performance of Carl Vine's Piano Sonata No. 1 was handicapped by having followed Spencer Myer's yesterday. She was more forceful but less cohesive than Myer, and overall she was less memorable. I wonder if I would have been more impressed if I'd heard her performance first. Her rendition of "Triana" from Albeniz' Iberia washed over me without leaving a mark as well.

She did rather better with her finishing piece, giving an attractive account of Chopin's B minor Sonata. Her playing of the gently cascading second movement was particularly beautiful. Still, the third movement didn't have the ferocity that the music required, and because of the hole she was in, she needed a tremendous performance of the sonata, not just a good one. Too bad.

Nobuyuki Tsujii

The Japanese pianist came onstage accompanied by his mother, because he is completely blind. It's interesting that most of the blind pianists in history have been on the pop and jazz side. There were some guys sitting behind me last night making predictable jokes about the irony of a blind pianist playing a piece called Images. Tsujii is no charity case, though. He has a big, brash, confident sound, and every note in his performance of Chopin Op. 10 Etudes (aside from a few noticeable errors) was crisply articulated enough to make you weep. That's the good news.

The bad news is that as an interpreter, he's not quite there yet. He went right past the music in the famous third etude, because he couldn't wait to get to the thirds. His Debussy sounded exactly like the Chopin, too, though he ended his program with Liszt's "La Campanella," a piece tailored to his strengths. The good news within the bad news is that he's only 20 years old, and there's every reason to think that he'll mature musically with time. I think it'd be a mistake for the Cliburn to reward him now when he isn't ready. The crowd that gave him a loud and lengthy ovation would disagree with me, though. Whatever happens, he's made it this far on his own merits, and that's pretty amazing.

A Personal Note

Today is my birthday. I am 35 years old. My doctor is telling me to watch my cholesterol. I'm starting to find gray hairs when I get my haircut. Am I losing my youth?

Oh, who cares, really? We've got music to listen to. Let's go.

Vassilis Varvaresos

I saw the tall Greek pianist in March at the Cliburn screening recitals at TCU, and he didn't make much of an impression on me. This time, with a different program, he made an impression on me, and not an altogether favorable one. He's the first male contestant who came onstage without a jacket in this year's competition. He started out with Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata, and he couldn't put a new spin on the famous first movement. Granted, that's not such an easy thing to do with such a well-known piece. He played the other two movements well enough, though it never seemed like those three movements were part of the same work.

I got a fix on him in the closing selection, Liszt's Sonata in B minor. Varvaresos is one of those manlier-than-thou pianists who's out to prove that he can make more sound and play difficult passages faster than anybody else. This he did very well, as the opening section of the sonata flew by at a breakneck pace. Unfortunately, he also proved that he's not a very deep interpreter. The sonata's quieter passages went by without distinction, and the massive work never came together.

The highlight of his program was his performance of Elliott Carter's Catenaires. The 2006 technical showpiece didn't require much in the way of introspection, and he played it with great assurance despite needing the sheet music in front of him. There was a Looney Tunes-like moment of levity when he finished one page of music, picked it up off the piano with his left hand, and tossed it over his shoulder without stopping his performance. When they assemble the documentary film about this year's contest, that moment is going to look great.

Wu Di

Like So-yeon Lee before her, Di Wu places her given name ahead of her surname, and she turned out to be the best colorist we've heard so far. (Even better than Spencer Myer, a frightening thought.) The first of many Chinese pianists here, she came out in a nifty purple and pink dress. She started with yet another Haydn performance that left me unmoved, although the other critics in the press room were raving about it. She won me over with her version of Ravel's Miroirs, evoking the waters in "Une barque sur l'ocean" with astonishing facility and capturing the Spanish flavor of "Alborada del gracioso". What is it with these Asian pianists and their affinity for Spanish music, by the way?

Her final piece, Liszt's transcription of the waltz from Gounod's Faust, struck me as a bit too calculated in its attempt to end her program with a traditional showpiece; the waltz rhythm in the opening and closing sections was galumphing. Still, she did take those big octaves very well, and the middle section of the piece gave her a great chance to do some exquisite filigree work in the upper register of the instrument. You can make a career out of being a cool, objective colorist if you're really, really good at it, and Di Wu is really, really good at it. She reminds me of the late Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, only we can assume that she won't be as flaky as he was. Very encouraging.

Lee So-yeon

The first of four South Korean pianists (all women, interestingly enough) conforms to Western practice and places her surname after her given name, as you can see in the name of her website. This is her second time competing at the Cliburn, and she came out in a nice-looking lemon-colored dress and played two suites. The first book of Albeniz' Iberia was played with a great deal of Spanish flavor, especially the bustling "El Puerto," though she smudged a few of the alternating chords on "Fete-Dieu a Seville." She did well to bring a different sound to each vignette in Schumann's Carnaval. (She's the only contestant playing this piece in the first round.) You can see why the judges brought her back; she's a solid, intelligent interpreter, and though she never thrilled me to my core, she did lots of little things that kept me engaged, like the slower-than-I'm-used-to-hearing rhythm she took for "Eusebius" that nevertheless convinced me. I put her on the bubble for semifinalists, but a down-the-middle player like this tends to go over better with competition judges than with me. Still, if I were to come across her again, I'd expect a good performance. This is the sort of player who inspires confidence.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Eduard Kunz

I've said it before: The last slot on the first day of the competition is the worst time for a Cliburn contestant to go. It's Friday, most people in the audience have been at work all day, and they've expended the last of their mental energy on the evening's first two players. Indeed, the hall emptied out significantly after Spencer Myer's performance. The ones who stayed to hear Eduard Kunz, however, seemed glad that they did, and so was I.

The Russian started off with five Scarlatti sonatas, and while he was playing them, I realized something about Scarlatti. The composer, wildly popular in his own lifetime, was obscure for centuries until Vladimir Horowitz started playing his sonatas. Scarlatti's music never soars and indeed seldom raises its voice, probably because of the limitations of keyboard instruments in his day. Yet he finds ways to express many different moods, from pathos to hilarity, and he does it in a Latin-inflected style all his own. (Scarlatti was Italian, but he was music teacher and composer to the royal families of Portugal and Spain.) A well-chosen selection of Scarlatti sonatas is a great way for a pianist to show what he can do. Glenn Gould once dismissed Scarlatti's sonatas as "popcorn." He was wrong. They make an excellent appetizer.

Anyway, Kunz did pretty well with his Scarlatti choices. Then he played one of Haydn's sonatas. I must confess I've never found a way in when it comes to Haydn's keyboard music, and this performance didn't present me with one. What really impressed me and the rest of the audience was the pianist's last two choices. He played Busoni's transcription of Bach's Chaconne in D minor, in which the 19th-century German-Italian pianist/composer turned a Baroque piece into a monumental Romantic Era work. (If you've never heard Ferruccio Busoni, seek out his music. It's a bit hard to find, but it often sounds like it was written last Wednesday. Not bad for a composer who died in 1924.) Kunz' rendition was massive but never impersonal, and loud without resorting to banging on the keys. Indeed, Kunz did exert himself so forcefully that he pushed himself back from the piano several inches, coming perilously close to falling off the bench. Yet he still managed to produce huge waves of sound. His final piece was Siloti's transcription of Bach's B minor Prelude, which turned Bach into something sounding like Rachmaninov.

This was when Kunz' programming choices became clear to me. He started with Baroque music and then chose the last two pieces not just to prove that he could sound good in other idioms, but also to show how Bach's genius bled into the fabric of 19th-century Romanticism, emphasizing the continuity between centuries. It was inspired, bold, creative, and ambitious. Most of all, it worked.

So, out of six pianists on the first day, I've identified three who I'd like to see in the semis: Beus, Myer, and Kunz. (Weird how they all have four letters in their last name.) If the competition continues at this rate, the first round will be a smashing success.

Spencer Myer

Cleveland native Spencer Myer strode very purposefully to the piano (he's tall, so he was there very quickly), and 50 minutes later he made a believer out of me. I was skeptical initially during his pleasant account of one of Beethoven's less substantial piano sonatas (Op. 78 in F-sharp minor), but his sound grew on me. He seems utterly incapable of making an ugly sound on the piano. His notes were shimmering and iridescent as he took on Chopin's Barcarolle and five Debussy preludes. These were delightful, and some of his passagework on Debussy's "Feux d'artifice" ("Fireworks") was simply incredible.

It took some courage for him to end his program with Carl Vine's First Piano Sonata instead of a more traditional showpiece, but he made a cohesive and convincing case that this 1990 work is a very good piece of music indeed. This piece required a bit more spikiness of him than the rest of his program did, and he proved up to it. He'll have to ratchet it up a notch if he makes it to the semis, because he's scheduled to play Copland's Piano Variations. All in all, this was a very pretty program, and initially I thought that he should have mixed it up a bit more. But then again, I can see the strategy behind establishing your identity and playing to your strengths. Even if he proves incapable of doing something else, he's always a pleasure to hear. There are worse things in the world to be.

Chetan Tierra

A native of Santa Cruz, Calif., Chetan Tierra started his program with Liszt's Ballade in B minor, and he was pointed and strong in the flashy and demonstrative parts of the piece, while bland and dutiful in the quieter, more introspective parts. This pattern repeated itself through the other selections in his recital. He followed it with Liszt's transcription of Schumann's "Widmung," which in its original form as a song is a radiant piece of work but as a piano work is rather buried in too much frippery. (Which is Liszt's fault more than the pianist's.)

You'd think that Tierra's strengths and weaknesses would make him a bad fit with Brahms, but he played the Variations on a Theme by Paganini, one of the German composer's more extroverted works, and he brought a welcome touch of vinegar to his playing that he didn't have in the Liszt pieces. He finished with Alberto Ginastera's Piano Sonata, the piece best suited to him. He did excellently with the Latin rhythms in the opening movement, and he finished strong. Let's see if it's enough to get him into the semis.

Interesting note: Tierra's a keyboardist in an alt-rock band.

Technological Breakthroughs

If you remember the web diary that I wrote for the Weekly's Cliburn coverage four years ago, you'll have noticed some changes. Now I can italicize the names of pieces and include links to audio and video footage, like I did in the last post. I'm still running out between sessions to post from the press room across the street from Bass Hall. It occurs to me that if I had a Blackberry and a Twitter feed, I could tweet during the performances. The sound of my texting would then quickly get me grabbed by the necktie and ejected from the hall.

The Cliburn itself has kept up with changing media to make themselves more user-friendly. You can log onto their webcasting site and not only catch all the performances online, but also see post-performance interviews with the contestants backstage as well as behind-the-scenes footage. Watch the performances, and you can compare notes (no pun intended) with me. You're almost better off watching from home.

Ah, but if you're at home, you won't see the big screen above the stage. It's new, too. The screen carries a video feed from a camera that's behind the pianist, so everybody can now see the pianists' hands. This is great, because people want to see the hands, so they gravitate toward the left side of the hall, but the right side of the hall is where you get better sound from the piano (though the acoustics at the Bass are good enough that you don't lose too much by sitting on the left).

Alas, not all technology is good. Ran Dank's Scriabin performance was almost at its end when somebody's cell phone went off. And here I thought we'd get through at least one session without that happening. Well, I still hold out hope. People, leave the cell phones at home. Your fellow music fans will appreciate it.

Ran Dank

The shaggy-haired Israeli went last in the afternoon session. From my vantage point in the third row center, I could hear him singing along with the music that he played. This is a more common habit among pianists than you might think; much 19th-century piano music requires a "singing line," in which the pianist tries to make the instrument flow from note to note as effortlessly as a singer does. (Not the easiest thing to do with a box filled with hammers and strings.) Glenn Gould famously used to do it. His voice can be heard on some of his piano recordings. Stephen Beus did it, too, though he didn't actually make sounds. He just moved his lips like he was singing.

Anyway, Ran Dank started with Boulez' Notations, a piece I wasn't familiar with. When you're playing a piece that's unfamiliar to the public, you're not just interpreting the music. You're making a case for it; why the crowd should be listening to it instead of another Beethoven sonata. Dank did pretty decently in that regard for this halting, eruptive piece. He then launched straight into Beethoven's Sonata "Quasi una Fantasia" without getting up to acknowledge applause or even taking his hands off the keyboard. It would have worked better if his Beethoven had been anything more than unobjectionable and uninvolving.

He did rather better with Scriabin's "Black Mass" Sonata No. 9, followed by another unfamiliar piece, Liszt's Reminiscences de Norma, which is not about a girl named Norma, though given Liszt's reputation with women, who knows? Rather, it's a piece based on his impressions of Bellini's opera. (Liszt did a lot of pieces like that.) I couldn't fault Dank's technique, nor his command of the idiom. The Scriabin had the right sort of acrid unwholesomeness that seems to drip from the Russian's works, and the Liszt had the right glamor. On the other hand, Dank was considerably weaker when it came to the architecture of these pieces. This was especially true in the Liszt piece, which sounded right but never gelled. The pianist sure was brilliant in spots, though.

Stephen Beus

Well, hot damn! I saw this tall, bespectacled American pianist (whose last name rhymes with "deuce") four years ago when he competed at the 2005 Cliburn, and this afternoon's performance reminded me why I liked him. Stephen Beus' performances of Bach's English Suite No. 3, Barber's Piano Sonata, and Liszt's Spanish Rhapsody were bright, sharp, clean, articulate, and intelligent, just like his Chopin and Debussy from four years ago. In addition, he produced torrents of sound during the Barber sonata, showing that a muscularity that wasn't in evidence in 2005, and an ability to hold together a large-scale work. And then he absolutely smoked the Liszt piece, bringing the auditorium (about 3/4 full, as opposed to half full during Kudritskaya's performance) to its feet. I think the standing ovation is overused generally, but here it was well deserved. The guy's got flair and showmanship now to go with all his other musical gifts. We're only two competitors in, and already it looks like we have a winner. I like how this is going.

Natasha Kudritskaya

The Ukrainian pianist, a very thin woman, came out in an interesting ensemble that included a black top, brown pants, and lace-up Adidas shoes. (Were they sneakers? Looked like it.) She took some moments spacing out before she started each piece, seemingly trying to get her head in the right place.

She played Chopin's Second Piano Sonata and Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit, and she was excellent when it came to the lyrical parts, but in both pieces she lacked power. I don't think this is a gender thing; I've seen tiny women produce huge volumes of sound from the piano before, but Kudritskaya couldn't produce the kind of sound necessary to both pieces. Gaspard (unbelievably, this is the only rendition of it we're scheduled to hear in the first round) didn't have that edge of menace that the piece is supposed to have. It's supposed to be dripping with evil.

She did much better with the Scriabin waltz at the end. That was played with delicacy and lightness of touch. This contestant definitely has some talent. I think she could have chosen her pieces better. If she makes it to the next round, her semifinal program might show her off in a better light.

Day One

We're about to get started. The atmosphere at Bass Hall is a bit laid-back. That's typical for the first day of the competition. It's Friday and lots of people are still at work. Don't worry; it'll get more intense as we go on.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


Hello, and welcome to Fort Worth Weekly's new blog devoted to the 13th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. The event starts on Friday, and I'll be posting my thoughts about the whole musical extravaganza here throughout the next two weeks. Hope you enjoy the experience.