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.)