Sunday, June 7, 2009

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.

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