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.