Tomoki Sakata, 19, Japan
Tomoki Sakata is the youngest of the competitors and his youthful energy and exuberance was in full evidence as he took the stage. He was in a dark suit and wore a blue shirt, the first one who didn’t wear a black or white shirt, and a regular four-in-hand men’s tie. He sat close to the keyboard—so close that his knees touched the instrument.
He opened with Beethoven’s Sonata no. 22 in F Major, op. 54. He got off to a graceful start but really took off when the music became more exciting. He took some liberties in the transitions back to the original menuetto and kept up this pattern throughout. As the menuetto became more elaborate, he still retained its essential character. He took a ritard at the end of the movement that isn’t marked. The second (and last) movement is fast, relatively soft and comprised of constant 16th notes. It is an endurance test and Sakata played it beautifully. He could have done something more creative in the repeated sections, but on the other hand, the constant flow is the crux of the matter. He resisted the temptation to play more forcefully and saved it for the only marked fortissimo, which comes at the end.
Liszt’s Après une lecture de Dante (Fantasia Quasi Sonata) is one of the truly dreadful pieces in the composer’s catalog of empty virtuoso claptrap. It is full of all of Liszt’s collection of whizbang technical marvels that he keeps like a magpie’s nest—flashing octaves, chords up and down the keyboard, endless scales and arpeggios, etc. Sakata could play all of this and it was certainly impressive, but he can, and did, display all the same abilities in better music. In fact, the next selection, La Campanella (from Etudes d'exécution transcendantes d'après Paganini while Liszt was still in his vapid mode), at least has some pleasing music.
Sakata could have skipped all the Liszt and just played his final selection, Scriabin’s amazingly modern-sounding Sonata No. 5, which dates from 1907. All of his considerable technical prowess was on display. His interpretation has a way to go before it is fully mature, but this youthful overabundance of talent lent its own visceral excitement to this performance. The audience went wild when it was over.
Lindsay Garritson, 25, USA
When Lindsay Garritson finished her performance, Prokofiev’s rough-and-tumble Sonata No. 7 in B-flat Major, Op. 83, the audience cheered and rose in unison, carried away by the excitement she created. They were also somewhat in awe of her when she walked out on the stage in an amazing gown with her blonde hair pulled tightly in back by a bespangled clip. She was dressed in a red-carpet worthy deco inspired black dress. Her back and shoulders were bare and the front halter neckline crossed in an “X” in back. It was as stunning as her performance. However, she would have been just as impressive a pianist if she wore a potato sack.
She opened with Liszt’s Ballade No. 2 in B Minor. This is not one of the composer’s masterpieces nor is it one of his dreadful efforts. Garritson made a good case for it by approaching it slowly and letting it develop over a period of time. However, it displayed her considerable technique and was full of a lot of bravura. Her lovely rendition of Schubert’s tuneful Drei Klavierstücke, D. 946, No. 2 in E-flat Major came as a welcome respite and acted in the same way as a sherbet intermezzo does between intense dinner courses.
Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 7 in B-flat Major, op. 83, is obviously a signature piece for her since she played it for the earlier screening auditions and that performance is undoubtedly what brought her here today. She amazed the audience then, and did the same today in Bass Hall. From the first notes, you can tell this is going to be a power-driven performance. Her muscular staccato, which is required throughout, impressed immediately. She played the mournful tune in the second movement like it was something imperfectly remembered from days regretfully gone by. The last movement was simply amazing.
Vadym Kholodenko, 26, Ukraine
Vadym Kholodenko is already a winner of some major prizes. He won first prize at both the International Schubert Competition in Dortmund in 2012, and the Sendai International Music Competition in 2010. He wore a standard tux with a white shirt and black tie and sat very close to the instrument. At times, his body was almost completely balanced over his hands.
He started off with an odd choice for a competition: Adams’ China Gates, a minimalist piece if ever there was one. Adams said that the constant eight notes reflected the steady pitter-pat of a rainy day, with the occasional bass note and counter-pattern superimposed over the ostinato. Kholodenko kept it constant and at a steady dynamic level—neither of which is as easy to accomplish as it sounds. The problem was that no one knew it was over when he stopped. Some thought that since the title was plural, this might have been just one gate and that there were more such movements to come. But it was the usual problem with such music in that it could stop at any point or continue forever. There was an awkward silence as Kholodenko and the audience sat and waited. Eventually, he started the Rachmaninov, much to everyone’s relief.
This is Rachmininov’s Sonata No. 1, which is rarely played. It was written in 1908 at the same time as the musically more inspired Symphony No. 2. This piece tends to ramble and lacks the melodic inspiration that overflows in the symphony. Further, it is repetitive with little of interest to repeat. Having never heard it before, the many false approaches to an ending in the last movement began to take on a comic effect worthy of Victor Borge.
None of this took anything away from the excellent performance that Kholodenko delivered. He demonstrated absolutely secure technique; surmounting all of the formidable challenges. He completely mastered Rachmaninov’s style and played the piece with Russian dark-hued sensibility. He brought out what melodic material there was as well as inner voices and complex counterpoints.
Once it finally ended, the audience reacted to his performance, if not the piece, with a much-deserved standing ovation.