Andrea de Tomas plays on Tuesday
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The Cliburn Amateur, Day 2

Gregory Sullivan Isaacs reports on the performances from Tuesday at the Sixth International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs.

published Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The second day of the competition brings another 25 hopefuls to the stage at Ed Landreth Auditorium in Fort Worth. So far, the competition has been fierce and it is already hard to pick among the players as to who will advance to the semifinals. Tomorrow is the last day of the preliminaries and we will announce the semifinalists here on TheaterJones as soon as they are announced. (Of course, not surprisingly, I will be putting in my two cents worth as to whether I agree or not.)

Here's the report from today's first round of preliminaries. Look for the review of the second round Wednesday morning.

The reviews from the first two rounds of prelims are here.



Preliminary, Round 3, 1-5 p.m. Tuesday, May 24, 2011:


Judy Darst is a retired piano teacher from Bend, Oregon. She played three pieces that she has probably taught to who knows how many students over the years, so it was immediately obvious (but no surprise) that she has carefully thought out every note and nuance. Granados’ "Mazurka" from his Escenas romanticas was clean and Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G major Op. 32, No. 5, twittered away in a dreamy manner. Schubert’s Hungarian Melody D. 817 had all the folk-based rhythmic changes down pat but lost steam near the end. Nothing on her program was technically challenging, but there is more to being a pianist than playing lots of notes very quickly, and her musicianship was evident.

Choo Hooi (Janice) Khoo, a medical practice manager from Bakersfield, Calif. and of Malaysian decent, arrived here already a Cliburn winner. She took the prize in the Cliburn’s second YouTube Contest for Amateur Pianists. This writer disagreed with her winning the prize at the time and that impression still stands. All three pieces suffered from wrong notes. Beethoven’s Bagatelle, Op. 32 and Rachmaninoff’s much-played Prelude in G minor both suffered numerous errors. She was better in Chopin’s Etude in C major until it too stumbled along its way to the finish line.

Joseph Mercuri, a physician from Bartell, Minn., was a surprise from the first notes as he ripped into Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23. He was a commanding presence as he took on this difficult work and, even more importantly, seemed to be enjoying making music for us. It was a terrific performance, although he missed the very last note. It is much like having the drive and the golf ball just inches from the cup and then missing the putt. He also played Chopin’s Mazurka in B minor, Op. 30 No. 2, which was delightful.

Vincent Schmithorst, a research scientist from Batavia, Ohio, brought the house down with his dazzling trip through Liszt’s Transcendental Etude No. 5 "Feux follets (will-o’the-wisp)" at the end of his big program. This is a notoriously difficult endurance piece that requires nimble fingers to the max and if he tired, if was certainly not apparent. But more importantly than the technical brilliance, he had some fun with the piece and brought out its whimsical underpinnings. He began with a sparkly rendition of Scarlatti’s Sonata in D major. His brisk tempo set a challenge, but he didn’t miss a note. In fact, his repeated notes, which are a characteristic of this piece, sounded like little pistons were playing instead of fingers. His trip through the Brahms Ballade in G minor was also great. It is little wonder that he has taken a number of prizes in similar competitions around the globe. Expect him to advance.

Andea Terenzi is a dentist from Rome, Italy. His trip through Beethoven’s 32 Variations in C minor seemed fraught with some mishaps Nevertheless, Terenzi certainly understood Beethoven and gave the variations a characteristic performance. One excellent aspect of his performance was how he tied it all together. This piece can sound like a string of little segments, but Terenzi avoided this pitfall.

Kazuyuki Ohmura, a software engineer from Kanagawa, Japan, certainly didn’t have trouble making the piano speak, but his is a heavy-handed approach. He only played one piece, but a big one: Chopin’s Polonaise in F-Sharp minor, Op. 44. He won top prize in the Amateur Division of the Chopin International Competition in Asia so it is not a surprise he led with this. While the soft parts were lyrical enough, all of the loud moments were uniformly very loud, offering little in the way of variety. Some reiterated patterns repeated so exactly that they became monotonous. But what he lacked in subtly, he made up for it with bravura, which is certainly needed in this piece. 

Andrea de Tomas, an Italian lawyer now working in London, gave a rip-snorting performance of Liszt’s "Funérailles" from his Harmonies poétiques et religieuses. Thomas’ obvious command of the keyboard and his technical mastery, however awesome (as the kids would say) were dwarfed by his musical interpretation of this moody piece. He ranged from tender and whistful during the lagrimoso section to heroic as he laid the march over the rapid (and very difficult) octave ostinato in the left hand. But, even better, he knew exactly where the high points were in this piece and he carefully built the architecture to bring the listener on Liszt’s journey.

How delightful to hear some Poulenc! It was like a sorbet between heavy courses in the hands of Mari Shokawa (Jacobson), who is the director of a Japanese sand company but now lives in San Francisco. She played it with all of the requisite French charm of a boîte on the Rive Gauche. Chopin’s Etude in c-sharp minor Op. 25, No.7 was equally well played, one pedal-soaked run not withstanding. But when she got to Chopin’s Etude in C minor ("Revolutionary"), her overuse of the sustaining pedal clouded her otherwise crystal clear runs with the smoke of battle.

It was a tantalizing tease. Angela Lee Tien, a homemaker from Winchester, Mass., programmed three familiar works that only presented musical (as opposed to technical) challenges or her opening round while dangling Liszt’s monster Sonata in B minor for the finals, should she get there. I think it was a gamble worth taking. Her rendition of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue No. 3 in c-sharp was as clean and perfectly played as one could expect from any of the Bach specialists performing today. Debussy’s "Clair de lune," from his Suite bergamasque, is perhaps the most over-performed piece of piano music in the repertoire and been arranged for everything from full orchestra to a polka band. But sometimes a piece like this takes a real artist to reintroduce its crepuscular beauties to the jaded ear. Such was the case with Tien’s performance. It was absolutely entrancing and it was only when it was over that I realized I had been holding my breath. I even heard a subtle little countermelody, of no more than a few notes, which will send me back to the score to find. She closed with a charming rendition of Bolcom’s Grateful Ghost Rag, another over-performed piece that she made fresh.

Yoko Taruki, a kindergarten teacher from Yokohama, Japan, closed the session with an excellent rendition of Moszkowski’s Etude in A-flat major, Op. 72. That she was a finalist in amateur piano competitions in Japan was no surprise given the musical and technical abilities she brought to this piece. A few bobbles in Debussy’s Prelude and Toccata from his quasi-sonata Pour le piano didn’t really detract either. She plays with assurance and finesse and brought both musicianship and technical assurance to her playing.

Leslie Myrick, a retired hospital administrator from the United Sates (now living in Canada), played Chopin’s Polonaise in F-sharp minor, Op. 64, a piece we have heard before today. In some ways, it is a good piece for a competition in that there are so many moods to express and there are also some technical hurdles to overcome to pull it off. Myrik did a fine job with both aspects. She met the technical challenges with ease and played the more lyric parts with sensitivity and a lovely legato tone.

Jorge Zamora, a distribution manager for R.I.M (the maker of the Blackberry) who lives in Huixquilucan, Mexico, played Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G minor Op. 23, which we have heard before in the competition. It is not really a surprise to hear this piece repeated because it is both difficult and beautiful, giving the artist lots of space to show off many different aspects of their playing. Zamora started subtly and thoughtfully, as if not in a hurry to get to his destination. An early bobble didn’t seem to throw him as he made his way through the many difficulties. On the down side, occasionally his ritard sections were close enough to the excessive side, which the forward motion almost stopped.  On the up side, he excelled in all the nimble fingers parts, but sometimes his aim was a little off in the big jumps. However, it was a strong performance that was exciting and thoughtful at the same time.

Mari Ito, wearing a wrist brace, took the stage with some audience anticipation. This was because the Japanese-born architect from Brooklyn, N.Y., was playing a work by György Sándor LigetiThere has been a dearth of 21st century music (or even 20th), so Ligeti's Étude No. 5 (subtitled Arc-en-ciel) was most welcome. She played it with a deep understanding that made this work much more approachable that most expected. Rather than end, it vanished into the top of the piano. Very nice. In Chopin’s Etude in A-flat major, Op. 25, No. 1, she did a really nice job of bringing out the melody, in a legato fashion, while still keeping the arpeggios subservient, which is (of course) the challenge in this piece. She ended with Bach’s Prelude and Fugue No. 15 in G major. We haven’t heard much Bach, probably because it is so vey difficult, and completely unforgiving, without being showy. Ito gave it a crystal clear performance. Especially noteworthy was the way she brought out all the contrapuntal lines in the fugue. Even more to her credit, she didn’t use the sustaining pedal—that great leveler of technique—even once.

Joe Mauro Peixoto, a portfolio manager from São Paolo, Brazil, only played one piece, Beethoven’s 32 Variations in C minor. He brought great contrast to the piece, a hallmark of the variation form. He was able to get a lot of sound in the loud parts, without overdriving the instrument, and was clean and accurate throughout. In all of the virtuosic variations, he demonstrated a sure-fire technique. He was able to bring out all of the different voices in the contrapuntal sections. He also has an effective legato and he let the melodies sing where Beethoven gave them some space. The only interpretative compliant is that he took too much time between the variations so he didn’t knit the piece together as a whole. It was the first time that I realized how short all of the individual variations actually are, which is too bad.


Preliminary, Round 4, 7:30-10:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 24, 2011:

Dominic Piers Smith is a man of many talents. He has released a successful CD of piano music and had a car of his design win the 2009 Formula One World Championship. He was expected to play well, and that he certainly did. Also, he picked a relatively modest program, saving the big guns for other rounds (such as Liszt’s “Mephisto Waltz”). He started out with Debussy’s Prelude Ce qu'a vu le Vent d’Ouest (which is number 7 from his first book of preludes). Translated as “what the west wind saw,” and it must have seen something shocking, it is a real showpiece. Smith played it for all it is worth, giving life to the sudden flashes and mysterious rumblings. His performance of Debussy’s 10th prelude from the same book, entitled La cathédrale engloutie (the sunken cathedral) made a great pairing with the other prelude. This one showed that he knows how to pace his performance so that the appearance of the cathedral, as it rises above the waters, was audibly visible. Although he took the ending very slowly, he never lost the line. He then played Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C minor, Op. 23, No. 7. Part of the difficulty of this piece is not readily apparent to the listener as it requires some notes to be held while the other fingers of the hand are busy. Smith managed this task with ease. Overall, he was quite impressive.

I have bemoaned that Bach is rare on the competitors repertoire lists because of its subtle difficulty and, let’s get it out here, lack of flash. Well, Marisa Naomi Haines, a teacher born in Brazil but now living in Murphy Texas, made a piece by the Baroque master the only piece she played in the preliminaries. A bold choice indeed. And an odd piece: an oboe concerto. It is not that the Concerto for Oboe and Strings in D minor by Alessandro Marcello needed Bach’s help to be popular since it is still one of the more frequently performed concerti for he instrument (not that it has all that many to begin with). However, Bach’s version is a favorite of pianists and it presents a whole host of challenges. Haines gave the piece an exceptional performance. The slow movement was entrancing and last movement really bounced along. Even better was that she was obviously having a great time playing it.

It tells you everything you need to know about Debra Saylor that, although blind, she came out on stage by herself. The vocal instructor from Huntsville, Alabama, opened with Granados lyrical and tuneful Quejas o La Maja y el Ruiseñor (from his Goyescas). She gave it a loving performance, lingering over all the delicious suspensions. Once again, a fine performer took an overplayed piece, in this case Chopin’s Polonaise in A Major (called the “Military”), and made it sound fresh and new. Probably everyone in the auditorium has played it at one time or another. Usually a bang-fest, Saylor treated the piece like the fine composition that it is─filled with forceful music to be sure, but so much more than that. Considering some of the troubles the sighted performers have had with aiming their octave leaps, her performance with the Chopin was all the more amazing as she landed all of the hand leaps with assurance.

Anne Blakeney, a homemaker from Dallas, changed her program around some by bringing in some pieces scheduled for later rounds. . She started out with Schumann’s Aufschwung the second of the eight pieces in his cycle  Fantasiestücke, Op. 12. Supposedly, this piece describes the passions of the character Florestan, from Beethoven’s opera Fidelio. Blakeney must have had that in mind as she gave the piece a fervent performance. Chopin Nocturne in C sharp minor Op. 27, No. 1, received a perceptive performance and her handling of the sotto voce return of the first material was especially lovely. She gave the first of Gershwin’s “Three Preludes” a fairly restrained reading but definitely caught the mood.

Robin Green, a retired attorney from Dallas, has already won two amateur competitions and placed in a few others. She is another one of the contestants expected to play really well. She started out with Alberto Ginastera’s Suite de Danzas Criollas Op.15 (“Suite of Creole Dances”). These are difficult pieces, both technically and interpretively, and Green gave them a convincing performance. She followed this up with the last movement of Debussy’s Estampes, Jardins sous la pluie (Gardens in the Rain). Supposedly based on Debussy’s memories of actual rain storms, this is no gentle Renoir-esque rain. Although it starts like one, it is also a full blown thunderstorm. Once again, Green demonstrates that she knows how to bring the music alive to the listener and with real rain falling outside, it was a memorable performance.

Clark Griffith was all business. He took third prize at the 2007 competition and it was obvious from his demeanor that he intended to do better this time.  But, oddly, he asked that it be announced that he would play from the printed list but no necessarily in any order─however the fancy struck him.  He strode out on the stage and immediately sat down and started. But he started with Bach’s Prelude No. 9 in E major and Fugue No. 18 in G-sharp minor, just as printed. It appears that my observations about the performers avoiding this composer were spoken too soon. His Bach was clean and accurate, but he made real music with it as well. He followed this with the Berceuse from Faure’s “Dolly Suite” in his own arrangement. It was written originally for piano four-hands, but you missed nothing in Griffith’s clever arrangement. He played the Prelude No. 23 in B minor from Richard Cumming’s set of 24 preludes, which were written for pianist John Browning. This one is a short burst of virtuosity which Griffith infused with fire.  Brahms’ Capriccio opus 76 no. 2 filled out his well balanced program. He played a program with something for everyone, from the Baroque to the contemporary with some German romanticism and French impressionism along the way.

James Raphael has been here before, and not just in the amateur side of the Cliburn. He was a contestant in1977 on the professional side. Now that he is a jeweler (for the past 37 years), the Fort Worth pianist is back playing in the Cliburn again. He started out with a fine performance of two Scarlatti sonatas: first the reflective one in D minor and then progressing to the better known (and more energetic) one in E major. He then played one of his own compositions, a set of four variations from “Katikua” and written in memory of the Holocaust Victims. It was an overwhelming piece, full of drama and violence and sufficed with an overlay horror. It ended in an explosion of chords. Following this with Franz Liszt's gentle Gondoliera, Venezia e Napoli (No.1 from his musical travel diary called Les Années de Pèlerinage, 2nd Year: Italy) was a bit of a shocking transition. Raphael is an explosive player, even wild and seemingly just barely under control, who grunted constantly. It was hard to know what to think about such an unusual performance.

This must be the evening for varied backgrounds, first a race car designer and now a former ballet dancer. The Arlington, Texas, resident Paul Rutschmann, who is now an adjunct instructor of German history, recently returned to the piano after a 40-year sabbatical. He started off with Scarlatti’s Sonata in D major and, while he had some troubles, he delivered a fine performance. He was off to a better start in Rachmaninoff’s Moment Musical in E minor. But a memory slip, every performer’s nightmare, caused him to completely lose his train of thought and he stopped playing. The audience gave him a warm round of applause anyway as if to say “don’t worry about it. It happens to all of us.” It is too bad that he couldn’t find a place to start and finish the piece.

Fort Worth’s David Hibbard played an all-Rachmaninoff program, but not all of the music was by that composer. The first piece, Lilacs, Op. 21, No. 5, is part of a series of romances the composer wrote for piano. Hibbard played it delightfully. Next, he played Rachmaninoff’s transcription of Tchaikovsky’s Lullaby, Op. 16, No.1. It is an interesting piece in that traces of both composers are present. The last piece was Rachmaninoff’s transcription of a polka by the now totally forgotten composer, Franz Behr. Only this tune remains from his extensive output, like a lock of hair in some forgotten Bible. Supposedly it was a favorite tune of Rachmaninoff’s father, who was unaware of its origins. Only recently was the true composer of the polka discovered (don’t ask me how). As usual, Rachmaninoff gussies up a simple tune up in virtuosic finery and Hibbard had some fun with the composer’s extravagances. Over all, Hibbard played all three pieces with personality and panache.

Ken Iisaka, born in Japan and now living in Mill Valley, Calif., says that he is reinventing himself and playing in both the 2007 IPCOA and this one is part of that process. He only played one piece for this round, Schumann’s Fantasy in C minor, Op. 17. The tempo marking of this piece is quite remarkable: Durchaus fantastisch und leidenschaftlich vorzutragen; Im Legenden-Ton. This translates to Absolutely fantastic presentation and passionate; The Legend tone. You have to love the use of the word “absolutely” and the arcane reference to the “legend tone” (which is what you make of it, I suppose). This piece had its origins in Schumann’s misery of being separated from Clara Wieck, who would later become his wife. Iisaka did, indeed, tell a musical legend with his insightful and technically brilliant performance. He brought out all of the romantics longings and the passionate distress of love’s separation. But he also lingered over the tender and contemplative moments and he brought the work to a melancholy close. Iisaka completely captured the changing moods of this highly personal composition in a terrific, maybe even definitive, performance. Thanks For Reading

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The Cliburn Amateur, Day 2
Gregory Sullivan Isaacs reports on the performances from Tuesday at the Sixth International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs.
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

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