Seth Darst
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The Cliburn Amateur, Day 3

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

published Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Day three of the performances has been a good one for lively performances, and we're minutes away from hearing who's advancing to the semifinals. Here's the latest update, with reports on only the final three left to go.


Preliminary, Round 5, 1-5 p.m. Wednesday, May 25, 2011:


Vincent Letourmy, a project manager from France, has a number of prizes in piano competitions already on his wall. He opened with the Toccata from Bach’s Partita No. 6 in E minor. While highly accurate, and while he did a good job of bringing out the lines in the fugal section, it was all too much at the same level and on the cool and mechanical side. But there was nothing cool and mechanical about his fiery rendition of Liszt’s Transcendental Etude No. 8 in C minor "Wilde Jagd" (the Wild Hunt) with its fistfuls of chords and notes. All of these etudes are difficult, and this one is no exception. However, Letourmy has the technical abilities required and gave the piece an outstanding performance. 

Hajime Kobayashi, a management consultant from Japan, returned to the piano in 2007 and with obvious success. He opened with Rachmaninoff’s difficult Moment Musical in E flat minor Op. 16 No. 2, which is a big opening move. He is a stylish and elegant player and it made it through the piece with he ease of someone tossing it off for fun. But he got down to business with duality of the piece fiery moments but brought it down quickly for the quiet moments. He luxuriated in a burst of Lisztian romanticism and certainly caught the Spanish atmosphere throughout.

Victor Dyni, a retired music librarian from Washington, D.C. is also a gusli virtuoso. For those who don’t know what that is, like this writer, it is a one of the types of Balalaika in a B orchestra. He opened with a quiet and thoughtful reading of Brahms Intermezzo in A minor, Op. 118 No. 1. He ran into some troubles in Chopin’s Etude in A minor Op.25, No. 1, but he recovered nicely. When that was over, and without hardly taking a breath, he launched into Khachaturian’s Toccata. Here is was on firmer ground and caught its rough and tumble musical style right from the beginning. Although he did stop to enjoy the more reflective moments, he kept the energy level high throughout.

Barry Coutinho, who was born in India and studied in London, is now a family physician in Pittsburgh. He is also on the medical faculty of the University if Pittsburgh. He opened with Liszt’s rippling and lovely Un sospiro. He gave it an appropriately romantic reading, maybe lingering a bit much over the rubato on occasion; but then, what is more sentimental than a sigh? His performance was expressive and just plain lovely throughout. Its technical challenges were met with élan and he kept the melody singing out over all of the passage work. With Ravel’s "Toccata" from Le Tombeau de Couperin, he demonstrated complete technical mastery as well as a natural affinity for Ravel’s music. This bodes well for him should be make it to the final round since he programmed Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit—probably one of the most difficult works in the repertoire, both technically and interpretatively. His reading of the "Toccata" was bright and explosive. Even more amazing, he didn’t seem to have to work as hard as many professional pianists do in this piece and he didn’t miss a note.

Eberhard Zagrosek knows these kinds of competitions from both sides, having founded International Piano Amateur Competition in Berlin. He started out with Liszt’s Variations on a theme from Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen by J. S. Bach, a work for organ. This translates as "weeping, wailing, worry and trepidation" (something all the contestants know about by now). Zagrosek gave it an appropriately emotional performance and he certainly has the technical chops to pull it off. Liszt always builds to gigantic climaxes with massive amounts of notes and Zagrosek managed these moments better than he did some of the quieter ones. He kept the energy level up all the way, even though he seemed to tire near the end. Who wouldn’t?

Dave Duebendorfer is here for his third appearance in the competition. The investment manager from Westport, Conn., made it to the semifinal round in 2002 and plans to do much better this year. He opened with one of Scarlatti’s more difficult Sonatas, the one in D minor, and he set a challenging tempo for it. Although he had a scary moment or two, he gave it a precise and impressive reading. The Pletnev arrangement of the Pas de deux from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet had all of the requisite grandeur and sweep, but he ran into some difficulties here as well. But musically, he was right on. He took a moment to refocus before stating Rachmaninoff’s Etude-Tableau in D major Op. 39, No. 9. This work is well-known for its challenges, not only in the number of notes that have to be played, but for some of the gyrations required of the hands to play them. Dubendorfer’s moment to collect himself before he started paid off and he turned in an exciting and credible—although not note-perfect—performance.

I have wondered how long it would take for music to go digital and have a LED screen instead of a music stand on the piano. Well, that hasn’t quite happened yet, but leave it to a professor of molecular biophysics, Seth Darst, to have loaded the score onto his iPad and give himself a page-turning pedal. All that is needed now is have it listen to as you play and scroll along. By the way, I have to completely take back my comments about a lack of Bach. Ever since I wrote that, he has turned up with some regularity. Darst, who is competing against his mother (Judy Darst) started with two Bach pieces, the Prelude and Fugue No. 2 in C minor and No. 3 in C-sharp major—both from the Well Tempered Clavier Book 1. He ran into some troubles in the first piece, demonstrating the danger posed by Bach’s danged transparency, but things went without further incident from there on. His Bach was accurate and carefully thought out, with excellent clarity of line. However, he was much more at home with Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances. These short character pieces are all based on actual tunes that would have been played on a violin or flute and were for dances that were common at parties and other celebrations. Darst captured that mood and played the suite with brilliance, and a high level of energy, rightly capturing the Romanian rhythms.

Martha Chestnut Hartman is a retired management consultant from the cheerily named town of Celebration, Fla. Although she holds a master’s degree from Indiana University, she left the piano behind until her retirement from business in 2001. She certainly has made up for lost time: her skills are in top form. She started with Chopin’s Scherzo No. 4 in E major, Op. 54. This work, Chopin’s last in the form, is somewhat calmer and more thoughtful than the others. There are still technical challenges aplenty and big pounding moments, but it requires the more reflective approach that Hartman gave it. The melodies were lovingly shaped and her passage work had a snap to it as it flashed up and down the keyboard without incident or apparent effort. The big ending, and one final blindingly fast scale up the keyboard, brought her performance to a exhilarating close.

Alexandre Leite, who was born in Brazil, is a financial professional based in Washington, D.C. He was originally going to open with some Bach, but went with a more impressive work instead: Chopin’s Polonaise in C-sharp minor, Op. 26, No. 1. This is big sprawling work for the genre and requires both technical mastery and endurance. As if to add to the difficulties, Chopin switches to the enharmonic key of D-flat for the middle section. Leite gave the piece an admirable performance, balancing the lyrical parts with the louder rhythmic ones. Staying with the same C-sharp minor key, Leite played Scriabin’s Etude in C-sharp Minor, Op. 2, No.1. Even though it is an early work, you can still hear the composer’s interest in rich harmonies and pianists notice some of the wide hand stretches that he favored. Here, Leite was also at the top of his game. It is a short piece, but he made quite an impression with it.

Yvonne Liu was born in China but is now a music educator in Foster City, Calif. When her son was diagnosed with autism at the age of 2, she found that music has healing and restorative powers. This led her to a career in early childhood music education and thousands of children have benefited. She opened with Schubert’s Impromptu in B-flat major, Op. 142. This piece is a theme and variations and Liu did an excellent job of giving them each their own individual character while maintaining the integrity of the whole. Her passage work was clean and flashed with apparent ease. Occasionally, her left hand was too loud and overbalanced what was going on musically, but this is a minor quibble to be sure. Her technique got a fine showing in the last movement of Ravel’s Sonatine, marked Animé ("animated"). Considered to be a tour-de force (all Ravel is difficult), Liu played it with great charm and precision.

Utako Tanigawa, holds a Ph.D in information services and is in a senior I.T. position with Walmart Stores, Inc. Like a number of the performers in this competition, she was brought back to music and piano by a medical crisis. In her case, it was cancer and she credits her status as a two year survivor to the "lifeline" that music offered her when she needed it. She began with Scarlatti’s Sonata in D minor and gave it a spirited performances. Mendelssohn’s brilliant Andante and Rondo Capriccioso, Op. 14 followed. Like all of the composer’s work, once he starts something in a fast tempo, it never lets up. This creates an endurance problem which might have been a factor in her performance. It was nearly perfect until the ending, which is admittedly the most difficult part of the piece. Nevertheless, she turned in a fine performance.

Takanori Yamato has been a participant in amateur competitions over the years and has won prizes in a number of them. In "real" life, he is a manager of sales promotions in Tokyo for the Tokyo Gas Company. He started with Godowsky’s arrangement of the Tango, the second piece in Albeniz’s larger work—España, Op.165. Staying with Albeniz, Yamato played a far more challenging piece, the final movement from his Book one of Iberia—subtitled Fête-dieu à Seville. This fantastically difficult work describes the Corpus Christi celebrations in Seville. In fact, it is the most difficult movement of what is over-all considered to be a fiendishly hard piece. Yamoto played it brilliantly, with passion and verve. He brought it to a hushed ending and here was especially effective in bringing out the distant sound of church bells that closes the piece. It was an impressive performance.

The first thing you notice about Christopher Shih’s program for this competition is that almost all of the works he is playing, except for the final round, are arrangements. The next thing you notice about the physician from Ellicott City, Md., is that is competed in the Tenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Even more striking is that his first round selections are all transcriptions of works by Bach, and got progressively more and more difficult. All three were magnificently played. He started out with the Hess arrangement of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. He followed that with the Petri version of Sheep may Safely Graze and ended with the extremely difficult Kempff version of the prelude to the Cantata No. 29 Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir (We thank you, God, we thank you). His playing was just terrific in all aspects from the subtle to the demanding and he got cheers from the audience when he finished.

Preliminary, Round 6, 7:30-9:45 p.m. Wednesday, May 25, 2011:

Leticia Martinez is someone you hope you never run into professionally. She is a criminal prosecutor in the office of the Fort Worth District Attorney. She began with Haydn’s Fantasy in C major but got off to a rough start, but then that courtroom cool took over. She calmly restarted from the point where things went astray as though nothing had happened. It was an impressive demonstration of keeping calm in a stressful situation. She certainly caught Haydn’s jolly mood. She was more at ease with Ravel’s "Prelude" to his suite Pour le piano. She set a fast tempo, perhaps faster than she wanted, so it sounded a little rushed—maybe nerves. However, he took her time in the slower moments and ended the piece strongly.

Esfir Ross was born in Moldova but now works as a dental assistant in Oakland, Calif. She took home the creative programming award at the 2007 IPCOA and returns this year. She opened with two Scarlatti sonatas, both in D minor. She played both with charm and grace but ends came abruptly. The second one was of a completely different character and she effectively shifted gears. Alkan’s lovely Barcarolle Op. 65, No. 6, was played with finesse and the proper rocking motion. Debussy’s Prelude from Book 2, entitled "La puerta del Vino" ("The Wine Gate") and subtitled Mouvement de Habanera. One again, Ross turned in an exceptionally musical performance.

Stephen Stouder is an account executive for United Healthcare and lives in Apple Valley, Minn. His entry is exceptional in that for all three rounds, he only programmed one big piece for each. For the preliminaries, he played Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23. He gave it a highly individualistic performance, stretching tempi here and there. He certainly has the technique to play all of the difficult parts and the courage to make it his own. 

Pablo Eizayaga immediately impressed by his selections—all big virtuoso works. The Argentina-born banker now resides in Riverside, Conn. Unlike some of the other competitors, he has always remained active as a pianist while pursuing his business career. He started out with Ravel’s Jeaux d’eau, which is a real show piece. He followed that with the even bigger Poème Tragique, Op. 34, by Scriabin. In both of these pieces, he demonstrated a commanding technique and willingness to take chances. He delivered an electrifying, but slightly reckless, performance and the audience spontaneously responded. 

Christopher Sarzynski is a physician from Atlanta, Ga., but, in addition to medical school, he studied at the Mozarteum in Salzburg. He opened with Debussy’s evocative "Ondine" from the second book of Preludes. It is marked Scherzando and Sarzynski took that tempo marking literally. His version was very light on its feet. He removed his coat before ripping into three of Chopin’s Etudes. The first one was his so-called revolutionary etude (in C minor Op. 10, No. 12) in C minor. Here, once again, was a piece that has been overplayed that sounded fresh and new in the hands of a fine pianist. He set a breakneck tempo and then played the main run down the keyboard without any pedal, which left every note sounding. The Etude Op. 25, No. 6, in G-sharp minor is a tortuous study in playing rapid trilling thirds and at the tempo he set, it is even more difficult. As in the preceding etude, Sarzynski’s spraining use of the pedal let his precise playing shine. But he really excelled in the Etude Op. 10, No.1 in C major. Reportedly, the great pianist Vladimir Horowitz refused to play it in public because it is so risky and difficult. Running arpeggios in the right hand, something covering six octaves, has to stay constant while there is a lot more going on. Sarzynski, once again, set a daunting tempo but absolutely dazzled with his performance.

Mark Fuller, who took second place at the last IPCOA, is an attorney from Phoenix, Ariz. He also won the award for the Best performance of a Modern Work, so it is not a surprise that he began with Hessian’s evocative Prelude No. 1 subtitled "La Colombe" ("The Dove"). It was a great performance and he should be a sure-fire winner in this category again this year. He then proceeded to give a barnburner of a performance of Chopin’s Scherzo No. 3, Op. 39. His performance was technically assured, full of spirit and drama and musically spot on. Cheers of "bravo" greeted the thrilling conclusion.

Shi-Chin Yvonne Tsai was born in Taiwan and is now a physician practicing in La Plama, Calif. After all of my mention about the transparency problem with playing Bach, Tsai took that challenge and only played on complete work for the preliminary round Bach’s Italian Concerto, BWV 971. The original title was Concerto nach Italienischem Gusto (Concerto after the Italian taste) and it is a deeply complex and difficult work and Tsai gave it a compelling performance. The second movement was especially lovely. She set a wickedly fast tempo or the last movement (it is marked allegro vivace) and paid the price for it for what must have been a scary moment. But, she barely hesitated and finished what was an excellent performance without further incident.

The last pianist of the day was Alex Leow, a Taiwan-born physician from Sacramento, Calif. She offered a unique program for this round; three pieces by Scriabin and a work by Stravinsky. She started out with Scriabin’s Feuillet d'Album (Album Leaf). She followed that with his Prelude, Op. 11 No. 13 in G flat major, a very similar piece in atmosphere. His Prelude in C Major, Op. 11 offered some real contrast. However, things really heated up when she played the "Chez Petrouchka" from Stravinsky’s Trois mouvements de Petrouchka or Three Movements from Petrushka, based on music from his ballet. She was immersed in the style, which is unique to this work in all of the composer’s output, and gave it an outstanding and characteristic performance. Thanks For Reading

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The Cliburn Amateur, Day 3
Gregory Sullivan Isaacs reports on the performances from Wednesday at the Sixth International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs.
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

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