This is what it\'s all about at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition

They Hope They Get It

Gregory Sullivan Isaacs blogs about the Fort Worth leg of the screening auditions for the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

published Friday, February 22, 2013

The preliminary screening rounds for the Fourteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition have been going on for a while. They started in Hong Kong, then went to Hanover, Moscow, Milan and New York. The final round is happening now in Fort Worth, at Texas Christian University. There will be 20 pianists auditioning for a coveted place in the competition over the next three days. Once this is finished, the judges will vote and then we will know who will vie for the gold metal when the actual competition opens on May 22, 2013.

TheaterJones is covering this leg of the auditions, and will be updating this post as the auditions go on. The screening sessions are 2-4:30 p.m. and 7:30-10 p.m. Feb. 20-22 at Texas Christian University's Ed Landreth Auditorium. The finalists will be announced on March 5. The Fourteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition is May 24-June 2 at Bass Performance Hall. Click here for more on the competition.


Wednesday, Feb. 20, day session

If Wednesday morning's performances are any indication of what the judges have been hearing up to now, the decisions will be difficult indeed. All four performers were quite amazing: technically secure and gifted with musicality. One suspects that the next three days will be much the same with one fine pianist after another taking the stage. They each get 40 minutes to play their selections, anything they want, and then there is nothing for them to do but wait anxiously for the announcements later this week. So, what do you think the judges are looking for to help them make a choice? 

Technical brilliance is a given. No one would have made it this far unless they were completely accomplished and able to play anything in the repertoire. The two outer movements of the classic "nearly impossible" piece, Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit, have already been played and repeats are expected. There were some big Liszt pieces on Wednesday evening and even Prokofiev's finger-busting Sonata No. 7 looms ahead. What will set them apart is something more than notes and dynamics, something other than getting it all correct and playing with excellent phrasing and dynamics. 

It is what they bring to their playing from deep within their own mind and musical soul that will make the eventual winner rise up from the others. While this may sound lofty and pseudo-intellectual, it is really the truth. Anyone can learn all the notes and can play any of these pieces beautifully if they are taught carefully. Anyone can listen to a recording and hear how the piece should go and give a reasonable duplication, and if they picked a real artist to imitate it can sound really good. However, the pianists can process this music themselves, digest it and roll it around inside so that it comes out being truly theirs that will stand out from all of the others. 

On Wednesday afternoon, we heard four pianists. Two were from Russia, one from Taiwan and another from China.  They are all studying in the United States. The two from Russia are students of Tamás Ungár, the distinguished Professor of Piano (and the energy behind the Piano Texas Festival every summer) right here at TCU. 

The two could not have been more different. Mikhail Berestnev is a bear of a youngster in a tuxedo with a shock of hair that flew in the air in the big moments. Anna Bulkina shimmered in a silver dress and had her waist-length hair pulled back in a ponytail. Berestnev leaned over the keyboard so closely that on occasion his nose practically touched his hands. Bulkina sat upright and played with little body movement. Both were terrific. 

Berestnev played a bigger program with four exhausting pieces: a Scarlatti sonata, Tchaikovsky's Theme and Variations Op. 19, a massive Medner sonata (Op. 22) and the Rachmaninoff arrangement of Mendelssohn's scherzo from A Midsummer Night's Dream. Bulkina gave herself a break with a more modest piece, Schumann's Waldszenen, in the middle of two bigger ones. The most impressive was the wildly difficult and dissonant Chaconne by Gubaidulina. This is a magnificent piece, unfamiliar to most, and she gave it a terrific performance. She also played the Brahms Paganini Variations Op. 35. She greatly impressed the audience. 

Next were the two Chinese pianists. One is representing Taiwan, Tzu-yi Chen, who is a student of Alex Kobrin (who won the Cliburn in 2005). The other representing China, Jiayan Sun, is a student of Yoheved "Veda" Kaplinsky (one of the judges), at Juilliard. Chen was elegantly dressed in a black evening gown and a very young looking Sun was in a black tux. Both played ambitious programs and were equally impressive. 

Chen opened with three Scarlatti sonatas, played with clarity, then played a musically astute performance of Franck's Prelude, Chorale and Fugue. She closed with Scarbo from the aforementioned Gaspard de la nuit, perhaps the most difficult movement of the suite, but it didn't give her any trouble and she played it with amazing ease. 

Sun played Chopin's Preludes 13 through 24 from his Op. 28. He has a good feel for Chopin's subtly and the singing line. He followed with something completely different: Bartok's rough and tumble Out of Doors. He successfully made the switch in style and Bartok's piece came off better than I have heard it before.


Wednesday, Feb. 20, night session

Wednesday evening, American Lindsay Garritson, a student of Boris Berman at Yale, wowed the audience both physically and musically. She is stunningly beautiful and was dressed in a designer-looking red gown. Her long sparkly earrings and shoes flashed as she played. The other thing that flashed was her rendition of Ondine, the first movement of Gaspard, a picture of the water spirit. Her performance splashed and sprayed as she turned what basically is a percussion instrument into streams of water. She did an equally fine job with Liszt's Ballade No. 2 and returned the piano to the percussion section with Prokofiev's Sonata No. 7. 

Russian Ekaterina Gumenyuk was dressed in a perfect gown for a pianist. It was a black sheath that opened into pleats at the knees, giving her lots of room for the pedals while maintaining a nice profile. She studies with Alexander Sandler in St. Petersburg, and presented a rarity—Variations on a Theme of Rode by Carl Czerny (a student of Beethoven). She played it well but it is not a very interesting piece. Debussy's L 'isle Joyeuse came off  much better. She ended with two Liszt show pieces, La leggierezzo and the less frequently played Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12. 

Airi Katada of Japan, a student of Minoru Nojima in Tokyo, was also elegantly dressed in a mauve colored flowing gown. Her program was modest. She started with a romantically tinged performance of Bach's Prelude and Fugue, BWV 890, She had some fun with Haydn's Sonata No. 43. Chopin's Barcarolle in F Sharp Major was lovely and she gathered some strength for Shostakovich's Prelude and Fugue in D minor, which is not one of his best efforts with it banal fugue subject. 

If any of my readers are expecting me to speculate on who will move onward to the competition or critique individual performances in any detail, I am sorry to disappoint. However, I will be keeping a private list and will let you know how close I came to the results when the finalists are announced.


Thursday, Feb. 21, day session

The afternoon session on Thursday is better attended than Wednesday, but the hall is still only about a quarter full. It is a weekday but the evening session yesterday didn't improve. Even though these are just the screening auditions, there is a lot of great piano playing going on at Ed Landreth Auditorium continuing through the end of the day Friday. It is fun to speculate which of these players will be chosen to fill the coveted spots in the actual competition. Perhaps none of the ones in this Fort Worth session will make the cut, let alone win. But, if that happens, those in attendance will have the unique privilege of following a pianist from the very start to the final decisions. 

The first up was Jin Uk Kim from South Korea, a student of Wha Kyung Byun at the New England Conservatory of Music. Dressed in a suit and tie, he sat further back from the keyboard than usual, something that we saw in other pianists as the day advanced. His program was heavy on Liszt, and not that even composer's best works at that. He played Grandes etudes de Paganini and ended with Liszt's tarted up take on the already saccharine Waltz from Gounod's opera Faust

In between, he played the most interesting composition so far, Messiaen's Le loriot (the golden oriole), from his collection of 13 pieces for piano called the Catalogue d'oiseaux (Catalog of Birds) completed in 1958. Orioles are noisy birds and Messiaen sets their clatter over a solemn hymn. When it comes to nimble fingers, Kim has to be at the head of the line. His runs unclouded the sustaining pedal and were simply jaw dropping. He might have been better off playing something more musically challenging, like some Brahms, instead of more of Liszt's claptrap as his final selection. 

Marcin Koziak, a Canadian studying right here in Fort Worth with Tamás Ungár, Professor of Piano at TCU, is tall and lanky. He wore a black suit and bow tie. He also sat back from the keyboard, but his long arms and legs required some room. Once he started, he commanded the complete attention of the hall. He played an ambitious program: Chopin's Scherzo No. 2, Szymanowski's Mazurkas Op. 50 No. 1 through 4, and Rachmaninov's gigantic Sonata No. 2 in B flat Minor Op. 36, which dates from 1931 and was intended for the composer's own concerts. It is a fool's errand to speculate on what the judges are thinking, but Koziak turned in a thoughtful, highly musical and technically secure performance of all three works. Further, they are so different that he demonstrated a great range of musical insights. What more could you ask? 

Rudin Lengo of Canada studies with John Perry in the Toronto at The Glenn Gould School of The Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. (Perry taught at the University of Texas at Austin for a while.) He wore the usual black suit but was the first to have the collar of his white shirt open at the neck. It was during his performance that we had our first cell phone solo, but to his credit, he was able to ignore it. His program was all Liszt, which like Kim, limited the range of musicality he could demonstrate for the judges. He played Liszt's surprisingly modest arrangement of a Schubert song, Der Müller und der Bach, and then launched into the composer's massive Sonata in B Minor. The sonata is in one long movement and has dozens of false endings before finally coming to a close. However, Lengo made a good case for this work and the performance was much more enjoyable than other assays of the work in recent memory. 

Last up was Todd Yaniw, also from Canada, who studies with Anton Nel at UT Austin. He looked straight ahead, as opposed to down at the keyboard, for some of his performance. When he looked at his hands, he tended to slump his head forward rather than bend at the waist. Occasionally, he played with a low wrist, which used to be a no-no but is more common these days. In a black suit and banded black shirt, he played a completely 20th-century program, even thought the Two Poems of Scriabin Op. 32 just squeaked in 1903. Prokofiev's Sonata No. 6 in A major resides almost in the middle, dating from 1940. However, the two composer's works couldn't be more different. Yaniw perfectly caught the dreamy mood of the first Scriabin poem and he made a lot of appropriate sound in the Prokofiev. Best, he played with mastery of the rhythmic pulse, which is critical in this sonata. It was a fine performance.


Thursday, Feb. 21, night session

Thursday evening started out with the American pianist Alex McDonald, who studies with Veda Kaplinsky, who is one of the judges, at the Juilliard School. He was quite spiffy in a crisp suit and tie with his blond hair neatly cut. He played a well-balanced potpourri of a piano program with something classical, romantic and contemporary. He started out with an assertive performance of Haydn's Sonata No. 32. His touch was a little heavy for Haydn but served him well in his final selection, a thrillingly muscular rendition of Three Movements from Petrouchka by Stravinsky. In between, he played a note perfect rendition of Les Jeux d'Eaux a la Villa d'Este by Liszt and Chopin's showy Nocturne in C minor. There was a larger audience in attendance that earlier in the competition and McDonald wowed them. The Stravinsky is a real virtuoso showpiece, we will certainly hear it again in the final competition, and he gave it a truly wonderful performance without mussing a single hair out of place. The audience reacted with cheers and the first standing ovation of the preliminaries. 

Christopher McKiggan of the United Kingdom, a student of Jon Kimura Parker at Rice University, had the hard job of following McDonald's fireworks. Fortunately, he is completely different in every way. Dressed in a Gen Z charcoal jacket, black pants and open shirt, he exuded both confidence and charm right from his bow. He used the most body language of the day but it always mirrored his expressive phrasing. Agree or not, he demonstrated that he had his own view about what he played, which was refreshing (and sometimes frustrating) after two days of careful performances. He started out with an unfamiliar work (at least to me and a number of others in the audience): Brahms' Piano Sonata No. 2. This was actually his first sonata and Brahms himself worried over its quality. It might have been McKiggan's performance, but there was little of the mature Brahms to be found and it felt long. McKiggan launched into the Yagosti arrangement of Stravinsky's Firebird Suite. Here, we were all on familiar ground. Ponce again, McKiggan had his own ideas. The Berceuse was glacial but he whipped up an exciting ending. 

The last contestant to play was Tatiana Muzanova of Russia, a student of former Cliburn winner Alex Kobrin. She wore a perfect pianist outfit: a gray full cut blouse with some sparkly swirls over a gauzy long black skirt. Very elegant and understated but with some flash. She played just as elegantly as she looked. She opened with Chopin's Barcarolle in F sharp minor Op. 83, followed by Schubert's Impromptu in F minor Op. 142 No. 4. But just when you thought that her playing was too conservative, she gave Prokofiev's percussive Sonata No. 7 in B flat  Major a real workout. She brought the day to an exciting close. 


Friday, Feb. 22, day session

The final day of the screening auditions for the Cliburn opened with a quiet bang. Edward Neeman, who lists both an American and Australian genesis, played an impressive program. He studies with James Tocco at the Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music. In a dark suit, blue shirt and tie, he looked like a sharply dressed young executive on Wall Street. 

He started out with an incredibly clean performance of Bach’s Partita No. 5 BWV. He was quite expressive but kept within an appropriately limited range, acknowledging Baroque sensibilities, and not adding a romantic overlay. He followed that with something completely different—Milton Babbitt’s pointillist “It Takes Twelve to Tango.” If you are curious, here is a link to Neeman playing this piece in concert He ended with the one thing we were all waiting for, the requisite showpiece, which usually means the dreaded Liszt piece. Neeman chose Liszt’s Venezia e Napoli (Venice and Naples) from his three sets of piano suites called Années de pèlerinage (Years of Pilgrimage). 

There was nothing of the showman about Neeman. His manner was calm and cool and he rarely moved his upper body, except to rise off of the bench slightly at the very biggest moments at the end of the Liszt. However, the absolute brilliance of his technique and musicality was apparent to all and he received an overwhelming ovation. 

Rina Sudo, a pianist from Japan who studies with Fumico Eauchi at the Piano Arts Academy in Japan. She wore a beautiful teal, iridescent, strapless dress with a full skirt. She played Haydn’s Sonata in C Major Hob. XVI: 48 with a romantic interpretation, full of nuance and dynamic range. However, her playing was quite clean and she didn’t use much sustaining pedal, which added to the clarity. She also appeared to be enjoying the piece and playing it for us. Her rendition of Chopin’s Scherzo No. 3 in C sharp Minor Op. 39 was bold but some sections wanted more contrast, like the chorale verses the filigree that surrounds it. She gave an evocative performance of Rachmaninoff’s ephemeral Lilacs, Op. 21. She ended with lots of notesLiszt’s Spanish Rhapsody. Sudo certainly has nimble fingers, which she aptly displayed. In fact, there were some times that they threatened to run away on their own. 

Chetan Tierra, from the United States, studied until recently with the 2001 Cliburn silver medalist Antonio Pompa-Baldi at the Cleveland Institute of Music. He looked just like the general public thinks a pianist should look: dark suit, black-banded collar and a shoulder length shock of tightly curly black hair that flew in the air at all the right moments. His performance stood up to the image he projected. His playing is strong and muscular, yet expressive and sensitive where needed. It seems that most composers have had a shy at a set of variations on the well-known caprice for solo violin by Paganini and it was fun to hear Brahms’ effort. Scriabin’s Sonata No. 4 in F sharp Major, Op. 30 consists of two greatly contrasting movements and Tierra made the most of that. He finished with Ginastera’s finger-busting Sonata No. 1, Op. 22. This is a favorite of all virtuosi and will surely reappear when the Cliburn reconvenes. He gave it a breathtaking, daredevil performance and the audience loved it.


Friday, Feb. 22, night session

Peter Toth from Hungary was resplendent in a full tux, complete with a satin vest and patent shoes. He is a student of Anton Nel at UT Austin. Nel is currently in Dallas to play a concerto, Beethoven’s second, with the Dallas Symphony. Toth began with a stylistically spot on performance of Bartok’s percussive Suite No. 2. This piece is all about rhythm, with folk patterns as diverse as those from Romania and North Africa, and Toth brought all this variety out. Next came a work by the ever-delightful Mendelssohn, his Variations sérieuses, Op. 54. In these virtuoso variations, the composer took a four square hymnlike theme and wrote a series of short pieces, each one exploring a particular piano technique. As such, the work is a real showpiece and perfect for a competition since it allowed Toth to demonstrate his complete technical mastery. He ended with a dreadful piece of music, even for Liszt, his Réminiscences de Norma, a potboiler of fireworks using the themes from Bellini’s opera of the same name. In spite of that, he played it beautifully, with a sure technique, and made the most he could of it musically. His entire performance was impressive and the audience gave him a big ovation. 

If there were a prize for the most beautiful gown, it would have to go to Youyou Zhang, from the United States. Following on the motive of the black and white keys on the piano, this deco-inspired gown was black satin with a white insert on both sides. When she sat at the piano, it was a stage picture worthy of an Erte painting. She also played beautifully, although her selections were odd. We had already heard Brahms’ Sonata No. 2, which is full of Liszt-like technical feats of skill and not very Brahmsian in nature. Zhang made a better case for it than most, but another selection might have served her better. She ended with another strange choice for a competition, three of Debussy’s slight and ephemeral preludes from Book 2. In spite of her repertoire not helping, she made a fine impression overall. She studies with John Owings at TCU. 

The screening auditions ended with a showy performance by the American pianist Steven Lin, who studies with Robert McDonald at Juilliard. He was dressed very up-to-date in a black suit with a black-band collar shirt with the top buttons open and a mop of black hair. He was probably the most physically demonstrative of all of the contestants. Much of the time, he was hunched over the keyboard so closely that his nose almost touched his hands, which he followed with his eyes as they moved up and down the keys. He also sat very close to the instrument so that his knees were underneath. His body was in constant motion, which can either be distracting or thrilling to the audience. 

However, there was nothing distracting about his riveting playing. He turned in the Fort Worth screening auditions’ best performance of a work by Bach, his Overture in the French Style, BWV 831, He gave it 30 of his allotted 40 minutes which turned out to be a wise decision. Although he added much more expression than some players do and certainly more than Bach’s harpsichord could offer (which was none). However, if you are willing to forgive him that, it was an enjoyable performance of the suite. Further, he appeared to enjoy it as much as the audience did. 

Lin ended with another piece of Liszt claptrap, his Réminiscences de Don Juan, an opera-based showpiece. While this is not as bad a piece as the Norma is, it is still just virtuoso licks for their own sake. This time, it is peppered with tunes from Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Lin has technique galore which, added to his flashy physical gyrations, completely wowed the audience as he easily met Liszt’s demands. 

It is impossible to speculate on which, if any, of these pianists will be chosen for the final competition. For example, just on Friday we had the two extremes of deportment at the instrumentthe practically immobile Neeman at the start of the day and the all-over-the-place Lin at the end. Both are technicians of the first order in addition to giving first-class musical interpretations. You can never second-guess what a judge will use to make a decision when the contestants are so close on abilities.

We will find out on March 5. Thanks For Reading

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They Hope They Get It
Gregory Sullivan Isaacs blogs about the Fort Worth leg of the screening auditions for the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

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