Claire Huangci in the semifinal chamber concert with the Brentano String Quartet
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Cliburn Semifinals: Claire Huangci

Reviews of the semifinal performances by the 23-year-old American pianist in the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Second round added.

published Monday, June 3, 2013

Recital: Saturday, June 1, 1:30 p.m.

Photo: Carolyn Cruz/The Cliburn
Claire Huangci backstage before her semifinal recital


Claire Huangci gave us our first hearing of the commissioned work for the competition, Birichino by Christopher Theofanidis. The composer translates the name as "prankster" and it is often used to describe the Dennis the Menace child who loves to play harmless jokes. It is also translated as “rascal.” But, however you translate it, we all know and love such children and this writer, many think, never outgrew it. 

Huangci gave it a terrific performance that set the bar high for the other performances. It is full of tone clusters, imitating a child banging on the piano, and lots of fast runs with high notes that require a leap of faith to hit dead on. She played it note-perfect and observed all of the strange contrasts and surprising turns. The only thing missing was the sly wink. 

Beethoven’s Sonata No. 26 in E-flat Major, op. 81a ("Les adieux"), is exceptional in that it has a programmore like three sets of emotions—that the pianist has to convey. The first is problematic right from the start , with the title Lebewohl, which is usually translated as “farewell” or “goodbye,” but the German has a tinge of sadness in it that doesn’t translate all that accurately, nor does adieux for that matter. Beethoven wrote it in response to a real goodbye: Napoléon Bonaparte was moving in on Vienna in 1809 and Beethoven's patron, Archduke Rudolph, was forced to flee. 

Photo: Ralph Lauer/The Cliburn
Claire Huangci in her semifinal recital

She took a very slow tempo at the beginning and, even when the tempo changed to allegro, kept the serious nature of the music throughout the entire first movement. She accomplished Beethoven’s mark of an accent followed by a suddenly soft note, which is usually an instrumental marking; and she dropped the next note. Further, all of the passage work in this movement was played with the same serious nature, without a hint of flash.

The second movement is marked abwesenheit, which translates as “absence.” Here, she also took a slow tempo but it had a feeling of being in four instead of two. Admittedly, it is hard at that pace, but Beethoven could have written it in four just as easily. However, Huangci did an admirable job of keeping the singing melody above everything else. Her soft dynamic at the end was remarkable.

She jumped right into the third movement and took a fast tempo. She overused the sustaining pedal here and there, making some of the harmonies clash and mudding some of the runs. In the passages where there is a series of single notes followed by an eighth rest, the pedal eliminated the space between them that Beethoven wanted. The poco andante at the end verged on molto. However, overall this was a fine performance of one of Beethoven’s moodiest sonatas.

Schumann’s Symphonic Études, op. 13, are really a set of variations on a theme by the Baron von Fricken, who Schumann referred to as an amateur (not an insult at the time), with another theme tossed in from a totally forgotten opera, Der Templer und die Jüdin (based on Ivanhoe), by a totally forgotten composer, Heinrich Marschner. Each of the variations have their own character and Huangci did a fine job of offering differences without ever departing from Schumann’s individualistic style. She overplayed some of the passages as she let herself be carried away by the sweep of the music. Thus, some of the variations were too loud and she played a fortissimo where the composer only called for a forte. She still had some sound in reserve for the loudest marking at the end, but she needlessly tired herself getting there.

Photo: Ralph Lauer/The Cliburn
Claire Huangci in her semifinal recital

Huangci wisely saved a quieter work for her last selection and she created magic with an arrangement of a touching scene from Prokofiev’s wondrous score for the ballet Romeo and Juliet. Prokofiev did the piano arrangement and took 10 selections from the ballet for his Opus 75, and played the premiere himself. Huangci played the last section, the achingly beautiful love music called “Before Parting.” Whether she paired this with a Beethoven sonata about parting, it certainly tied up her program with a familiar subject matter.

This was her best playing of the competition. She did an excellent job of creating a full orchestral sound and bringing out the individual voices. But, most importantly, she captured the mood of both the scene on the stage and the poignancy of Prokofiev’s heart breaking music.


Chamber: Monday, June 3, 1:30 p.m.

Before continuing, mention must be made of the excellent playing of the Brentano String Quartet in all of these proceedings. They have a difficult job in adjusting to different pianists, with wildly different chamber music styles and levels of experience, in a very short period of time. While all four are wonderful, special mention must go to Misha Amory, the viola player. He is truly extraordinary. The others are Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin, violin; and Nina Lee, cello.

Photo: Ralph Lauer/The Cliburn
Claire Huangci in the semifinal chamber concert with the Brentano String Quartet

Claire Huangci has completely overcome her unlucky draw of being in the first performer spot. Her consistently musical and technically clean performances moved her to the semifinals and her two subsequent appearances continue to keep her fresh in your mind. Her performance of the Dvořák Quintet was in the same vein: technically secure, stylistically accurate and played with musicality.


Huangci was consistently with the quartet and kept in careful communication with the players. She never rushed the tempo and played her turn with the melodic materials in a close approximation to what she heard from the instrumentalists. The problem was that she was frequently too loud. Not grossly so, as we have heard before, but just enough be noticeable. One cause of this is her failure to drop back down to accompaniment status after taking the lead. An example of this occurred in the beginning of the development section of the first movement. Here, the strings are tossing the melodic material back and forth and the piano has some accompanying passage work. We really don’t need to hear this; only be aware of its harmonic support. She played it like it was of equal importance.

In the Dumka, things were somewhat better. She was too prominent in the accompaniment of the second subject but was impressive when she took over the melody. She wasn’t much help in the tricky passage where the upper stings have the offbeat pattern, but they seemed to manage thanks to the cellist. In the Scherzo, she set a good tempo and captured the mood of the piece. She was too loud in the trio but effectively played some soft passages an atmospheric level.


◊ Our profile of Claire Huangci, 23, USA

◊ Review of Preliminary Recital Phase I

Review of Preliminary Recital Phase II

◊ You can see quick links to the reviews of the other semifinalists here Thanks For Reading

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Cliburn Semifinals: Claire Huangci
Reviews of the semifinal performances by the 23-year-old American pianist in the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Second round added.
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

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