Dallas — From where this listener sat Friday night at Caruth Auditorium on the Southern Methodist University campus, one contender clearly broke out of the pack in the second session of the preliminary round of the Cliburn International Junior Piano Competition.
Within the tight boundaries of a 20-minute performance, 16-year-old Benjamin T. Rossen of Great Neck, New York, demonstrated impeccable technique perfectly honed to the service of a wide-ranging musical intellect. Stravinsky’s Serenade for piano—an all-too-infrequently-heard landmark of 20th-century music—combined, in Rossen’s performance, Stravinsky’s masterful blend of musical energy and coolly dispassionate neo-classicism. Rossen followed up with the Prelude and Fugue in E from Book II of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, applying an efficiently controlled warmth to the Prelude (with light added ornamentation in the repeat of the first section) and bringing sonorous momentum to the Fugue (intriguingly notated by Bach in an odd 4/2 meter, suggesting organ-like resonance).
Rossen then closed the brief program by landing squarely between Stravinsky and Bach with the “Eroica” Etude from Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes, playing up, with aplomb, the joyful militarism and the picturesque implied spatial elements in the score, with its suggesting of distant trumpets and marching rhythms.
Two of the other five competitors in the evening session also presented performances likely to move them forward into the quarter-final round, which begins Sunday. American Avery Gagliano, a 17-year-old from Washington, D.C., currently studies at the Curtis Institute with Gary Graffman and Jonathan Biss; she opened the Friday night session with beautifully delineated voices and a sense of the ongoing tension and lyricism in the Prelude and Fugue in G-sharp minor from Book II of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. Gagliano then lightly floated through the scale passages of Liszt’s Etude “La leggierezza” (“Lightness”), before closing with a musically mature performance of Schumann’s Variations on the Name “Abegg.” Here, she neatly managed the work’s almost sentimental sweep, while successfully finding the forward motion in this catalogue of early romantic piano technique.
Immediately following Gagliano, Chinese pianist Xiaoxuan Li, 17, also displayed an impressive level of musical maturity, as well as a powerfully flexible upper-body physicality in his playing. A highlight of his performance arrived when he created a palpable sense of wonder at the intriguingly ambiguous cadence at the end of the Prelude from the Prelude and Fugue in G minor from Book I of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier; this led, in Xiaoxuan’s performance, to the exuberant physicality of the ensuing Fugue, with its ear-catching, leaping theme. An aggressively passionate reading of Liszt’s Transcendental Etude No. 10 in F minor followed; Xiaoxuan closed convincingly with a momentous reading of Chopin’s intriguingly layered Barcarolle.
Among the other performers in the evening’s session, Boao Zhang, a 15-year-old from China, offered an arrestingly dramatic take on the Prelude and Fugue in C from Book II of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, contrasted with an impressively feather-light, controlled performance of Chopin’s Etude in A minor (Op. 10, No. 2). Zhang closed with a somewhat understated version of the same composer’s Polonaise-Fantasie in A-flat.
Sarah Tuan, a 15-year-old from San Jose, California, delivered straight-forward renditions of the Prelude and Fugue in D from Book I of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Chopin’s Etude in C-sharp minor from Opus 25 (with impressively clean parallel thirds), and Chopin’s Fantaisie in F minor.
Seventeen-year-old YiWon Yang from Korea won one of the loudest ovations of the evening with a gorgeously appealing rendition of Saint-Saëns’ delightfully glitzy Etude in forme de valse; her impressive technique and natural bravura would have shown to greater advantage in a program less burdened with overly familiar works, which included, in this case, Chopin’s Polonaise in A-flat and the same composer’s “Revolutionary” Etude. Yang had opened her program, the final performance of the evening, with the Prelude and Fugue in C-sharp minor from Book I of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier.
» You can watch a live stream of the competition at Cliburn.org.
» Follow our coverage of the 2019 Cliburn International Junior Piano Competition in our special section, here.