Dallas — Saturday evening’s final preliminary session of the Cliburn International Junior Piano Competition at Caruth Auditorium on the campus of Southern Methodist Universtiy proved that at least some competitors—and their teachers—are aware that the 19th century has actually ended.
Granted, repertoire requirements for this round have some built in restrictions—each competitor must perform a Bach Prelude and Fugue and an Etude by Liszt or Chopin—but that leaves a good 10 minutes to squeeze in something from the last 120 years of music history.
And it’s not just out of some historical obligation that should inspire a trip into the 20th and 21st centuries: the two quick shots into musical modernism in the Saturday night session (as in the refreshing detour into Stravinsky by American Benjamin T. Rossen on Friday evening) provided sit-up-and-listen moments that made the two pianists who performed music from that epoch instantly memorable in a sea of 18th-, 19th-, and very early 20th-century works.
16-year-old Australian Shuan Hern Lee tossed out impressive pianistic lightning bolts with a set of three deliciously noisy Etudes from Bartók in his performance and will be remembered for some time by audience members as the guy who played Bartók in the 2019 Cliburn Junior Competition. Granted, these crushingly difficult and, in some spots, explosively dissonant movements are now a century old, but their impact is as shocking—in a good way—as it was when they were first heard in 1918. In this case, the result was particularly effective after Lee’s serenely patient revelation of the Prelude and Fugue in in E-flat minor from Book I of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier and his shimmering, almost impressionistic delivery of the rippling series of parallel thirds in Chopin’s Etude in G-sharp minor (Op. 25, No.6).
The second ear-catching modernist moment of the Saturday night session came at the very end of the evening (and at the closing moment of the Preliminary Round), when Canadian Harmony Zhu, at 13 the youngest competitor in the 2019 Junior Competition, presented American composer Elliott Carter’s Caténaires (“Catnaries”) of 2006, the most recently composed work in this round, and the only sally into the 21st century so far in the competition. Caténaires is so incredibly busy and eventful that the listener may not notice that there are no chords, and no two notes struck at the same time in the entire four-minute-long piece. In other words, it takes near-miraculous brain power to memorize this atonal stream of quick notes. Zhu’s otherwise wide-ranging performance of Rachmaninoff’s Élégie, Chopin’s Etude in C-sharp minor (Op. 10, No. 4), and the Prelude and Fugue in D from Book I of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier presented a promising pianist who needs further development before additional exposure to an international audience; her engaging performance of Caténaires, however, marked her out as a name to remember.
The evening’s session had opened with 17-year-old Ray Ushikubo, representing Japan and the United States, in an almost nervously kinetic performance of J.S. Bach’s Prelude in D-sharp minor from Book I of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, followed by a more serene rendition of the accompanying Fugue. Ushikubo’s high point came with an impressively convincing rendition of Chopin’s familiar Polonaise in A-flat, in which the young pianist handled the notorious octave passage masterfully, smoothly building from a distant rumble to a cyclonic roar. He capped his performance with a smoothly fluid interpretation of Liszt’s Transcendental Etude No. 10 in F minor.
17-year-old American Ishan Loomba, a New Mexico native currently studying with Carol Leone in the pre-college division at SMU, opened his performance with a wonderfully dramatic contrast within the Prelude and Fugue in C-sharp minor from Book II of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, reveling in the lyricism of the Prelude before diving into the lively darkness of the Fugue. The Allegro Finale of Schubert’s Sonata in A (D. 664) allowed Loomba to show off a fine variety of moods, from limpidly melodic to stormy; in Chopin’s Mazurka in C-sharp minor (Op. 63, No. 3), Loomba conveyed the work’s longing mournfulness, with a nicely whispered middle section, before closing with a richly textured, bold rendition of Chopin’s “Black Key” Etude (Op. 10, No. 5).
17-year-old Japanese pianist Miyu Shindo’s program focused on Tchaikovsky’s seldom-heard Variations Theme and Variations in F, an appealing set built around a chorale-like theme with a Russian flavor; Shindo convincingly ranged through the mood shifts and technical demands here, in a work that would be welcome on more recital programs and that also makes a good competition entry. Shindo had opened with an assertive, high-volume (and sometimes heavily pedaled) performance of the Prelude and Fugue in C from Book I of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier; she closed with an edgy version of Liszt’s Etude “La campanella” (“The Little Bell”).
» 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.