Dallas — Sunday afternoon’s opening quarterfinal session of the Cliburn International Piano Competition, at Caruth Auditorium on the campus of Southern Methodist University, took on an even more striking than usual Global Village aspect: there’s just something moving about hearing and seeing three very young men (14 and 15 years old, to be exact), from three inexorably intertwined and often adversarial cultures on the western Pacific Rim (Japan, China, and Taiwan), playing, with often stunning insight, masterpieces of the European repertoire, in a concert hall in the middle of America.
Maybe there’s hope for a world in which things like this can happen.
This particular round, which will include 14 of the original 23 competitors in sessions through Monday evening, requires from each competitor a half-hour recital, including at least one lyric romantic work by Chopin, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, or Brahms, and at least one movement of a classical-era Sonata of Mozart, Haydn, or Beethoven.
Fourteen-year-old Shunta Morimoto of Japan opened the session, strategically introducing his program with one of the two-movement Sonatas of Haydn (Hob. XVI:41 in B-flat)—written at an early moment in the classical era in which the standard three-movement form had not yet become entrenched. Morimoto applied a nearly flawless combination of delicacy, clarity, and assertive technique in the two succinct Allegro movements of the Sonata.
Morimoto plays with a striking free shoulder technique, which enables the power of full-body weight in his performance; this added definite power to his reading of two of the more physically demanding works in the repertoire, Debussy’s L’isle joyeuuse and Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz No. 1. Morimoto particularly revealed a rather amazing—for a 15-year-old—sense of style in the Debussy, with its constantly rising aura of ecstasy. Between the Debussy and the Liszt, he guided a mournful floating melody over the rippling arpeggio lower voice in Chopin’s Nocturne in C-sharp minor (Op. 27, No. 1), applying his pianistic muscle superbly in the left-hand octave cadenza.
Chinese pianist Hao Rao, 15, opted for the first movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 4 in E-flat (Op. 7) for his classical sonata requirement, applying technical precision in the treacherous repeated-note accompaniment pattern. The program also included Chopin’s Nocturne in D-flat (Op. 27, No. 2), Debussy’s Revêrie and Les collines d’Anacapri (“The Hills of Anacapri”); Rao’s finest moments came in the challenging Book II of Brahms’ Variations on a Theme of Paganini where he demonstrated powerful arm weight in Variation 10 and impressive velocity in Variation 11.
14-year-old Hao-Wei Lin opened with the afternoon’s second performance of Chopin’s Nocturne in D-flat (Op. 27, No. 2), finding enticing secrets in the melodic line and, in the ebb-and-flow, producing a glorious recapitulation. In another of Haydn’s early succinct Sonatas (Hob. XVI:32 in B minor), he was attune to both the mystery and humor of Haydn, at times lovingly delicate, and occasionally playfully gruff.
Lin then produced one of the magical moments of the competition so far, with a complete, beautifully unified, hypnotic performance of the 13 short movements of Schumann’s Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood). Daringly, he focused toward an understated vision of these childlike dreams, delivering the beloved Träumerei movement with an arresting molto adagio rubato that held the audience breathless.
American Avery Gagliano, 17, built a program of two large-scale pieces, performing Haydn’s monumental Sonata in E-flat (Hob. XVI:52) in a convincingly dramatic interpretation, with a romantic-era dynamic range. She followed with Chopin’s Andante spianato et Grande Polonaise brillante, one of that composer’s most intriguing—and structurally problematic—works, featuring a nocturne-like prelude and a militaristic polonaise that can slip all-too-easily into a sort of comic opera ta-ra-ra mode. Gagliano smoothed this over neatly with a focus on the energy melodicism of the work, earning an enthusiastic ovation.
» 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.