Dallas — Thursday night brought a unique moment to the 2019 Cliburn International Junior Piano Competition at Caruth Auditorium, as the competition’s six semifinalists each played a segment of a standard repertoire concerto, with the orchestral part played in a piano arrangement on a second piano.
This segment served, along with the Wednesday sessions in which each of the semifinalist performed a 45-minute recital, to winnow the field of six semifinalists down to the three who will each perform a complete concerto with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and conductor Ruth Reinhardt on Saturday afternoon at the Meyerson Symphony Center. Those selected to move forward were announced just a few minutes after the final notes sounded.
Meanwhile, for audience members, the evening provided an intriguing chance to hear and observer an up-close version of these well-known works for piano and orchestra. These competitors unanimously opted for monuments of the repertoire, packed with well-known grand and familiar moments. Two pianists currently based in the Dallas-Fort Worth region, Russian-born Mikhail Berestnev and Italian Davide Cava, provided the accompaniments on a second piano.
17-year-old American Avery Gagliano (who launched a one-woman revolution in concert attire, wearing undoubtedly comfortable jumpsuits for all four of her competition appearances) launched the evening with the first movement of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, accompanied by Cave. Gagliano, a student at the Curtis Institute, pursued a refined, sometimes understated reading of this longtime audience favorite; her best moments came in the lyrical passages.
Korean YiWon Yang, 17, came onstage immediately after, with a technically well-controlled version of another familiar standard, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, accompanied by Berestnev. Yang and Berestnev didn’t always agree on the tempo (the accompanist in this case certainly should have yielded to the soloist), hindering the forward impetus. Yang, however, proved her ability to project an assertive but attractive tone; even in this smaller concert hall, it was evident that she would be able to hold her own in a full-scale orchestral performance. At the end of the evening, she was advanced to the final round, so she will have the opportunity to do just that Saturday afternoon at Meyerson Symphony Center.
Russian-Armenian Eva Gevorgyan, 15, appeared next, accompanied by Cave in the final 24 variations of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. She entered in media res (as requested by the jury) with the sweeping, broad chords of Variation XIII, and continued with a consistently well-projected journey through the rhythmic complexities and sometimes hidden counterpoint of the work; at the same time, she communicated Rachmaninoff’s breathtaking lyricism, occasional darkness, and sometimes glittering humor. This won her a chance to perform the complete Rhapsody Saturday with the Dallas Symphony in the final round.
15-year-old Chun Lam U of Hong Kong opened the second half of the concert with the surging lyricism of the Allegro first movement of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1, accompanied by Berestnev; together, they produced a convincing momentum in a work that can come across as structurally weak. U showed off a fine, fluid lyricism as well as Chopinesque drama here.
J J Jun Li Bui, a 14-year-old native of Toronto, followed up with a thunderous version of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 1, accompanied by Cave. Dramatic moments abounded, and Bui demonstrated ample volume and velocity in this youthful, exuberant work.
By happenstance, the evening closed with the most challenging item on the agenda, the first movement of the Everest of the piano concerto repertoire, Rachmaninoff’s Third. 16-year-old Australian Shuan Hern Lee, accompanied by Berestnev, took on the monstrous technical challenge with sure command of tempo and volume level—opting, incidentally, for the more difficult of the two cadenza options provided by Rachmaninoff. This particular movement weaves from torrential storm clouds to a uniquely succinct, folk-like lyricism; Lee maneuvered through all, in the process winning the opportunity and challenge of presenting the entire concerto with the Dallas Symphony Saturday afternoon.
» 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.