Dallas — After a week of preliminary, quarterfinal, and semifinal performances on the campus of Southern Methodist University, the 2019 Cliburn International Junior Piano Competition moved to Meyerson Symphony Center Saturday afternoon for the final round. Three of the original 23 pianists from around the world made the final cut, in which each performed a complete concerto with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and conductor Ruth Reinhardt. Fifteen-year-old Russian-Armenian Eva Gevorgyan, 16-year-old Australian Shuan Hern Lee, and Korean JiWon Yang, 17, had each chosen a major and familiar work, thus setting themselves up not only for comparison with each other, but with those great performances from the past which all jurors and most audience members have stored mentally.
Gevorgyan, who earned second place in the final rankings (announced shortly after the afternoon’s performances) chose Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on Theme of Paganini for her final bid for the top prize. This work offers the advantage for the young competitor of Rachmaninoff’s richly voiced piano writing as well as the succinct structure characteristic of that composer’s late style period; at about 22 minutes in length, it can be more efficiently rehearsed in the very short rehearsal allotted with orchestra and the short run-up time between the announcement of the finalists and the performance. It offers the particular challenge, however, of uniquely complex rhythmic relationships between soloist and orchestra.
In her performance, Gevorgyan continued to show off the beautiful tone quality and melodic sensitivity she had displayed in the previous rounds, and successfully found and exploited the work’s forward momentum. Gevorgyan will surely continue to learn how to project that beautiful tone above an orchestra, and, indeed, seemed to accomplish that particular skill as the work progressed; the piano tended to disappear into the orchestral texture early on, but balance improved as the work progressed.
Lee followed with a work often regarded as the most difficult item in the piano concerto repertoire, Rachmaninoff’s Third. As in his Thursday night performance of the first movement with second piano, Lee traveled through the mood swings of that segment with emotional command and vigorous sweep in the notoriously difficult cadenza. In the central Adagio, he washed over the mournful orchestral introduction with a deluge of notes; In the relentless Finale, he showed remarkable stamina and the knack for maximizing the thrilling final moments Rachmaninoff built into the piece. Lee, who ultimately took the top prize, is well on the way to accomplishing the emotional and artistic depth this piece ultimately demands.
Although Korean Yang placed behind Lee and Gevorgyan in the final rankings, she demonstrated, in Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, the most sure technical demand of the three, and the most obvious ability to blend with and project over the orchestra; this was particularly evident in the magic she created in the Andantino middle movement with conductor Reinhardt. Her velocity and ability to efficiently create pianist power and volume blossomed in the several notorious octave passages; like Lee, she has the key to unlocking audience emotion in the final moments.
The Cliburn Foundation’s second quadrennial junior competition ran with the typical efficiency of that organization’s events; the competition produced, even in the early rounds, a broad view of teenaged musical talent from around the world, and even occasional glimpses of what can cautiously be described as musical genius. In its first foray into Dallas in its 57-year history, the Cliburn produced an event in which the musical element far overshadowed the competitive facet.
» Follow our coverage of the 2019 Cliburn International Junior Piano Competition in our special section, here.