Dallas — The Third Annual Dallas International Piano Competition, hosted by the Dallas Chamber Symphony, came to a close on Saturday with the five finalists each playing a concerto.
Unfortunately, they were stuck playing it with a second piano, caused by the bizarre absence of the DCS itself. All five rose to the challenge, as did the heroic collaborative pianists who played the difficult orchestral reductions—but this is not the way to run a competition that aspires to relevance.
The competition is produced in partnership with Southern Methodist University’s Meadows School of the Arts, and is held at SMU’s Caruth Auditorium. To read my thoughts about the semifinal round on Friday, go here.
The winner of the First Prize, which comes with $1,500 and an engagement to play with the DCS next season, was Saetbyeol Serena Kim of South Korea, who performed Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Ever since Van Cliburn won the Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in Moscow in 1958, this concerto has been a regular on the competition circuit.
To my taste, she used way too much sustaining pedal. With her clean technique, there was no need to blur the virtuoso passages. She also overplayed many of the sections, such as the opening, which is only marked forte in the score. While she delivered a fine performance, she had little new to say about the piece.
My choice for the first took Second Prize. Kristhyan Benitez (Venezuela) will take home $1,000 for his performance of Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor. When seeing this concerto on the program, it was impossible not to groan. It has fallen out of favor on the concert circuit and is considered a first major concerto for young aspiring pianists. However, all that hesitation vanished when Benitez landed the first chords. From that moment on, he delivered an amazingly musical version that made the work sound new and fresh to these jaded ears.
It reminded of all of the great pianists of the past who made this concerto a signature piece, such as Arthur Rubenstein and Van Cliburn. Further, by his use of speeded up tempi and pell-mell accelerando passages, this concerto no longer sounded like it was even close to easy. But the most impressive part of his performance was that he took daring risks all the way through. He eschewed any hint of caution and threw himself headlong into the piece. Was it note perfect? Of course not. How could it be with his voracious attack. But he kept me on the edge of my seat from beginning to end and that is what it is all about.
Anna Arazi (Israel) took Third Prize with her performance of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in D-Flat Major. She did a fine job and played with force and technical brilliance. In my opinion, it was a toss-up between her and honorable mention non-winner Nathan Ryland’s (United States) dazzling performance of Prokofiev’s flashier Concerto No. 3. The other honorable mention was Inyoung Kim (South Korea), who delivered a sensitive but unremarkable performance of Saint-Saëns' Piano Concerto No. 2.
If the DCS wants to sponsor a competition, there is little reason to even attempt to compete with the granddaddy of them all, the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth. But if they do, an orchestra for the final round is absolutely required and interrupting the pianists in the preliminary rounds should stop.
But why be a me-too? Instead, how about a competition on a rotating basis, for those orchestral instruments that lack them?