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FIFTEENTH VAN CLIBURN INTERNATIONAL PIANO COMPETITION

Rachel Cheung in the semifinal concerto round

Cliburn Semifinal Round 9

Reviews of the fifth semifinal session at the Fifteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition: Tony Yike Yang, Yekwon Sunwoo, Han Chen, Rachel Cheung.



published Monday, June 5, 2017

Reviews of the Fifteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, Semifinal Concerto Round, session 9 (7:30 p.m. Monday, June 5). You can see bios and complete repertoire of all pianists here.

For quick links to all our Cliburn reviews, click here.

 

 

TONY YIKE YANG

Canada, 18

 

MOZART Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466

 

Photo: Ralph Lauer/The Cliburn
Tony Yike Yang takes a bow after his semifinal concerto performance

 

Yang was first in this evening’s competition, the last of the semifinal round with pianists playing a Mozart concerto with the Fort Worth Symphony.

Before I get into Ton Yike Yang’s outstanding performance, let me share a genuine surprise. Conductor Nicholas McGegan has always befuddled me. He is a highly respected specialist in the Baroque and classical repertoire, but his conducting technique is a mystery by any standard. In a review of Saturday night’s concerti, I opined that he had mistaken conducting for interpretive dance as he bobs around making huge sweeping motions that are only vaguely related to the music. I continued to disparage his podium antics on Sunday night.

To my amazement, tonight he was a completely different conductor and a wonderful one at that. His motions were precise, in expressive yet standard patterns and he contained most of them within the frame of his body. Occasionally he did a sweep (nowhere nearly as grandiose as before) when it was completely appropriate to the musical moment.

Another bonus was that the FWSO sounded remarkably better, what with him giving intelligent and keenly pointed direction, eschewing extravagant gestures. Precision was on point and phrasing was consistent. Dynamics were communicated in a readable manner. In short, tonight he showed why he’s considered in the ranks of the world’s top conductors.

Back to the pianist. Yang entered very softly and continued to play a dynamically subdued performance, at least when compared to some of the bombast that has filled many of the recitals. This made for excellent Mozart and he forced the orchestra to also drop the dynamic level a degree or two. When they didn’t play a tutti section loudly, it felt slightly out of place in this modest performance.

Yang played everything within the boundaries he set for the performance. No overplaying here, but he did keep the dark overcast skies that hang over this concerto. He set a fast tempo for the last movement, which allowed him to display his technique, but which presented some minor problems for the orchestra. Overall, this was a tasteful and elegant performance.

He played a cadenza by Beethoven for the first and last movement. For the second movement, he played one by the world class pianist and conductor, Mitsuko Uchida—a nice surprise.

 

 

YEKWON SUNWOO

South Korea, 28

 

MOZART Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major, K. 467

 

Photo: Ralph Lauer/The Cliburn
Yekwon Sunwoo in the semifinal concerto round

 

 

This pianist impressed from the very first phrases, which were very clean and stylish. He took the crescendo and decrescendo pairing and used it on as small a unit as a phrase. We expected some remarkable legato on the famous second movement (which hit the top of the charts when used in the film Elvira Madigan). He delivered in this expectation and gave it a limpid performance. It was on the slow side, but he connected it up at that speed. He opened the last movement with something like the affirmation, “Here I stand.” He enjoyed playing for us and had fun with every return of the rondo theme.

It was a fine performance. It was slightly on the precious side, but a delight to hear.

 

 

HAN CHEN

Taiwan, 25

 

MOZART Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major, K. 467

 

Photo: Ralph Lauer/The Cliburn
Han Chen in the semifinal concerto round

 

 

Chen set a quick tempo at the outset but it was still within Mozartian bounds. He played more assertively than the other pianists, and he used more pedal. The standout thing about his performance is that he wrote all the cadenzi that he played. This used to be the common way to play them—improvised on the spot.

Chen’s cadenza for the first movement was a miracle of misdirection. If he starting going one way, he would suddenly turn on a harmonic dime and it would be in another sonic universe. It was marvelously creative but, maybe on the edges, still within the realm of Mozart’s style.

The famous slow movement received a double whammy. Usually, the conductor plays the orchestral statement of the gorgeous theme in a relatively straight manner so that the pianist can shape when the piano enters. McGegan didn’t follow that path. He took all the available rubato with the theme before the pianist even got a shy at it. Chen rose to the occasion and played it in a slightly different manner to put his stamp on it.

He opened the rollicking last movement at quite a clip, leaving McGegan to catch up with him. The movement was quite thrilling at Chen’s speed, but it felt rushed if the purpose was to show us his nimble fingers.  The overall effect of the concerto was one of high spirits, paired with one of the most beautiful melodies in the repertoire.

 

 

RACHEL CHEUNG

Hong Kong, 25

 

MOZART Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466

 

Photo: Ralph Lauer/The Cliburn
Rachel Cheung in the semifinal concerto round

 

 

Rachel Cheung is an audience favorite, evidenced by the huge ovation she received when she walked out on stage. The concertgoers knew what to expect: an immaculately played concerto with great attention to even the smallest detail but without even a hint of over-intellection. The audience was not disappointed. Right from her first entrance, she showed us her ability to layer dynamics and understand Mozart’s style. As the concerto progressed, she showed the architecture of the piece, leading us through the concerto as if it were a tour of a many-roomed residence. As for dynamics, there were some whisper-soft notes and some loud ones that never crossed the line into hammering.

The second movement was beautifully shaped and lovingly played. The third movement flashed by at a very fast pace. Of special note is her interplay with the orchestra, tossing material back and forth. Admittedly, the movement felt a little rushed, but it was just a result of the overall tempo. She didn’t rush it at all. After some impressive passagework and scales that were so fast they sounded like a glissando, she brought the concert to a dramatic big ending—and the audience to its feet. She deserved the many curtain calls they demanded.

 

 

 

 CLIBURN COMPETITION SCHEDULE 

 

See links to all of our reviews that have posted here.

See the schedule of semifinal performances here.

 

 

SEMIFINAL ROUNDS

  • Thursday, June 1: 7:30 p.m. (recital)
  • Friday, June 2: 2:30 (recital) and 7:30 p.m. (recital)
  • Saturday, June 3: 2:30 (recital) and 7:30 p.m. (concerto)
  • Sunday, June 4: 2:30 (recital) and 7:30 p.m. (concerto)
  • Monday, June 5: 2:30 (recital) and 7:30 p.m. (concerto)

 

FINAL ROUNDS

  • Wednesday, June 7: 7:30 p.m.
  • Thursday, June 8: 7:30 p.m.
  • Friday, June 9: 7:30 p.m.
  • Saturday, June 10: 3 p.m.


AWARDS CEREMONY

  • Saturday, June 10: 7 p.m.
 Thanks For Reading




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Cliburn Semifinal Round 9
Reviews of the fifth semifinal session at the Fifteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition: Tony Yike Yang, Yekwon Sunwoo, Han Chen, Rachel Cheung.
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

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