One of the lesser-known facts about the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition is that they commission a substantial American composer to write a new piece for each event. This piece is required of the competitors in the semi-final round. They don't see it until a couple of months before they the contest. This serves a dual purpose. First, it demonstrates the pianist's ability to learn a completely new piece in a short time period. Secondly, it adds new pieces by American composers to the solo piano repertoire.
On Wednesday, the Van Cliburn Foundation presented seven of the 10 works that had been commissioned between 1969 and 1997, played in chronological order. The pianist for the evening was the silver medal winner of the 13th Cliburn (2009) and, by the way, also the silver medal winner in the XVI Tchaikovsky International Music Competition in Moscow: Korean pianist Yeol Eum Son.
In a recent interview, she explained that her name is really just two names, not three as it appears in writing. Yeol Eum, her given name, is really one word, but it consists of two characters in Korean. She searched a bit to translate Yeol Eum, but settled on "bearing fruit" or maybe "fruitful." Son is her family name.
Fruitful certainly describes her playing. She plays as naturally as an apple tree bears apples. She sits tall at the keyboard and moves her hands very slowly to get into position before she starts. This almost Zen-like movement also occurs during pauses in the music and in a more exaggerated way at the end. The audience sits frozen in silence while she slowly withdraws her hands from the keyboard. Finally, she appears to collapse backwards, and then we know the piece is finished and the spell is broken.
Shields-Collins Bray, a stalwart at Cliburn events, narrated by offering short commentary before the first three selections and then again before the last group. He was also part of the group that chose the pieces that would be on the program. Son didn't have any input. "Buddy [Bray's nickname] knows how I play and my abilities, so I knew he would pick pieces that would be a fit for me," Son said.
Unlike other Cliburn events that are almost exclusively in Fort Worth, this concert was in the Horchow Auditorium in the Dallas Museum of Art. The place was packed, and while this may have been due somewhat to the fact the concert was free, you could tell that the capacity audience knew pianists and piano repertoire. They gave Son a rousing and well-deserved ovation after individual works and again at the end.
Son gave an impressive account of all seven pieces. They were: Dello Joio, "Cappriccio on the Interval of a Second" (1969); Copland, "Night Thoughts" (1973); Barber, "Ballade" (1977); Bernstein, "Touches" (1981); Corigliano, "Fantasia on an Ostinato" (1985); Schuman, "Chester: Variations for Piano" (1989); and Bolcom, "Nine Bagatelles" (1997).
What is most interesting about this list is how few of these works have actually made it into the repertoire. To the best of my knowledge, only the Corigliano is programmed regularly. It was also Son's favorite. "I plan to add the Corigliano to my repertoire," she said. "Maybe the Barber."
She didn't have much time to learn the program since she is playing a lot of concerts these days. "None of them were really hard in a transcendental way, but all are difficult. They all fit in the fingers, which really helps. The Bolcom and the Schuman have lots of fast passages. So they are tricky to learn and risky to play. But, I liked them all."
That is more than I can say. Personally, I was surprised at the mediocrity of the commissioned works. Mind you, we are talking about the mediocrity of the greatest composers, which is still very good. Even the much-lauded Corigliano wears after a while as it continually bangs out its patterns on a single note. The Copland dates from a time near the end of his life when he was feeling old fashioned and that he needed to write in a more dissonant style to keep current. Hearing it, you would never guess who wrote it.
The same situation occurred with the Barber. He was a neo-romantic composer whose works, when he wrote what he really wanted to write like in the Violin Concerto and the operas, reaches sublime levels. Here, like Copland, he is trying to duck the slings and arrows of the modernists who constantly belittled him. While it still sounds like Barber, it is wearing an ill-fitted harmonic suit.
William Schuman, an unjustly ignored composer if there ever was one, took the prize for me with this set of variations on the Revolutionary War marching song "Chester." He used this tune in other works as well. Here, he puts the Chester through it paces in a highly intelligent way. Bernstein's "Touches" is typical of his eclectic style with a grab bag of influences from wild dissonance to jazzy riffs. Bolcom's "Bagatelles" where pleasant to hear but, try as I may, I can't remember much about them now. I have much the same reaction to Dello Joio's piece that opened the program.
Son was simply magnificent. She called the program a "wide collection of musical styles" and that was a perfect description of the concert. She changed her approach with each work to bring out the composer's intentions with clarity. Even though the pieces had much in common, (sudden changes, sectional structures, fast mood shifts, wide leaps) they all sounded completely different in her able hands. She ran the gamut of dynamics from surprisingly forceful to barely audible and the fast parts were delivered with crystalline clarity.
I only regret that we didn't get to hear the other three commissions.
And of course we'll all have to wait until the 14th Cliburn competition in 2013 to hear the next commission, from composer Christopher Theofanidis.