Sep 6th 2013

The Cliburn’s New Keyboard Crop

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

The Van Cliburn International Piano Competition ended with the results many observers had predicted, the gold medal going to a self-assured Vadym Kholodenko, 26, of Ukraine. He delivered a series of impressive performances throughout the 17-day contest, several of which had the audience whooping in appreciation, including me. 

Italian Beatrice Rana, widely tipped to finish in the money, was the choice for silver, and Sean Chen of the United States won the third-place crystal prize. All three said they planned no further competition activity.

The Cliburn is one of the world’s richest piano competitions, awarding more than $200,000 in prize money including an array of individual bequests. Kholodenko’s gold is worth $50,000 and second and third finishers win $20,000 each. Various concert tours and recording contracts are also part of the winnings. 

The other three finalists -- Nikita Mndoyants (Russia), Tomoki Sakata (Japan) and Fei-Fei Dong (China) -- each took home $10,000.

I was among the half-million Cliburn fans and critics around the world who followed the Competition on the internet webcasts, easily accessed “on demand” from odd time zones such as mine in France until it broke down the last day. 

This year’s Cliburn offered standard competition fare yet in other ways it marked a departure from the past. Founding pianist Van Cliburn, long a mere observer on the margins of the event, died just three months before the opening, in effect depriving the event of its patron saint. And a new president and CEO, Jacques Marquis of Montreal, had been appointed on the eve of the Competition, altering top management influence on the proceedings.

Requirements also changed at the Cliburn this year. Each participant was obliged to perform two 45-minute solo recitals in the preliminary round, then the field of 30 was reduced to 12 for the semifinals in which a 60-minute solo recital was required as well as a piano quintet with the Brentano String Quartet. The final six survivors played two concerti, one classical and one romantic or modern, both from memory – all tolled, a huge feat for such young artists and well beyond some professionals. 

There is general agreement in the world of piano competitions that jurors are impressed by virtuoso turns more than by depth of interpretation. But a backlash is settling in against the “louder and faster” young players.  Marquis has said publicly that he wants to rethink required repertoire for future Cliburns. There is some support for a move toward subtler repertoire – away from Lisztian pyrotechnics and toward the deeper Schubert. Other competitions would be wise to take note.

Juror's Ethics

The success of this edition was far from guaranteed. Management turmoil and multiple resignations had rocked the institution in the months prior to opening, and auditions of 132 applicants were marred by overloading the field with students of jurists Yoheved (Veda) Kaplinsky and Arie Vardi, both Israelis and close collaborators. Eight of the 30 came from their stable. Marquis told me in a pre-Competition interview that Mme. Kaplinsky and other jurors would be blocked from voting on their students’ and ex-students’ performances. Actual jury procedures were carried out behind closed doors, however, and competitions are notorious for private vote-trading.

The Competition blog was peppered with challenges to the jury’s integrity – and with emotional defenses in response.

One blogger wrote on Facebook, “And the Cliburn jurors continue to outdo themselves. Corruption, fraud, politics – these are the words that come to mind. A sad day for piano and competitions around the world.” Another had more basic complaints: “We always see the same names on the Cliburn jury and it's just getting stale, much like the competitors' playing.”

One example stands out. Silver medalist Rana has studied in master classes with Michel Beroff, Andrea Bonatta, and Mme. Kaplinsky, all of whom were on the jury. She won the 2011 Montreal International Musical Competition while Marquis was director, and her parents are family friends of Marquis. Marquis roamed the premises in a black T-shirt and tailored sport coat, looking very much the fresh face of the new Cliburn.  But he openly socialized with the Rana family, raising eyebrows among those who noticed.

Safety First?

As in most piano competitions, the Cliburn jury suppresses much of the originality competitors might try to inject in their interpretations. Prizes tend to go to safe performers who stick to the score, rigorously observe tempos and play note-perfectly.

Kholodenko clinched his victory with all the above but he also managed to shape a sparkling and carefully colored Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 3 in the final round. It was perhaps his good fortune that the five previous concerto performances had been on the mediocre side. One critic wrote after Kholodenko’s confident interpretation was that he “sounded like the guy to beat”. And he was. 

One Italian semifinalist, Alessandro Deljavan, who carried off a Jury Discretionary Award worth $4,000, appeared to have lost his chance for a place in the finals despite one of the best piano quintet performances of the event. It was a cultural contrast for all to see. As in his other performances, he exuded an Italian joy and passion that many other competitors lacked. His remarkable Dvorak Piano Quintet in A with the Brentano ensemble was played with heart and polish despite minimal rehearsal time. His keyboard enthusiasm drew roars of approval from the audience but apparently not from the more conservative jury.

 

Prickly Management

Although comfortable financially (unlike most competitions), the Cliburn has traditionally demonstrated a provincial prickliness when criticized from outside. Based in Ft. Worth, Texas, home of the late founder, it has never risen to its potential as a mature institution despite 50 years of experience. Criticism of its management or its performances is openly resented.

The most prominent critic, Scott Cantrell of the Dallas Morning News, respected for his even-handed assessments, found himself the object of a “hostile” on-camera interview, he said, intended for an in-house documentary on the competition. Cantrell wrote in his blog that he felt ambushed by the aggressive descriptions of his critiques, and walked out of the interview. He forbade the producers from using the footage but later discovered he was being clandestinely videoed from a distance. His complaints elicited a private apology from CEO Marquis.


Telephone Teaching

If there were a prize for the longest-distance tutoring it would go to Maestro William Naboré of Rome, dubbed the Yoda of the piano world for his long record of Cliburn participation and winning players. This year, one of the five competitors from his International Piano Academy Lake Como, Italy, Tomoki Sakata, was a finalist. Most of his notices were glowing. “His Schumann Quintet sounded like Schumann, and that’s a high compliment,” wrote critic Cantrell.  Naboré had been present for the bulk of the Competition but returned to Italy before Sakata’s final was scheduled. In desperation, they spent two hours and 30 minutes on the telephone, Naboré guiding Sakata note by note through the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1, the same composition that launched Cliburn’s career in Moscow in 1958.

The future of the Cliburn is now in the hands of Marquis, and “The eyes of the world are on us,” Marquis told me in a pre-competition interview. He has promised to rethink “all variables”. If these include repertoire, jury ethics and the selection process, the Competition will flourish.

© Clavier Companion, 2013. Used with permission. www.claviercompanion.com 

 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Music Reviews

Aug 6th 2020
EXTRACT: "For 60 minutes, my mind was clear, the air was clean and the sound heavenly. It was my honor and privilege to have been there."
Jul 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "Scarlatti sonatas are enjoying a popular surge in recent years, tempting pianists –Europeans, Americans, Asians -- to try to master their broad range. Margherita has some advice: “Don’t be afraid to slow down, to speed up, to play the truly singable melodies with a quasi-Romantic feeling.” "
Jul 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "The dizzying output of John Cage the musician, the poet, the writer, the thinker, the artist, was so prolific that one of his sidelines – his interests in wild mushrooms -- has been almost overlooked. A new a two-volume set of books, beautifully designed by Capucine Labarthe, packaged in an elegant slipcover, seeks to fill this gap."
Jul 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "In our chat by telephone, Paley spoke from his Paris apartment and asserted his belief that Rameau was “the greatest French composer ever. Pure genius and very special colors.” He acknowledges his extensive research into the period of Rameau’s life (1683-1764) in order to recreate the spirit of the time."
Jul 8th 2020
EXTRACT: "In A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and subsequent films, Morricone opted for an unprecedented fusion of archaic-sounding lines in the melody, reminiscent of medieval modal music. He intermixed this sound with contemporary pop touches (the Fender electric guitar), wordless choirs, unusual instruments (Jew’s harp, ocarinas, mariachi trumpets…) and ambient sounds (whip cracks, whistles, gunshot, coyote’s howls). He also infused scores with his trademark humour. This can be heard in the comedy western Il Mio Nome è Nessuno (My Name is Nobody, Tonino Valerii, 1973) where a toy trumpet toots bits of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries."
Jul 1st 2020
EXTRACT: "Question: Are you collaborating with living composers? Answer: Yes, Scott Wollschleger sends me unfinished new works every month. Keeril Makan is working on a piano concerto. Melaine Dalibert has dedicated several recent works to me. There are more names on the horizon. But these are the three where I feel I can have a big impact on their careers, and all three write music that I feel born to play. That combination of things is important to me."
Jun 1st 2020
EXTRACT: "Question: How do you see your musical mission today? Answer: My real passion in music is to resist popularity rankings and market forces. In my view, these currents impoverish our cultural richness........."
May 1st 2020
EXTRACT: Alessandro Deljavan: "I bought a former convent 40 kilometers from Pescara, in Villamagna. It's very important for me to breathe clean air and live as simply as possible. Life in a giant city full of cars and smog is hard for me to imagine. My perspective is always to live fully. My aspirations for the best musical experiences guides my decisions and over the past several years I have had the pleasure of meeting and working with some wonderful musicians—these experiences have brought me a sense of optimism for what might lie ahead.”
Apr 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Federico Mompou, the reclusive Catalonian composer whose calm, spare piano writing is currently enjoying a rebirth, might well look askance at any effort to pull him forward into modern mode. Such was never his genre but that’s precisely what one of his ardent admirers, pianist Maria Canyigueral, proposed to do. The result is her intriguing new CD, Avant-guarding Mompou."
Mar 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "In our interview, Prof. Réach says he cautions his students in Barcelona to approach the Variations with care, warning them “the path will be long and will require great patience”. He has personally overcome his fear of this “masterpiece of masterpieces”, having recorded them three times and performed them in about 15 countries a total of about 150 times."
Mar 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "The 88-key piano looks headed for a major transformation in the coming decades. The mechanism under the lid is based on a 130-year-old design and many specialists believe it is time to dispense with those delicate moving parts.  As innovative Australian piano builder Wayne Stuart says, “The piano has been crying out for a rethink for over a hundred years.” "
Mar 8th 2020
EXTRACT: "Question: You have a Paris background. What do you bring to Granados to ensure Spanish flavor? Delicacy? Momentum? Singing and dancing undertones? Rubato?........Answer: First, I am profoundly European........."
Feb 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "Question: You have said that you are plagued by doubts. Is this true?.........Answer: Of course I am plagued by doubts. This is part of the artist’s life. But I continue to work and perform. I have moments of depression but I try to transform these doubts into positives. Many artists have these doubts. Some don’t talk about it. But doubt is always there."
Jan 26th 2020
EXTRACT: "QUESTION: Wouldn’t young composers of today benefit from aligning themselves with a philosophical ethos in order to find their musical voice -- as opposed to trying merely to find their own voice by drawing on imagination or personal experience?.......... ANSWER: It’s an interesting question, but open to interpretation. My impulse is to answer yes. When young I did a tremendous amount of reading in the history of aesthetics, and as a result my sense of artist -- ethos, necessity, whatever -- is not limited to post-WWII influences. One result is that I’ve never had any patience for the late-20th-century idea that art is about “personal expression.” The ancient and more enduring view is that the artist expresses what is out there to be expressed. As T.S. Eliot admirably wrote, art is an escape from personality, not an expression of it. Likewise I’ve never warmed to the idea of “finding one’s voice,” which sounds to me too much like creating an instantly recognizable trademark style that will make your music easier to market commercially."
Jan 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "It has been a long journey I enjoy re-living as I take note this year of the great Ludwig van Beethoven’s 250th birthday. As a practicing music critic and journalist from American corn country, I call myself a hick hack but I experience meltdown at almost everything the great man wrote. How can one not love Beethoven?"
Jan 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "Judith Juaregui, based in Madrid but peripatetic in her concertizing around Europe, is gaining an international audience of admirers, boosted by the brilliant pianistic colors of her Debussy, Liszt, Falla, Chopin and Mompou in her fifth CD, “Pour le Tombeau de Claude Debussy”, just out. This album was recorded at a recital in Vienna last year, her first foray into live recording, and she is  rather pleased with the result, which, she says in our interview (below), captured a “moment of honesty”. She left everything in, including the vigorous applause from the audience."
Dec 11th 2019
EXTRACTS: "The young tousle-haired pianist from the distant Minnesota, Reed Tetzloff, is building a performance career in the U.S. and Europe by steering a course through rare repertoire that is both challenging and attractive for the listener........In our email question-and-answer discussion he explains his priorities as a musician and his attraction to a wide range of repertoire."
Dec 9th 2019
Extract: "Then the house lights came up and the rest of us rushed out, relieved that it was all over."
Nov 15th 2019
Extract: "Question: Mompou was modest, yet one of his famous comments is similar to Handel’s remark that he was writing down what God dictated. Mompou said he did not think up music, he simply transmitted it. Answer: The Mompou’s idea about God was interesting. God was a great force that also could destroy his own creation, like a child who in a moment of joy treads on an ant without noticing. Mompou explained that, in his case, the music was not coming from inside to outside, but the opposite way, from outside to the inside, with him being the intermediary of this flow, as a kind of medium. Mompou felt embarrassed to be called on stage after a performance of his music. He was convinced that if the work was really good, it was not entirely created by himself. 
Oct 27th 2019
Composer Kyle Gann’s new book ‘The Arithmetic of Listening’ analyzes microtonality and makes a plea for the music fraternity to open its ears to the new directions possible. After 22 years of teaching at Bard College in the eastern United States, Gann has become a guru or godfather of new music, and continues to produce captivating compositions, as in his new two-CD album ‘Hyperchromatica’. His latest book analyzes and explains tuning theory. In this interview he asserts that new music that gets the attention of publishers and producers today is mostly “derivative crap”. The golden age of “downtown” music from 1960 to 2000 assembled “a bunch of escapees from the twin hells of academia and corporate commercialism”.