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Cliburn Semis: Judges Score Almost 100%


by Olin Chism 27 May 2009

Well, it’s time for the traditional what-on-earth-could-they-have-been-thinking-of postmortem on the judges’ selection of the 12 semifinalists in the Van Cliburn Competition. I’ve been to many Cliburns and there has never yet been one in which there weren’t expressions of indignation, or in many cases outrage, at judges’ decisions. Actually, I think the choices this time […]

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Well, it’s time for the traditional what-on-earth-could-they-have-been-thinking-of postmortem on the judges’ selection of the 12 semifinalists in the Van Cliburn Competition. I’ve been to many Cliburns and there has never yet been one in which there weren’t expressions of indignation, or in many cases outrage, at judges’ decisions.

Actually, I think the choices this time were pretty close to right-on, a point demonstrated by the fact that Matt Erikson, who blogs for WRR, and I were the co-winners of the press-room pool, each correctly predicting nine out of the 12 semifinalists.

So who were the three pianists who, if there were any justice in this world, would have advanced but were unaccountably overlooked by the jury? Ning Zhou, Zhang Zuo and Natacha Kudritskaya.

I was particularly saddened (but not shocked — never be shocked at a Cliburn decision) by the elimination of Zhou, a highly musical person who played three works with great consistency, the interest never flagging. The fact that two of them were by Liszt, and still were riveting, points to his skill and artistry.

Well, he’s young (21) and has two more chances at the Cliburn before he passes the age limit. There are cases (think Olga Kern) of pianists who finish back in the pack in one Cliburn and come back to triumph in a later one. In the meantime, if he gives another recital in these parts, I’ll be there.

Zuo, another Chinese, and Kudritskaya of Ukraine also were strong and consistent. Zuo’s Haydn sonata and Liszt B minor sonata, and Kudritskaya’s Chopin Funeral March sonata and Ravel Gaspard da la nuit linger in memory.

So what three names would I remove from the list in correcting the judges’ oversight? That’s a tough one. Michail Lifits, Alessandro Deljavan and Andrea Lam weren’t on my list, but thinking back, and reviewing my reviews, I see that I gave Lifits and Lam high marks with no negatives, and was charmed by Deljavan’s Haydn but a little disappointed in his Liszt B minor.

So maybe instead of holding at 12 we should expand the list to 15. … OK, I know, I know. It’s already a marathon, and the Takács Quartet might balk at (or charge a lot more for) playing 15 piano quintets.

So it looks like we’ll have to go with the judges’ list.

Overall, the level of playing throughout the preliminaries was high, with no one crashing-and-burning even though one might disagree with  the musical outlook of certain players. The level is not surprising, given that these were the cream of the crop, supposedly the best of the 151 who played for the judges in precontest auditions.

It’s a little surprising that there are no Americans and only one Russian in the semifinals. The Russians have dominated the Cliburn in the past.

It’s not surprising that the Asians are a growing factor; the interest in Western classical music seems to be enormous and increasing in that part of the world. It seems to me that there is growing artistic maturity among their musicians, certainly as evidenced in this Cliburn field. It’s noteworthy that three pianists, Zhou, Feng Zhang of China and the semifinalist Nobuyuki Tsujii of Japan, received all their training in Asia.

If there are no Americans, American music schools are represented. Two of the semifinalists (Ran Dank and Di Wu) have received training at Juilliard, and three (Kyu Yeon Kim, Wu and Haochen Zhang) have attended Curtis. Lam has attended Yale and Manhattan.

The German school is represented by two semifinalists. Michail Lifits was born in Uzbekistan but he’s a German citizen and has received his musical training in Germany. Evgeni Bozhanov is a Bulgarian, but he’s received his professional training in Germany. Also, Yeol Eum Son has been studying in Germany since 2006.

As usual, the Italians have done well, with Deljavan and Mariangela Vacatello both passing into the semifinals.

I have no predictions for the remainder of the competition. There still are 12 one-hour solo recitals and 12 piano quintets to go before the finals, and then 12 concertos and six more 50-minute recitals to go before it’s over, and a lot can happen (or mishappen).

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