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Some Final Thoughts on the Cliburn Results


by Olin Chism 8 Jun 2009

Now that the excitement has more or less died down, and there’s been time enough for a good night’s sleep, it’s time to calmly discuss the results of the 13th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. First off, I’m satisfied with the results. I almost have to be, since I won the pressroom pool by correctly […]

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Now that the excitement has more or less died down, and there’s been time enough for a good night’s sleep, it’s time to calmly discuss the results of the 13th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

First off, I’m satisfied with the results. I almost have to be, since I won the pressroom pool by correctly predicting that Nobuyuki Tsujii, Haochen Zhang and Yeol Eum Son would be the top three finishers. However, I got the order wrong; I thought that Son would get the gold.

They’re very close together, and I see no point in quibbling about minute differences. It’s all very subjective anyway.

What did they have? Each one of the three touched me emotionally with their musical art, a vital point. Each is capable of handling any technical challenge. And each was consistent in all phases of the competition.

My only slight disappointments were in Tsujii’s semifinal recital, where he didn’t quite reach the depths lurking in Beethoven’s great Hammerklavier Sonata, and in Son’s finals account of Beethoven’s Opus 111, where I felt the same. Still, both played challenging pieces very well.

Zhang and Son seem thoroughly professional. Both seem highly self-confident; I don’t think either of them understands the concept “stage fright.” I suspect that they and Tsujii will have successful careers.

There has been some griping about the fact that no third-place crystal award was given. If I read the jurors’ handbook correctly, that decision was out of the jurors’ hands. Here is the pertinent paragraph:

“At least one gold medal must be awarded. Thereafter, any combination of gold and silver medals may be awarded up to a total of three medals. A single crystal award will only be awarded in the event that only one gold medal and only one silver medal are also awarded.”

So Tsujii’s and Zhang’s two golds and Son’s one silver eliminated the crystal.

One shouldn’t feel too sorry for the other three finalists. Each gets $10,000, but more importantly three seasons of concert engagements and career management by the Cliburn Foundation — which is worth a lot more.

The competition very sensibly does not rank the bottom half of the finalist pool. Only a naive person would believe that there’s much difference between, say, a fourth-place and fifth- or sixth-place pianist. And studies of competition results down through the decades have consistently shown that finishing a few places down in a competition has no negative impact on a pianist’s career.

At various times during the competition I felt that Evgeni Bozhanov, Mariangela Vacatello and Di Wu had a good shot at the gold. Each gave exciting performances. If I had been forced to try to predict the gold medalist at the end of the preliminaries and before the semifinals and finals had been played, I would probably have chosen Di Wu. Bozhanov’s wonderful performance of Schubert’s great B-flat sonata, D. 960, still lingers in my memory. Vacatello’s Three Movements from Petrouchka by Stravinsky and Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto were highlights of her appearances.

It should be mentioned that Vacatello was the winner of the Internet vote, a result I neglected to mention in my awards report.

Some of the people I liked very much dropped by the wayside. This includes Ning Zhou of China, who seemed polished, musically sophisticated and unflappable, and Michail Lifits of Germany, another sophisticated lyrical artist. I hope I get to hear them again sometime.

Finally, my thanks to all of the competitors who played Haydn sonatas. This was a year for Haydn, a composer not generally associated with piano competitions. His music provided many pleasurable breaks from routine.

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