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Sour Note on the Cliburn


by Jerome Weeks 11 Jun 2009

The one thoroughly negative review from a major outlet about the results of the latest Van Cliburn competition came from Benjamin Ivry in the Wall Street Journal. He basically doubted the sanity and the judgment of the Cliburn jury for picking “Nobuyuki Tsujii, a student-level Japanese performer plainly out of his depth in the most […]

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sour-note2The one thoroughly negative review from a major outlet about the results of the latest Van Cliburn competition came from Benjamin Ivry in the Wall Street Journal. He basically doubted the sanity and the judgment of the Cliburn jury for picking “Nobuyuki Tsujii, a student-level Japanese performer plainly out of his depth in the most demanding repertoire, and Haochen Zhang, a clearly talented but unfinished musician who just turned 19. Second prize went to Yeol Eum Son, a bland South Korean pianist, and no third prize was awarded.”

He didn’t stop there. He thought the Fort Worth Symphony’s playing was “dispiriting” and “mediocre.” And he wonders why the East Texas Symphony under Per Brevig or Jaap van Zweden and the DSO couldn’t do the honors next time, considering how “rough” the FWSO was. Right, that little scheduling and budget change could happen quite easily.

At any rate, late yesterday, classical music critic Scott Cantrell fired back on the DMN arts blog. It’s not simply a disagreement about taste — in fact, Cantrell indicates he also had his reservations about Tsuji. But Ivry gets a number of facts wrong, and most importantly, Cantrell notes something I’d wondered about, too: Ivry seems to have come to his conclusions based entirely on the video/web feed. He begins by discussing www.cliburn.tv and never really indicates whether he was in Fort Worth or not.

Oh, and whether we like his playing at the Cliburn or not, Tsuji was the first Asian and the first blind pianist to win. Accordingly, his recordings in Japan have shot up the charts.

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  • Michael

    I’m not as trained as you folks are, but I shared Mr. Ivry’s concerns.

    Also, how is it that you can claim that Mr. Tsuji was the “first” Asian to win when there were TWO Asians who took home first place?

    Finally, when you, I, and everyone else starts writing: “Nobuyuki Tsujii performed in East Overshoe, ND today.”

    Instead of “The Blind Japanese pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii….” Then, and only then, can his win be deemed anything BUT a circus act.

    • You’re right about the ‘first Asian,’ not because there were two but because actually, Zhang was announced first. I’d forgotten that.

      As for your “circus act” comment: Because he was wounded during World War I and received drastic field-hospital treatment, Paul Wittgenstein lost his right arm. He’d begun a celebrated concert career before the war, so now he determinedly re-created himself as a one-armed pianist. In the process, he significantly expanded the modern repertoire, commissioning works by Ravel, Britten, Prokofiev and Hindemith, in addition to arranging classic keyboard pieces by Bach, Chopin and Brahms.

      I’m not placing Tsujii on that level — I have no dog in that fight, having not heard him in Fort Worth. I’m only noting that, one, Wittgenstein is still often identified today as “the famous one-armed pianist,” indicating the use of such nomenclature is often just a matter of short-hand reference, and, two, “circus acts” can be stellar artists.

      • I was in the press room between performances nearly every day of the competition, and there was no one wearing credentials with Ivry’s name. There were a bunch of folks that appeared only for the finals and did not necessarily sport their badges regularly, so maybe it’s possible that he was in the hall. But I never met the guy. And I don’t remember ever seeing the WSJ on the constantly-updated list of press that was there.

        That said, I was disappointed with the final round. A couple of the finalists were questionable in my book to begin with, and then every single one of them played at a less-than-stellar level for at least one performance of the final round. Who knows if things would have been different with a couple of the finalists changed out for other competitors? Zhang may still have been given the gold, but that’s impossible to know. For a field of 29 that seemed so strong at the beginning, I felt the finalist group was surprisingly lackluster and almost depressing. The jury is required to award a gold medal, but I don’t know if I would have been inclined to do so were it not a requirement stated in the rules of the competition. But given the performances we had, I’d probably agree with Zhang (but not Tsujii). The 2009 awards will be controversial for years to come, I think.

        Lastly, the FWSO has improved noticeably over the last decade and it’s not just any orchestra who would agree to this almost-impossible task. They don’t even know what they will be playing until two days before the finals start. That’s crazy! We are lucky to have them as willing participants, as opposed to some pick-up band.

  • Rawlins Gilliland

    The only place that snobbery and bitter back biting can top the fashion world is that of the classical. But it never seems to be enough to quibble in the ‘art world’; it has to be a pit bull dog fight with ‘take no prisoners’ religious-righteous crusades. I grew up and was raised in that world (my Korea) and later spent two decades in the fashion world (my Vietnam). Does that make me eligible for workman’s comp?