The local chamber music group that I volunteer for (as, among other
things, piano specialist on the artist selection committee) was offered
a deal whereby we could commit in advance to booking the winner of the
2005 Cleveland International Piano Competition at an attractive fee.
We decided to give it a try, and as part of the deal, were offered free
tickets to the competition, should one of us care to attend. This looked
like a swell boondoggle to me; so beginning on August 2 I was back in
my Old Home Town, settling in for a week of piano performances, seven
sessions in six days.
I've never attended a piano competition before, and have always had
reservations about the concept of musical performance as blood sport.
Add to that the undeniable fact that most competition winners -- even
of (or especially of) the Cliburn -- somehow never make it to the A List
of concertizing pianists, and I was rather skeptical of the whole deal.
Cleveland, however, has no such reservations, and is aggressively looking
to position itself as the premiere competition by offering the biggest
cash prizes - $50,000 to the winner -- and trading on the reputation of
the Cleveland Orchestra, which performs with the four finalists in the
concerto round at Severance Hall. All performances were broadcast &
webcast on WCLV.
I came in at the Semifinal Round, held at the Cleveland Playhouse,
not really a music venue, but the acoustics were excellent. A starting
field of 30 (selected from 240 applicants) was cut down to eight after
two preliminary rounds the previous week. Given the winnowing that
had already taken place, the survivors not surprisingly exhibited an
extraordinarily high level of technical skill, and in most cases fine
musicianship as well. And from this point onward there were no dramatic
mishaps: memory lapses, obvious fluffs and the like. Amazing, given the
pressure. The repertoire parameters for the 60 minute semifinal recital
were one romantic piece or group, one French impressionist piece or group
(The score: Debussy 7 - Ravel 1), and a 20th century piece. There was
more variety than one might expect, though there was some inevitable
duplication: two Images II, two Suite Bergamasque, two Prokofiev 7, two
Rachmaninoff 2nd Sonata. Brief notes on each:
Hong Xu (China): Powerful player, but infected with the Lang Lang Syndrome.
Way too much emoting, especially in the Liszt B Minor. His Berg Sonata
was one of the more compelling 20th Century offerings.
Grace Fong (US): Fine Images, somewhat messy Rachmaninoff, especially
the two Moments Musical. An exotic, and quite entertaining, choice for
the contemporary work, Leighton's Six Studies for Piano (which had me
wondering how the jurors evaluate a piece like this which they've almost
certainly never performed and likely never even heard or seen).
Spencer Myer (US): A Cleveland boy and hence a crowd favorite. Won me
over with my favorite program of the semis, Images II, Iberia II and the
Sergey Kuznetsov (Russia): High-powered Russian schooler but not a banger.
Absolutely nailed Gaspard de la Nuit, and provided a compelling Rach
sonata as well.
Andrius Zlabys (Latvia): Also a local favorite (Cleveland Institute of
Music, 4th place in the '03 competition). Unfortunately, th centerpiece
of his program was the Franck Prelude Chorale & Fugue, to me a rather
sludgy & boring piece.
Xiang Zou (China): Most controversial entrant, at least where I was
sitting. In every piece, Suite Bergamasque most especially, he stood
above the rest as the cleanest, most precisely nuanced executant in the
competition (think Weissenberg, or Michelangeli). My former college
roommate, classical music buff and amateur pianist, was with me for all
the concerts and he was most taken with his performance, as was the guy
sitting next to us. I conceded his skill but felt he was practically
a robo-pianist, reeling off the notes without being engaged with the
substance of the music (the Plain Dealer music critic was with me on
this one). I have to admit his other program choices were not helpful
in winning me over, Brahms' long-winded 3rd sonata, and a plop of
Messiaenic birdlime from Catalogue d'oiseaux.
Chu-fang Huang (China): Power to rival Kuznetsov in Rach 2 and Prok 7,
plus finely crafted Debussy preludes. A finalist in the Cliburn, she
was clearly the stronger player of the two women in the semis.
Stanislav Khristenko (Russia): Of the eight, closest to my mental
caricature of the Competition Pianist. Precise, fast and loud; i.e.
a Russian banger (and he looks like a young Vladimir Putin!). I was
particularly put off by his stabby playing in the last movement of
Schubert D958, at odds with what I perceive as its genial, jocular nature.
My friend disagreed, liking his "all-business" approach. However, as
you might expect, he performed a dazzling Prokofiev 2.
Given the high level of performance from everyone, and the hair-raising
difficulty of so much of the repertoire, it beats me how the jurors (all
pianist/pedagogues, chaired by Ian Hobson) make their selections except
by hair splitting and coin tossing. Nevertheless, I was fairly in tune
with the jury. I had three favorites from the semis -- Meyer, Kuznetsov
& Huang -- and all advanced to the finals. Khristenko was the fourth
After two days of semis, we got a day off. The finalists rehearsed
with the orchestra while I played golf and caught the Indians-Yankees
at Jacobs Field. By happy coincidence there was no duplication in the
concertos (selected from a list of warhorses). It was a great treat
to revisit Severance Hall after a very long absence, and the Cleveland,
under Jahja Ling, provided dazzling support to the contestants, as you
might expect, over the two nights. Myer performed Beethoven 4, Kuznetsov
Prokofiev 3, Huang Beethoven 2 and Khristenko Rachmaninoff 3 (what else?).
I had no real complaints about any of the performances, and couldn't
imagine how the jurors go about balancing the balls-out bravura of Prok
& Rach vs. the more subtle requirements of a successful classical
performance of Beethoven. Anyhow, my hardly confident order of finish
had Meyer 1, Kuznetsov 2, Khristenko 3, Huang 4.
So much for my juridical acumen. The jury's decision was Huang
the winner, then Kuznetsov, Khristenko & Meyer. It should be noted
that the final score was cumulative of all four rounds, including the
preliminaries, which I missed. Huang, for instance, won a special Chopin
prize for her performance of the 2nd Sonata in the prelims, which
contributed to her top score. On Sunday afternoon, after the awards
ceremony, each of the finalists gave short recitals, in some cases
including pieces from the early rounds that were to me quite illuminating.
Khristenko gave a wonderful reading of the first movement of the Schumann
C Major Fantasie, which gave the lie to my prior notion that he was a
mere banger. And, if I had any reservations that Huang deserved the
First Prize, they were dispelled with her magnificent performance of La
Valse, a piece I'm very fond of and very picky about, having heard several
lousy performances (too loud, too fast, and excuse me, but isn't this
supposed to be a waltz?) from otherwise talented pianists (among them
Sergey Babayan, a Cleveland winner). So I could happily report back to
Del Valle Fine Arts that we had indeed snagged a first rate artist for
our '06-'07 Season.
I must say the overall experience exceeded my expectations. Talent was
at an amazingly high level. The structure of the Cleveland competition
is excellent, offering a lot of variety with, thankfully, no required
pieces and commissioned new works. I may be back in '07, even if I have
to shell out for tickets next time.
Nevertheless, looking at the laundry lists of competitions that all of
the entrants have slugged their way through in hopes of winning engagements
with small-town recital series like ours, and concerto engagements with
regional orchestras in Bozeman, Montana and Midland, Texas, I can't help
but think there must be a better way for young pianists to forward their
careers. Surely there are too many of these competitions. Why not turn
some of them into "pianofests", invite talented young musicians to
perform, give them free rein in repertoire, and pay them substantially
higher fees than they usually command? If you must have a prizewinner,
award a "Best of Fest" prize via an informal jurying scheme.