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CLASSICAL  August 2009

CLASSICAL August 2009

Subject:

Cleveland Piano Competition 2009

From:

Art Scott <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Wed, 12 Aug 2009 11:12:34 -0700

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Some of you may have read my reports from the two previous Cleveland
Competitions.  I volunteer for a chamber/recital presenter, Del Valle
Fine Arts, as piano guru among other things.  We have an arrangement
with the competition to hire the winner, hence we can get free tickets,
and so I journeyed 2000 miles back to my Old Home Town the week of August
3 to take in the Semi-Finals (solo recitals) and Finals (concertos with
the Clev eland Orchestra, Jahja Ling conducting).

A couple of new wrinkles this time.  The recitals at the Cleveland
Playhouse now have a giant screen (15 feet wide or so) above the stage.
Five robot cameras show various wide and close shots of the players,
including a SkyCam (or BlimpCam, if you like) high above the keyboard.
It was sometimes distracting, but overall the big screen added to the
experience, though on the last day they had some technical problems.
The giant screen feed also went to a video webcast, first time this year
(Cleveland was no doubt spurred by the superb job the Cliburn did with
their webcast).

However, the few chances I had to catch the prelims via a good high-speed hookup were problematical -- one day fine, two other days prone to freeze-up. Needs work. Those not wedded to visuals could catch the audio via WCLV broadcast or webcast as usual 32 pianists were in Cleveland for the competition. A couple more invitees were no-shows, including Evgeny Bozhanov, the most controversial of the Cliburn finalists. I was disappointed that I didn't get another chance to catch his act. After two prelim recitals the field was cut down to eight Semifinalists; after their hour-long semifinal recitals, the field would be halved to four Finalists, who would play with the orchestra at Severance Hall. Peter Frankl chaired the international jury.

The Semis
Dmitri Levkovitch, Ukraine/Canada - A local favorite, CIM graduate, made
the semis last time, but not the finals.  If nothing else, he LOOKS like
a concert pianist: tall, slender, with a leonine mane of blonde hair.
Dye the hair black and augment his nose and any casting director would
drool at the prospect of signing him for a Liszt biopic. His playing was
relaxed and controlled, but I thought his Debussy Pour le Piano a bit
hard, and his Rach2 sonata somewhat muddy in spots.  He opened with a
Haydn sonata.

Evgeny Brakhman, Russia - Also played the Rachmaninoff sonata, and had
this been a old-fashioned Harlem cutting contest, Canada would have been
left bleeding on the floor.  Very exciting and clean performance.  He
made a programming mistake, however, with the six Etudes-Tableau he also
played.  Apart from Too Much Rachmaninoff (which became the unofficial
slogan of the whole competition, by the way), one of them, from Op. 39,
was so very like the Sonata it sounded like a sketch for the big piece.
Two pieces by Messiaen and two Debussy etudes plus L'Isle Joyeuse rounded
out his program.  Brakhman is very much a high-powered Russian competition
thoroughbred, and I'd pass him through to the finals just to hear his
Rach3.

Pallavi Mahidhara, Indian/American - Maybe she was doomed from the start;
her bio portrait unfortunately made her look like Amy Winehouse.  Even
so, I was baffled that she made it this far.  All her playing, while
precise, was hard, flat, foursquare and uninflected.  Bach's French Suite
is a suite of dances after all; Mahidhara would have you believe they
were all clog dances!  Same problems with her Pour le Piano and Liszt
B Minor Sonata.

Martina Filjak, Croatia - An attractive raven-haired young woman, looks
rather like the actress Amy Brenneman.  She went for the Long Bomb by
programming Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata, and boy did she nail it!
A powerful and emotional performance (that frankly left Tsuji's performance
at the Cliburn in the dust).  Another unusual choice with Scriabin's Op.
9#2 Nocturne for the Left Hand, beautifully played.  Her Ravel Une Barque
sur L'Ocean was the first "French Impressionist" piece (a requirement
in the Semis) that actually sounded impressionist.  Best so far, by far.

Yunquing Zhou, China - I was eager to hear more from Zhou, after having
heard him play several of the delightful Nicolai Kapustin etudes in the
prelims.  That a 20-year-old Chinese pianist could play these difficult
jazz-inflected pieces not only well, but with perfect style and swing
struck me as a minor miracle.  His selection of Debussy preludes was
fine.  Oddly he was the only one to choose these this year; they dominated
the French selection in past competitions.  His Liszt B Minor Sonata was
good for a while, especially in the lyrical section, but then too much
caffeine or the fast&loud syndrome took over and the piece went off the
rails.  This was followed by even more pounding and flash in the Bartok
Sonata.  Zhou is a freakishly adept key-presser, but musically, who can
tell Is this blow-the-doors-off approach an expression of his musical
self or of a Win the Contest strategy - I smell Lang Lang Syndrome here.
A big disappointment.

Kuok-Wai Lio, China - His main piece was the Schubert Impromptus - the
only Schubert heard this week.  Franz's placid ripplings were a huge
relief after Zhou's Liszt-Bartok bombings.  His L'Isle Joyeuse was fine,
less percussive than the others.  Finishing with the Kreisler/Rachmaninoff
Liebesleid/Lebesfreud pair he missed an opportunity.  He could have
charmed the pants off the audience done right, but he chose to emphasize
Rach flash over gemutlichkeit.  More schmaltz was needed, though on top
of Schubert, maybe it would have been too much.  Still a good effort,
and Lio was rewarded by the audience with a recall, where Zhou didn't
get one.

William Youn, Korea - Not far into his opening Faure Nocturne, it
was obvious that we had a contender here.  Refined, controlled playing,
superb touch & tone.  The nicely balanced program continued with
Davisbundlertanze and Liszt's Benediction de Dieu Dans la Solitude.  He
finished with the Liszt Rigoletto Paraphrase, just the right proportion
of bravura.  It was a treat to be offered music rather than assaulted
with flash & fire.

Soo-Yeon Ham, Korea -This young woman provided nicely proportioned, clean
playing throughout.  But nothing her programa's overperformed competition
staples -- Chopin Sonata 2, Ravel Gaspard -- really caught my attention.
Liszt's Venezia e Napoli as a closer was nicely done, but the piece did
go on a bit (Liszt's fault).  Overall, a solid performance, but lacking
spark.

So three must-advance choices by my ear: Brakhman, Filjak & Youn. The
fourth choice was a toss-up: Ham OK, Lio OK, Levkovitch OK, take your
pick.  I had a lurking fear that Zhou might get picked.  It turned out
the judges were in tune with me (for the third time in a row, I picked
three of four).  Finalists: Brakhman, Filjak, Youn and Levkovich.  One
common denominator: all four are at the top end of the age range - Filjak
& Levkovitch - 30, Brakhman - 28, Youn - 26.  Apparently experience and
maturity count for something.

The Finals
So here we are at Severance for the concertos.  The Too Much Rachmaninoff
syndrome was certainly in play this weekend.  If the selection of the
final four had been different we could have had an all-Rach weekend --
3 Rach2s and 2 Rach3s were on tap from the eight.  As it was we got Rach2
and Rach3 on Friday, and Rach2 again and -- surprise -- Brahms 1 on
Saturday.

Levkovitch, Rach 2 - A safe and sane version.  Controlled, sensible
tempos, cleanly played.  Some synch problems with Ling, but nothing
major.  Levkovitch received an exuberant ovation, with the balcony
packed with his CIM classmates.

Brakhman, Rach 3 - Hearing 2 & 3 back-to-back for the first time live,
I was struck by how different these two concertos are in how they utilize
the pianist, with quite a contrast in (seeming) virtuosic requirements
and (apparent) audience appeal.  The soloist in 3 is much more exposed,
with big cadenzas and solo passages; in 2 he/she is much more with the
orchestra, mainly stepping into the spotlight for the big tunes.  It
seems like the pianist in 3 plays maybe three times as many notes.
Anyway, Brakhman delivered an extremely virtuosic performance, but marred
by banging, especially in the first cadenza, and rushed tempos, especially
in the third movement, Ling scrambling to keep up.  But his runs were
clean and dazzling throughout.  Predictably, the audience went nuts.
Me, lots of reservations, but not that he'd get the prize if the audience
voted for it.

Filjak, Rach 2 - A similar, no-eccentricities reading like Levkovitch's,
but a bit more sharply pointed.  She cut through the orchestral textures
more assertively than Levkovitch, and swooned the big tunes nicely.  She
wore a spectacular red gown, that Bob Conrad of WCLV later dubbed winner
of the "Zowie Award".

Youn, Brahms 1 - What a relief to hear something other than Rachmaninoff!
A very clean and rhythmically solid reading, but perhaps a bit dry.  The
orchestra seemed energized by having something to play other than Rach.
Coordination with Ling was tight throughout.  Strictly as a concerto
performance, never mind the competition aspect, this was for me the
musical highlight of the weekend.

My ranking after the last performance: Youn & Filjak virtual tie at
the top, Brakhman, Levkovitch.  Not what I expected from the judges, but
what my vote would have been (though recall, I heard very little of the
prelims, which counted 1/3 of the score).  I had no idea how the judges
would vote.  Each of the four played exceptionally well.  Levkovitch's
playing was overall the most uniform, but conversely, had little dazzlement.
Filjak & Youn both gave exceptional semi recitals.  Brakhman's repertoire
& playing was very much in the tradition of Russian contest winners.

The Results
Filjak - 1st, Levkovitch - 2nd, Youn - 3rd, Brakhman - 4th.
Sunday afternoon they handed out the prizes and each of the finalists
gave a short recital. In addition to copping the $50,000 first prize,
Filjak also took home another $5500, winning the Junior Jury Prize,
the Beethoven Prize (a lock there, after her Hammerklavier performance),
and the Contemporary prize (for a Berio piece she played in the prelims).
Nice payday!  Brakhman played two Etudes Tableau, Youn played the Liszt
Benediction, Levkovitch Scarlatti, a Rach Prelude (the last gasp of the
Too Much Rach weekend), and the Chopin 2nd Scherzo.  Filjak reprised the
Scriabin left hand etude, and finished with three pieces from Bartok's
Out of Doors.  It is clear that our winner has unconventional and
audience-challenging notions about repertoire: Berio, Bartok, Scriabin,
the Hammerklavier.  None of her solo pieces were competition staples.
I'm really looking forward to hearing what she'll bring to Del Valle
Fine Arts in the 2010-11 season.

Art Scott
Livermore, Cal.

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