This Cliburn Festival entry written by Gregory Allen, Professor of Piano, University of Texas at Austin, exclusively for Performance Today's Fredlines.
"Con onor muore chi non può serbar vita con onore." This line from the end of Madama Butterfly came to mind during the most profoundly quiet moment of the Beethoven 4th tonight. (It's the inscription on the blade that she reads just before doing the deed.) Why on earth would I think of that? Because, if I had a cell phone (which I don't!), and I forgot to silence it, and it went off at such a moment, shattering the spell for countless thousands of music-lovers worldwide, I think there would be no choice for me but to commit hara-kiri. Do you read me, thoughtless perpetrator??
What made it so infinitely annoying was that it happened during one of the few really inspired moments of Mariangela Vacatello's performance. Sorry to say, she seemed out of sorts - again - and mostly fell short of conveying the uniquely spiritual character of the work. Were the extravagant swirls and waves of the first movement magically ethereal? Not really; as in a lot of performances I hear, they sounded like scales and arpeggios dressed in their Sunday best - sort of like looking at Seurat's Grande Jatte up too close. Did the slow movement have the choked-off, suffering quality we associate with the lamenting Orpheus? Well, no, in part because she played it without soft pedal, which Beethoven asks for. And does her score indicate presto for the last movement? Mine says only vivace... I couldn't help feeling that her stoic manner got in the way of experiencing the full magnificence of this piece; as in some of her other performances, I wished she would unmask her artistic vision more candidly. (I also think she would do well to treat her conductor with more respect...)
Speaking of respect, Yeol Eum Son continues to earn mine: she has consistently been reliable, secure, and serenely unflappable. That's not to say that her Chopin F minor Concerto was the performance of my dreams, but she's a pro, no question about it. Here and there she was able to plug into the special sense of communicative long-term thinking that I've noticed before; when she gets in that mode I find her playing irresistibly involving. (I was looking for it in the 2nd movement of Op. 111 last night, but didn't find it.) It does bother me that she doesn't seem to have the imaginative, discriminating ear for sound that has distinguished so much of the playing in this competition; I keep thinking it's the instrument that sounds so tired and tarnished, but even her earlier performances (e.g. Schumann's Fantasiestücke, the Debussy Preludes) were kind of monochrome. In sum, then, this was a minor, if not unexpected, disappointment.
But the award for outstanding achievement in the category Most Majorly Distressing Disappointment goes to - ta-daah! - Evgeni Bozhanov. Remember the first round, when I wrote "a fresh, direct approach without affectation?" Well, I think he's decided he should maybe invest heavily in affectation. In the semifinals his "extraordinary clarity" has now been traded for cryptic obfuscation; the "stupefying intensity" has become shocking perversity; and no previous notice has been made of the glaring chinks in his technical armor that were brazenly on display in this recital. (Come to think of it, they were fairly obvious in the Chopin Concerto, but it went by in such a blur that we didn't notice.) No, I'm afraid I wrote, "he's on track to win this competition, so he can do what he likes!" At this point I would suggest that we collectively rescind that invitation; Mr. Bozhanov has revealed a creepy megalomania that should not be condoned...
Thank you so much for your exceptional coverage of this event. Those of us who are passionate about piano music (and who may be unable to attend personally) feel like you have given us a seat in the auditorium!! I was told that the composition WHITE LIES FOR LOMAX was chosen as a favorite composition of the competitors and I could not find a sound clip of this song (and many others) anywhere else EXCEPT on NPR's website through an archive search. Will be especially thrilled if I get the opportunity somehow to hear the competitors performances of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concertos #2 and #3 because they are my all-time favorites!!
Posted by Keith Northington | June 6, 2009 11:21 AM
Regarding White Lies for Lomax, who is Lomax, or what is Lomax ?
Posted by Ho | June 6, 2009 9:09 PM
Greg, I read this post after attending both of Saturday's finals sessions. Though bloodied and bleary-eyed, speaking in poker-ese: I would like to see your hand regarding the ""Most Majorly Distressing Disappointment"category and raise you one Rach 2nd. Bolzhanov did himself no favors with his idio(t)syncratic rendition of the Bolzhanov - ahem - rather: the concerto formerly known as Rachmaninov #2. I am not the only one bloodied and bleary-eyed - I am sure Rachmaninov, Conlon, and those in the audience and orchestra with a desire for musical substance over raw posturing are feeling drained from the heat of battle. My largest frustration comes from my perception of Bolzhanov's present arrogance and lack of respect for composer, conductor, and instrument (thank you, Steinway and Sons). Should Bolzhanov EVER desire, it is my hope that his talent and musical idiosyncrasies could combine with a larger-than-himself intention to create musical performances both sincere and personal without taking away from his unique perspicacity.
I applaud you for standing up for the moving target that is not only Bolzhanov (at the moment) but always is the shifting sands of perception from performance to performance at a competition such as the Cliburn, and stand with you in rescinding any prior well-intentioned invitation to Bolzhanov. May we all live long and practice - er, I mean prosper.
Posted by Zaby | June 7, 2009 1:15 AM
You'll find the composer's note about the piece at http://www.cliburn.org/index.php?page=mason-bates. There's tons of info on Lomax at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alan_lomax. I'm not real clear on what "White Lies" is meant to suggest.
Posted by Greg Allen | June 7, 2009 8:00 AM
All the performances are archived at http://www.cliburn.tv/. Those from the semifinal round include White Lies.
Posted by Greg Allen | June 7, 2009 8:07 AM
Based on Bozhanov's performance of the Rach 2 last night, I would like to set up a new competition consisting of 2 pianists:
Evgeni Bozhanov vs. Lang Lang
Play only 1 piece: Liszt "Friska" in a winner-take-all format
As a preview of what to expect, see Lang Lang here for 2 and a half minute, especially the last 30 seconds of the video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yK5Qq5hl1Y8&feature=related
Announcer: Stone Cold Steve Austin (Steve Cumming is no match for this smackdown, uh.... , I mean, showdown)
Jury: Jim Carrey (Ace Ventura, Liar Liar), Simon Cowell (American Idol), and Donald Trump (You're Fired)
Posted by Ho | June 7, 2009 9:16 AM
You guys are awesome! I thought the phone went off during Bozhanov's playing.... I guess I had battle and travel fatigue. But you should have seen one of the juror's wrath when that phone went off. We were ducking in our box trying to avoid her glare. I'm thinking a radio wave jammer will work.. supposedly the ones they have in upscale restaurants....
Posted by Lyn Evans | June 9, 2009 5:24 PM