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< It Won't Be Long Now... | Main | The Poet who Hates Mozart >



Wrapping it all up

Posted at 6:48 PM on June 10, 2009 by Greg Allen (6 Comments)

This Cliburn Festival entry written by Gregory Allen, Professor of Piano, University of Texas at Austin, exclusively for Performance Today's Fredlines.

Travel and exhaustion have prevented my posting since the Awards Ceremony. Yes, it's old news by now, but here are my thoughts about Sunday's final performances, as well as reactions to the outcome and to the competition as a whole.

Nobu Tsujii's recital was thoroughly professional, if not as compelling as his previous work. Sorry to say, the Appassionata sounded a bit too much like Rubinstein - clean, sober and grounded, to be sure, but not quite to the manner born. (Let's face it, Rubinstein was never considered the greatest Beethoven player of all time.) Surprisingly, the Chopin Berceuse was rather prosaic, and the Liszt Rhapsody seemed overly, um, is respectful the right word? Is it possible that the poor guy was just tired??

Haochen Zhang sure didn't sound tired - if anything he burned up more calories in the Prokofiev 2nd than in all the other rounds combined. Not to put down Yeol Eum Son's admirable achievement in the same work, but I thought Zhang's was more disciplined, more accurate, more rhythmically secure, and at least as powerful relative to the orchestra. If I had to quibble, it would be that he didn't appear to be moved by the dark Slavic narrative that constitutes the last movement's middle section. (That's really the only part of this concerto that asks for some degree of poetry.) Otherwise, a stunning performance!

I got pretty much what I expected from Di Wu's Rachmaninoff Third. This piece has become such a rite of passage among competition players that surmounting its immense technical challenges is no longer a big deal (sort of like the Liszt Sonata). She did that adequately, for the most part. But her control of tempo and sonorities was spotty, and the architectural organization was erratic at best. As I've noted before, I think her playing is very attractive on a superficial - and visual - level, but trying to find deeper significance is, for me, a futile search.

So... The awards have been announced, and the jury has pretty much validated my educated guess as to the medalists, notwithstanding the first-place tie. To them is due all possible gratitude, for their expertise, professionalism and stamina. I personally think they got it right, insofar as Cliburn winners have always been the pianists who play a broad range of repertoire accurately, tastefully, and consistently, with just the right degree of imagination and dignified showmanship - just like Van himself. (To those who look at this tendency with disdain, who see boring propriety trumping unconventional individuality over and over, I say - you're not entirely wrong. Lang Lang would never win this competition...) In this case we had Bozhanov, who seemed to fit the mold and was well positioned to win a medal, until his idiosyncrasies went berserk. Vacatello might have been a prime candidate if not for inconsistencies that, unfortunately, may have been beyond her control. Wu, with all her audience appeal, was lucky just to make the finals. (My opinion, of course.) Several of the others who didn't, like Kunz, Lifits, Deljavan, Lam, Myer et al, showed distinctive personalities as well as respectable integrity. Ultimately, though, it is these three medalists who are best suited to represent the ideals of the Cliburn Competition. In the real world, for better or worse, ya gotta have a hook, a defining image, and each of them has one. The diminutive Samurai warrior, triumphant over adversity. The shy youth, guileless, humble and wise. The serene diva, draped in radiant robes. These things can help a career, and shouldn't be completely discounted, but of course they're ultimately peripheral to the qualities of outstanding pianism and musicianship that really speak to us. I'm thinking that all three of them have an abundance of these assets, and that we'll be hearing from them a lot in the future.

It's been a special privilege for me to be able to share my experiences here. Many thanks to Sevan Melikyan at the Cliburn, and Fred Child right here at Performance Today, for having faith in my untested abilities as a music critic - I hope I've shown some progress in the quality of my grousing and sniping! Thanks also to you faithful readers, and especially to those who have posted comments. And so, with the figurative flourish of a fermata over the final double-bar, I'm outta here...
GA


Comments ( 6 )


Thanks Greg! Your posts have been really thorough and thoughtful. If these are your "untested abilities" as a music critic, I wonder how they'll fare after the crucible of Fredlines!

Posted by Alex Coppock | June 10, 2009 9:37 PM


Greg: What an elegant and wise sign-off yourself! You gave me an additional facet through which to encounter the Cliburn finals. I have appreciated your commentary and perceptions - even when we ended up on opposing sides of the net. It was a pleasure meeting you and reading your take of each performance both individually and in competition (oh - yeah! - that IS what it is) with each other as the finals progressed. Only time will tell how they continue to grow, and I am sure that we will all be listening.

Posted by Zaby | June 11, 2009 2:18 PM


Regarding the "Today's Playlist" on June 5, 2009, Tania Leon was heard saying to an audience that she did not know the meaning of, and hence, had to look up the meaning of the word "Acana" (the name of her composition played by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra Carnegie Hall) in the popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia.

However, there is conflict in the statement since it can be verified by the reference provided below that the article "Acana" in Wikipedia was not created until after June 6, 2009 by Henry Delforn as a consequence of hearing the "Performance Today" broadcast on KUSC radio.

Henry Delforn, editor
Carpinteria, CA, USA.

Reference: http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=%C3%81cana&action=history

Posted by Henry Delforn | June 13, 2009 2:35 PM


Sharing the competition throughthe ears and eyes of Gregory Allen has greatly enriched my experience of the Van Cliburn Competition. I am familiar with the depth of his own musical performances. Now I appreciate his abilities to critique the performances of others with the same expectations for excellence. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Greg.

I was so excited with the announcement of the gold medalists, for I, too, had picked them. While expressing the full content of the music, they did not abuse the instrument of the piano nor the music of the composers. The 12 member Jury got it right!

Posted by Baker City | June 13, 2009 10:50 PM


Regarding the "Today's Playlist" on June 5, 2009, Tania Leon was heard saying to an audience that she did not know the meaning of, and hence, had to look up the meaning of the word "Acana" (the name of her composition played by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra Carnegie Hall) in the popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia.

However, there is conflict in the statement since it can be verified by the reference provided below that the article "Acana" in Wikipedia was not created until after June 6, 2009 by Henry Delforn as a consequence of hearing the "Performance Today" broadcast on KUSC radio.

Here is Tania Leon response according to her publicist, Isabelle Deconinck of La PR. "Not true:
I spoke about the word ACANA., its meaning and in context with the piece. In the radio broadcast and on stage. That happened during the premier of ACANA in March of 08. The meaning of the word ACANA refers to the name of a family of a trees that grows in the Americas ( many of them found in Cuba). The tree is also found in the Amazon and many regions of the American continent. The tree is also a produces a bark that is used to make chewing gum."

Would like to please request that the broadcast in question be made available on this website for all to hear.

Henry Delforn, editor
Carpinteria, CA, USA.
henry.delforn@cox.net

Reference: email communication with Isabelle Deconinck La PR - Promotion & Marketing for the Arts Tel: 212-727-7662 Cell: 646-623-1709 isadeco@earthlink.net

Posted by Henry Delforn | June 17, 2009 1:19 PM


Living in the Netherlands, I had to rely on webcasts and online reviews to follow the Van Cliburn competition and thanks the the excellent Van Cliburn video client and the great comments of Greg Allen, I have been able to experience this exciting musical journey.

My sincere thanks and compliments to Greg Allen, whose insightful and thorough analysis, eloquence and witty comments have greatly contributed to the joy of following this amazing competition up close.

It must have been hard to listen carefully to all these performances and still muster the strength to write these wonderful posts which were pointed and honest without ever being disrespectful and thorough and erudite without ever being haughty or pompous. If this was a test for you as a critic, you have passed with distinction!

Posted by Viktor Emonds | June 18, 2009 8:05 AM

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