The Cliburn final round, third concert: Nikita Mndoyants, Fei-Fei Dong, Beatrice Rana

Tonight was the third of the four concerts in the final round of the Cliburn Competition. All concerts feature the Fort Worth Symphony conducted by Leonard Slatkin.

It occurs to me that I should note the large differences between the experience of a competition concert like the ones I’ve been reviewing for the last few days and the sort of concert one hears as part of the regular season of an established orchestra.

As Maestro Slatkin noted in his Friday morning symposium, Cliburn contestants are, in many cases, playing concerti that they might never have performed with a live orchestra before, so they might not be used to listening in quite the same way as an experienced concert performer.

Rehearsal time is much more limited for a competition as well. Mr. Slatkin has only one fifty-minute session with each pianist, which means there is barely enough time to run through the concerto once, much less do any polishing. Normally a visiting soloist will have a day or two to work with the orchestra and conductor. This means that competition performances are, inevitably, a bit “rough and ready.”

I try to take all that into account in my reviews. Ultimately, the question I ask myself is: did this performance work, musically and dramatically? If the soloist made a good case for his or her interpretation, I don’t think the occasional glitch really matters that much, as long as they’re neither large nor frequent enough to take me entirely “out of the moment.”

Saturday’s concert was, in my view, the strongest of the bunch so far.

Nikita Mndoyants (who made a bit of a hash of the Prokofiev 2nd Thursday night) gave us a very solid Mozart Concerto No. 20 in D Minor (K. 466). He didn’t appear to always observe the score’s dynamic markings and his second movement Romanze was a bit on the slow side, but overall he did what felt like a credible job to me.

In keeping with period performance practice, Mr. Mndoyants created his own cadenzas. They were more harmonically modern than anything a pianist would have improvised in Mozart’s day, of course, but the difference was not particularly jarring and I thought they worked well.

Fei-Fei Dong, blinged out in a striking cream and silver gown, gave us a somewhat idiosyncratic Beethoven Concerto No. 3 in G Major (Op. 58). Her entrance in the first movement was, perhaps, a bit too dolce to be effective and she added tempo variations to the second movement that felt a bit exaggerated to me. Still, it was a performance that radiated joy on her part, and that went a long way towards making it more acceptable than it might have been, at least for me.

Beatrice Rana gave what, in my view, was the best performance of the evening with a very exciting and (to my ears) precise Prokofiev Concerto No. 2 in G Minor (Op. 16). When Mr. Mndoyants did this Thursday, the result (as I wrote back then) felt monochromatic. Saturday, under Ms. Rana’s hands, it sounded like an entirely different concerto. She played with the tremendous power Prokofiev requires without ever descending into the “banging” that has marred some other contestants’ work. She was a human perpetual motion machine in the second movement scherzo and threw off the glissandos and arpeggios in the third movement with an easy grace that was impressive.


The orchestra played well throughout, as they have since Friday night.

The last concert of the final round is this afternoon (Sunday, June 9) at 3. It will feature Mozart’s 21st (once known as the “Elvira Madigan” concerto, after a film that made prominent use of the second movement) with Vadym Kholodenko, Tchaikovsky’s 1st (one of Van Cliburn’s signature pieces) with Tomoki Sakata, and Rachmaninov’s 3rd (also a Cliburn specialty) with Sean Chen. The award ceremony takes place at 7, so I might not be able to post a review until tomorrow. Stay tuned.

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