The Cliburn Report 17: Les Adieux

Fort Worth, Texas

The 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition is now history and I’m winging my way home, using the flight time to record some post-competition thoughts.

First, I want to congratulate the Cliburn organization and the Fort Worth Convention and Visitors Bureau for making our delegation from the Music Critics Association of North America feel so welcome and for doing such an impressive job of catering to our every need.

Our Cliburn contact, Maggie Estes, was unfailingly helpful, as were all of the volunteers back in the pressroom. How helpful? Well, on Sunday night, a button popped off my sports coat on the way to the awards ceremony. Not wanting to look like a slob at the black tie reception afterwards, I asked a volunteer if she could locate a sewing kit for me. Within minutes, one of the mangers had located a lady identified as the “backstage mother” who repaired the coat for me in time for the ceremony. That, I think, it going above and beyond the call of duty.

The Cliburn organization also threw one heck of a party for everyone Sunday night at the Worthington Hotel.

CVB’s Jessica Dowdy also threw a great party for us at the Zoo, bought us a first-class dinner at Reata, and gave us a chauffeured tour of the Fort Worth museum and stockyards districts. She even took my wife and I to CVS. I’d heard great things about Fort Worth’s hospitality towards journalists in advance of our trip. Clearly, they were all true.

Fort Worth itself proved to be a fascinating city. Their downtown comes to life after dark with restaurants and bars, and we all felt completely comfortable walking back to our hotel after the concerts. Bass Hall is an excellent concert space, with good sight lines and acoustics, and conveniently located. My wife, the naturalist of our family, also had a great deal of praise for the city’s botanic garden and nature areas.

Seen outside Bass Hall on Sunday

The Cliburn is a great source of pride to Fort Worth, and understandably so. It brings the world to Texas every four years and is one of the highest-profile piano competitions on the planet. That said, I found myself wondering what impact it and other competitions have had on the larger concert world.

A Cliburn medal, as Joseph Horowitz pointed out in his 1990 book The Ivory Trade, is no guarantee of a concert career. When asked at the Friday symposium whether or not he would offer a concert engagement to the Cliburn gold medalist, for example, Maestro Leonard Slatkin said he would not—but that he might make an offer to “one or two” finalists. Indeed, if you look through the list of prior winners in the Cliburn’s fat press information book, you can’t help noticing that most of them have not achieved particularly high-profile careers, and many left public performance altogether.

To a certain extent, that’s unsurprising. There’s no reason to believe the Cliburn jury is any better at predicting the future than any other group of professionals—including those who make their livings at it (economists, for example). But I think it’s also possible that piano competitions don’t prepare their participants for concertizing so much as they prepare them for entering piano competitions. In much the same way that our public school system seems to be creating generations of professional test takers, piano competitions may be creating generations of professional competitors, many of whom go on to careers teaching the next generation of competitors. It starts to look like a keyboard circle game.

That’s not to say being a Cliburn winner (or finalist, for that matter) isn’t important. It provides international exposure, and the medalists get three years of valuable career guidance. I just can’t help wondering whether or not the concert piano world is better or worse off for the many competitions that take place every year. It’s an unanswerable question, of course, but that doesn’t stop one from asking it.

Cliburn Final Round, Fourth Concert: Vadym Kholodenko, Tomoki Sakata, Sean Chen

Beatrice Rana, Vadym Kholodenko, Sean ChenPhoto: Fort Worth Star-Telegram

If you’ve been following the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, you know that the big three awards went to Vadym Kholodenko from the Ukraine (gold), Beatrice Rana from Italy (silver) and Sean Chen from the USA (crystal). I’m happy with that, in part because I feel they deserved their awards and in part because the judges’ ranking exactly mirrors my own. Alas, I didn’t have enough confidence in mine to make it public beforehand (via Twitter I predicted in advance that the those three contestants would get medals without specifying which ones) so I can’t claim bragging rights for my prediction.

It probably doesn’t matter now, but here are my thoughts on the fourth and last final round concert with the Fort Worth Symphony under Leonard Slaktin, which concluded yesterday at 5:30 PM. I didn’t have time to post anything yesterday since the awards ceremony and reception started at 7 and I had to walk back to the hotel to change into my suit.

Mr. Kohlodenko opened with a very neat Mozart Concerto No. 21 (once known as the “Elvira Madigan” after a popular 1960s film that made extensive use of the second movement). It was stylistically on target, smoothly played, and featured two cadenzas that Mr. Kohlodenko wrote on the flight to Fort Worth. The first one had some impressive fugal passages and showed off Mr. Kholodenko’s abilities without being overly flashy. As in his Prokofiev 3rd Friday night, Mr. Kholodenko’s concentration and involvement with the music were unshakable.

Tomoki Sakata (the youngest finalist, at age 19) had some rather unfortunate episodes during a generally decent Tchaikovsky 1st. Some were his fault (flubbed and/or smeared notes) but some (apparently) were Mr. Slatkin’s (most noticeably a botched entry by the trombones in the first movement). The orchestra also played less well, to my ears, than it had for other soloists. They just did the Tchaikovsky back in February, so perhaps they overestimated their preparation.

Sean Chen brought everything to a rousing close with a Rachmaninov 3rd that had the crowd not just standing (which they did for every performance) but cheering loudly. Mr. Chen got five curtain calls and deserved every one. I had good things to say about Fei-Fei Dong’s Rach 3 on Thursday (a minority view among the critics, as far as I could see) but Mr. Chen’s was clearly the superior performance, with volcanic power and finesse—and none of the banging that showed up in his “Emperor” concerto Friday night.

If you want to see what the medalists looked and sounded like, by the way, the Cliburn organization is making all of the concerts (including the final four) available as on-demand video at their web site.

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.

Cliburn final round, second concert: Tomoki Sakata, Sean Chen, and Vadym Kholodenko

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

The Friday concerts were marked by generally strong playing all the way around. Thursday night we had, in my estimation, two good performances and one disappointing one. Tonight we had two that were very good and one that was so outstanding I had to stop taking notes and just listen.

Tomoki Sakata (Japan) got things off to a fine start with a very persuasive Mozart Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466. Mr. Sakata and the orchestra adopted a brisk pace in the first movement that made the most of its drama (although his first entrance was a bit hesitant) and included a fine performance of the Beethoven cadenza. The second movement Romanze was elegantly played but a bit too slow for my taste and never quite took flight, but the final movement flowed along nicely. Overall it was a well-proportioned reading and neatly played.

Mr. Sakata is not a demonstrative performer (a rarity in this group, it seems), choosing to express himself entirely through his music.

Sean Chen (USA) took on the Beethoven Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major (Op. 73), known as the “Emperor.” His performance was marked by extreme dynamic contrasts and, at one point towards the end of the first movement, a bit of banging away at the keyboard that distorted his sound. For the most part, though, this approach worked well for him and enhanced the work’s grandeur. Tempi were a bit slow, but not so much so that the music ever lost energy, and the second movement (Adagio un poco mosso) was quite lovely. As with Mr. Sakata’s Mozart, this was not a flawless performance, but quite a fine one nevertheless.

Unlike Mr. Sakata, Mr. Chen is not shy about playing to the audience. This is neither good nor bad as long as it serves the music, which (mostly), it did.

Judging from his Prokofiev Concerto No. 3 in C Major (Op. 26), Vadym Kholodenko (Ukraine) is a powerhouse of a pianist who is also capable of great delicacy. His concentration was intense and he seemed to be entirely caught up in the music. The Prokofiev 3rd is the music of youth, with ample wit, nose-thumbing cheer, and some ridiculously difficult writing for the soloist, especially in the final movement. Mr. Kholodenko captured all of that, and did it with precision and flare. There seemed to me to be a real joy in his playing that communicated itself to the highly appreciative audience. It certainly won me over.

The third concert of the final round is tomorrow night (Saturday, June 8). It will feature Mozart’s 20th again (with Nikita Mndoyants), Beethoven’s 4th (Fei-Fei Dong), and Prokofiev’s 2nd (Beatrice Rana; I’m very much looking forward to that one).

The Cliburn Report 16: The Impresario

Leonard Slatkin conducts the

Prokofiev 2nd with Nikita Mndoyants

Photo: Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Not all the important events at the Cliburn Competition involve making music; some of them involve talking about it. This morning’s event, for instance, was a free public symposium with Leonard Slatkin, hosted by Fred Child of PRI’s Performance Today (which will broadcast a performance by the gold medal winner on Monday, June 10). Mr. Slatkin is a familiar and much-loved figure in St. Louis, of course, since he led the symphony here for many years. He’s also conducting the Fort Worth Symphony for the final round concerts and had some interesting insights on that process.

Mr. Slatkin has expressed some skepticism about competitions in the past, once noting that he normally avoids “this display of music as sport,” but observed this morning that competitions can still offer opportunities for performers and producers alike by focusing attention of promising artists. In the case of the Cliburn, he was moved to participate in part by a personal appeal from the late Mr. Cliburn himself.

Asked if he has any advice for competitors, Mr. Slatkin said they should always try to satisfy themselves first rather than try to second-guess judges. Ask how you can best grown within yourself, he noted, and everything else will follow.

Mr. Slatkin recounted a number of fascinating and funny anecdotes from his years growing up in a Hollywood musical family. His parents played for film orchestras, his father conducted the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, and his uncle provided the piano tracks for many films, including the classic Warner Brothers cartoon sting to “That’s All, Folks”. As my fellow St. Louis residents will recall, Mr. Slatkin is quite the raconteur. I won’t attempt to repeat them here, as I couldn’t do it nearly as well. Fortunately, the Cliburn folks recorded the whole thing and will be streaming it at their web site.

Returning to the competition, Mr. Slatkin noted that conducting for the final round is a somewhat thankless task. He only gets fifty minutes rehearsal with each pianist. Since the concerti themselves are usually over thirty minutes long, this means he’s usually calling out directions to the pianist and orchestra while they’re rehearsing. He see establishing rapport with the orchestra and supporting the soloist (who might not have ever had a chance to hear his or her piece played by a live orchestra) as his primary task. They’re called concertos for piano and orchestra, not orchestra and piano, he noted.

Mr. Child pointed out that in concert last night, Mr. Slatkin’s gestures were economical but that his face spoke volumes and asked why he decided to work without a baton. The answer: he forgot to bring it (a reminder of the influence of chance on art, I think).

This led to a discussion of the changing role of the conductor. Mr. Slatkin feels the end of the era of the conductor as autocrat is a good thing and feels the relationship should be more collaborative, as it generally is now.

Mr. Child put Mr. Slatkin on the spot a bit by asking if he would offer the gold medalist an engagement with one of the orchestras he conducts. His response: no, but there are one or two finalists (whom, of course, he could not name) who might get an offer.

Asked about how he listens to music, Mr. Slatkin said that he always asks why a performer has made a particular decision, as this tells you a great deal about the performer’s intent. He asks the same question of his own decisions. If you can’t answer that question, he said, it suggests you haven’t really thought through the piece you’re performing.

Asked about his attitude towards YouTube, social media, and related phenomena, Mr. Slatkin said that while piracy—making money from someone else’s work without their permission—is always wrong, he doesn’t see any problem with making audio or video recordings of performances available for free. He noted that the Detroit Symphony streams all their concerts live and, rather than reduce their audience, it has actually increased it.

This segued into a discussion of the dire straits in which many orchestras now find themselves and possible remedies. Mr. Slatkin feels strongly that community involvement and musical education are the keys. If a community values its arts institutions, it will find ways to support them. He acknowledged that this is not always easy, but it is nevertheless essential.

Regarding the inclusion of new music on programs, he feels this is a good thing, but also feels that orchestras should not allow this to crowd out the classic American composers of the 20th century such as Ives, Schumann, Harris and the like.

Asked about how he feels conducting works that have already been recorded by their composers, Mr. Slatkin noted that most composers are lousy conductors and not always the best advocates for their own music. Works of music are living things, and there is no one “perfect” performance of anything.

Tomorrow’s morning symposium will be with the competition judges. Expect some interesting questions at that one.

Cliburn Final Round, First Concert: Beatrice Rana, Nikita Mndoyants, Fei-Fei Dong

Tonight was the first of the four concerts that make up the final round of the Cliburn Competition. All concerts feature the Fort Worth Symphony conducted by Leonard Slatkin.

Beatrice Rana (Italy) got things off to a lovely start with a nimble, elegant, and beautifully executed performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 3 in C Minor, Op. 37. This is a work full of drama, lyricism, and good cheer—all of which were present in abundance in Ms. Rana’s thoughtful and impeccably executed reading. Her communication with Mr. Slatkin was good and she was clearly very much “in the moment” at every point. If she does as well with her Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor (Op. 16) on Saturday, she could be a real contender for a medal.

Speaking of the Prokofiev 2nd, Nikita Mndoyants (Russia) seemed to be having problems with his performance of it tonight—somewhat surprising, given the generally good notices he got in his preliminary and semi-final round work. He did capture much of the concerto’s grotesque humor, especially in the second movement, but was clearly working hard all the way through. Jeff Dunn, a fellow critic who is intimately familiar with the work, felt that Mr. Mndoyants was over his head technically—which might explain why the performance felt rather monochromatic to me. It was still fascinating to see, as Prokofiev’s concerti always are, but to my mind true virtuosity should never appear as difficult as it actually is. Like Fred Astaire’s dancing, it should seem effortless when, in fact, it’s just the opposite.

Fei-Fei Dong (China) concluded the evening with a Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor (Op. 30), that really rocked the house. You wouldn’t think the diminutive pianist could generate that much power (and, in fact, she actually rose from the bench once or twice for a little extra muscle), but she took everything Rachmaninov could throw at her and made it not only rock but sing. Her entrance in the second movement lacked just a bit of the hallucinatory quality that I associate with that section, but otherwise this was another potentially prize-winning performance. Like Ms. Rana, she was obviously listening closely to the orchestra and paying close attention to Mr. Slatkin throughout.

Watching these concerts is a rather unusual experience, by the way.  The Cliburn is streaming them live at their web site, so there are multiple video cameras capturing everything.  The video stream is also shown on a large screen suspended above the stage, so everyone can get close-up views of the pianist’s face and hands, as well as of Mr. Slatkin and the orchestra.  The massive boom-mounted camera suspended above the stage—the one used for the panning shots—can be a bit distracting at first, but I soon learned to ignore it.

Bass Hall has excellent acoustics, by the way, so you can also hear every note with great clarity.

The Cliburn Report 15: The Yellow Rose of Texas


Twin Gabriels flanking the
entrance to Bass Hall

It’s now the afternoon of my first day here in Fort Worth, Texas, for the finals of the Cliburn Competition. I haven’t heard a single note yet (the first final round concert isn’t until tonight), but it has already been an interesting experience.

It started with the party at the Fort Worth Zoo thrown by the Cliburn for visiting media, contestants, and local host families, backers, and other prominent folks. It was pure Texas—big, elaborate, and loud. We were picked up at the hotel by the kind of high-end party bus usually reserved for rock stars and the like, with comfy swivel chairs, a kitchen, and big-screen TVs (which I quickly figured out how to mute, to the relief of everyone in the bus) and whisked to the zoo, which as closed down for the party. There was an open bar, plenty of Texas-style food (jalapeno beans, mac and cheese, port sliders, hamburger-style sliders, and the like), a live country band and line dancers. Welcome to the Lone Star State, y’all.

Today there was a critics symposium hosted by Scott Cantrell of the Dallas Morning News and featuring some of my fellow critics from the Music Critics Association of North America. Since most of the panelists were from the print media world, the discussion largely focused on the dilemma of print media in the digital age and the ways in which this was changing the role of the critic. It was suggested at one point that the very role of the critic might be an artifact of a time when it was possible to write longer pieces and take more time with them. I’m not so sure that’s true—we have no length limitations on what we write for KDHX’s on line presence, for example—but there’s no denying that the interweb tends to favor those who publish early and often vs. those who take time to consider.

There was general agreement that the role of the critic is changing, though, and that these days it often includes the role of arts advocate.

In a subsequent private meeting among the MCANA members, the discussion turned towards issues specific to musical competitions and their relevance (or lack of same) in the broader musical world. The consensus was that the career path for a concert pianist is not, perhaps, what it once was, and that in any event the judges at competitions like the Cliburn are no more capable of predicting the future than the rest of us. There were discussions of the pros and cons of open vs. pre-selected repertoire for contestants, the value of having a mandatory commissioned new work (as there was this season), and the degree to which the conductor can make or break contestants in the final concerto round.

I wouldn’t say there was widespread agreement on much of anything (this was, after all, a group of critics….) but the talk was lively and filled with amusing anecdotes from our resident Canadian, William Littler.

For now it’s on to a dinner at Reata courtesy of the Fort Worth Convention and Visitors Bureau, followed by concerto round 1 with the Fort Worth Symphony and Leonard Slatkin.


The Cliburn Report 14: 40 Great Unclaimed Melodies

[Thanks to The Firesign Theatre for the title of this post. If you haven’t heard the hilarious 1970 sketch in question, you owe it to your sense of humor to check it out. Some of you may even be old enough to remember the commercial—featuring Jack Benny’s long-time announcer Don Wilson—that inspired it.]

[Note: this has been corrected based on information obtained from; viz. the anonymous comment]

“Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes. – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “Silver Blaze”

“I would while away the hours / Conversin’ with the flowers,” but since I’m “leavin’ on a jet plane” for the finals of the Cliburn International Piano Competition, I thought I’d use the flight time to devote some attention the musical canines that were silent, or very nearly so—that is, composers whose work was poorly represented or entirely absent during the three rounds of preliminary and semi-final recitals.

Let’s start with the dogs that didn’t bark at all.

One of only two knownphotos of Alkan

Charles Valentin Alkan – Not a household name but certainly known among pianists. Granted, most of his stuff is fiercely difficult, but somebody could have taken on (say) Aesop’s Feast, the Sonatine, or the Barcarolle (with its prescient “blue” notes)—any of which would have been well within the capabilities of these technically proficient pianists. Besides, none of them appeared to shy away from technical challenges;  Stravinsky’s thorny Trois mouvements de Pétrouchka was heard often as were  works by Liszt (including 11 of the Transcendental Études by Vadym Kholodenko).

And, speaking of Stravinsky, the Pétrouchka suite was the only work of his on the bill.

François Couperin – Yes, he wrote for the harpsichord and organ rather than the piano, but so did Bach and that didn’t keep him off the program (although he didn’t appear that often either; three performances including a Siloti transcription).

Charles Ives

John Field – Nothing from the inventor of the nocturne. In fact, no nocturnes at all. Maybe everyone was afraid of putting the audience to sleep?

George Gershwin – He’s marginal in this context, perhaps, but surely his Preludes would have made an interesting addition.

Charles Ives – Ives only wrote two piano sonatas, but they’re amazing pieces—and would surely have been appropriate for a competition held in America. Indeed, American composers were poorly represented in general.

Dimitri Shostakovich – Granted, Shostakovich might not be as well known for his piano works as Prokofiev (see below), but his Twenty-Four Preludes and Fugues are real gems. It would have been nice to see a few performed.

These dogs, meanwhile, barked so little you could easily have missed them.

Albèniz – A prolific and popular composer for the piano, he’s represented only by Book 2 of Iberia (Tomoki Sakata)

Bartok – Again, a composer well known for his piano works, but represented by only three performances: the 1926 Sonata (Luca Burrato), the Étude, op. 18, no. 3 (Alexy Chernov), and Out of Doors (Beatrice Rana).

Grieg – Another prolific and popular composer of piano miniatures and one massively popular concerto, Grieg is represented by a whopping total of three waltzes (performed by Alexey Chernov). I find this odd, to say the least. Is it because most of his work doesn’t offer the kinds of opportunities for flash that one finds in the work of (say) Liszt (who is very well represented)? Or has he simply fallen out of fashion?

Mendelssohn – Only three works: the Fantasy in F-sharp Minor, op. 28 (Scottish Sonata), the Sonata no. 3 in B-flat Major, op. 106, and Variations serieuses, op. 54.

Liszt by Lehmann

So who is well represented? Well, after Liszt, the biggies were Chopin, Schumann, Beethoven (including the challenging “Hammerklavier” sonata), Brahms, Rachmaninov, and Prokofiev.

Ravel looks to be well represented—sixteen performances—but those performances covered only five works including the multiples of Gaspard de la nuit. Still, they’re major works, so maybe that’s not a big deal.

What, if anything, does this mean? The Cliburn and other competitions have been criticized for encouraging safe repertoire and performance choices—a kind of reversion to the mean, in which idiosyncrasies are weeded out. I didn’t see enough of the preliminary and semi-final rounds to comment on the performance side, but it certainly does appear that, given the ability to choose their own music, contestants tend to go with the tried and true. What do you think?

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