The Cliburn Report 13: Les Six

Leonard Slatkin

After two three rounds of recitals and one round of piano quintets (with the Brentano String Quartet), the group of thirty Van Cliburn International Piano Competition contestants has finally been narrowed down to six finalists. This Thursday through Sunday, each of them will play two concertos with the Fort Worth Symphony conducted by former St. Louis Symphony music director Leonard Slatkin.

I’ll be covering the final round from Fort Worth as part of a delegation from the Music Critics Association of North America. Meanwhile, here’s a list of the finalists along with the concerti each will play.

Sean Chen (24, USA)

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, op. 73
Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, op. 30

Fei-Fei Dong (22, China)

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, op. 58
Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, op. 30

Vadym Kholodenko (26, Ukraine)

Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major, K. 467
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major, op. 26

Nikita Mndoyants (24, Russia)

Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, op. 16

Beatrice Rana (20, Italy)

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, op. 37
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, op. 16

Tomoki Sakata (19, Japan)

Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, op. 23

And for those of you who like details, here’s the Cliburn jury handbook, courtesy of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

The Cliburn Report 12: The Unanswered Question

[I will be covering the final round of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in June. Meanwhile I’m picking the best of the current press coverage for you dining and dancing pleasure.]

Cliburn in Moscow in 1958

The semifinal round of performances, in which recitals will alternate with piano quintet performances, runs through tomorrow (June 4th), at which point each one of the dozen semifinalists will have done one of each and the six finalists will be announced.

By that time each of those finalists will have played three 45-minute recitals and performed a piano quintet with the Brentano String Quartet. Starting on Thursday the final round, in which each one of them will play two piano concertos with the Fort Worth Symphony under Leonard Slatkin, will commence. The winners are announced at a ceremony on Sunday evening, followed by a black tie party at the Worthington Hotel.

It’s a punishing schedule and raises an interesting (and ultimately unanswerable) question: if he were alive today, could the 23-year-old Van Cliburn, who took the world by storm when he won the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, win the competition that carries his name?

The evidence is ambiguous and scanty. Looking at the works Cliburn played in concert and on record, he was clearly at his strongest in the romantic Russian repertoire. His 1958 Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 with Kirill Kondrashin and the Symphony of the Air is legendary. As cited in Joseph Horowitz’s 1990 The Ivory Trade, Aram Khachaturian called Cliburn’s performance “better than Rachmaninoff’s; you find a virtuoso like this once in a century.” Cliburn’s subsequent Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 went platinum—the first classical LP to do so.

Outside of the Russian romantics, though, he fared less well. Here’s how Mr. Horowitz describes the situation:

Cliburn’s recordings add contradictory impressions. He never made another as ardent as his 1958 Rachmaninoff Third—unless it was the Rachmaninoff Second Sonata, also recorded in concert, in Moscow in 1960. In American studios, he recorded sixteen concertos eleven sonatas, and a variety of shorter solo works. Here, the Cliburn imprint remains sonorous and expansive. He majestically sweeps through his “Favorite Encores”—by Chopin, Scriabin, Rachmaninoff, and Schumann/Liszt—in love with their stormy rhetoric. Elsewhere, the lustrous sheen and monumental architecture attain a sort of embalmed perfection.

Fei-Fei Dong

Cliburn also had no interest at all in chamber music. Add that to his limited musical interests, and one wonders how we would fare today in a competition that demands a variety in repertoire, including the piano quintet. Would he ever make it to that final round? One wonders.

Meanwhile, back at the competition, a bit of controversy has spring up around the revelation that Yoheved “Veda” Kaplinsky, the teacher of competitor Fei-Fei Dong, is sitting on the Cliburn jury. And she’s not the only one. As Andrea Ahles reports in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram today, “Two of juror Arie Vardi’s students, Claire Huangci and Beatrice Rana, performed Saturday. Jury member Dmitri Alexeev’s student Nikita Abrosimov played Saturday, too. In all, nine of the 30 competitors who started the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition were current or former students of the individuals adjudicating it. Four of the jurors’ students advanced to the semifinal round, which started Saturday.”

This turns out to be far from unusual, not only at the Cliburn, but (as Ms. Alhes reports) at competitions in general:

Although it may seem like the world is filled with concert pianists and teachers who could adequately judge a piano competition, [former Cliburn chief Richard] Rodzinski said, there actually is a small pool of talent to draw on for contests at the highest levels. Therefore, he said, it would be impossible to eliminate teachers altogether from juries like the Cliburn’s or the Tchaikovsky’s.

“I think [the criticism of the Cliburn] is a little bit unfair,” Rodzinski said. “There are certain master teachers and obviously, Veda [Kaplinsky] is a master teacher. She’s also a wonderful juror.”

My feeling is that Mr. Rodzinski (son of the great conductor Artur Rodzinski) may be right. When it comes to competition-level pianists, teachers, and judges, “it’s a small world after all.”

The Cliburn Report 8: Here, There, and Everywhere

Jade Simmons

[I will be covering the final round of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in June.  Meanwhile I’m picking the best of the current press coverage for you dining and dancing pleasure.]

I’m a bit late with this one, but I have an excuse: I had to write up and record a review of the tour of Anything Goes that’s playing the Fox Theatre locally. That’s the disadvantage of being both a music and theatre critic.

Anyway, I’ve been concentrating on mainstream media outlets so far, but I don’t want to give you the impression that the blogosphere isn’t paying attention to the competition as well. Here are a couple of recent examples:

Chang Tou Liang’s Pianomania blog has been covering the competition at least as assiduously as mainstream critics Scott Cantreel and Gregory Isaacs (see below). It’s interesting to compare their picks with his.

I have mentioned the fine job pianist Jade Simmons has been doing as host of the Cliburn live webcast. Her Emerge Already! blog is worth a look (and listen—it includes audio blog entries).

Giuseppe Greco
Photo: Ralph Lauer

Back on the mainstream media beat, The Fort Worth Star-Telegram continues its daily photo coverage of the competition, including both performance and backstage pictures from day 6 (May 28th).

Gregory Isaacs’s coverage for TheatreJones continues. His favorites from the first, second, and third Tuesday sessions were:

Oleksandr Poliykov
Photo: Ralph Lauer

Scott Cantrell of the Dallas Morning News singled out the following contestants in his morning, afternoon, and evening reviews:

The Cliburn Report 7: Da Capo

Claire Huangci

[I will be covering the final round of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in June. Meanwhile I’m picking the best of the current press coverage for you dining and dancing pleasure.]

No matter where you stand on the question of the validity of piano competitions in general and The Cliburn in particular, you must admit that the folks behind the Fort Worth-based competition/festival are always looking for ways to improve it and raise public awareness of it (not necessarily the same thing).

This time around, for example, they have doubled the length of the preliminary round by allowing each contestant to perform two 45-minute recitals instead of one as they used to do. It’s more work for the pianists and (especially) the jury, but it does give every performer a second chance.

François Dumont

For an example of the importance of that second chance, one needs look no farther than Claire Huangci (23, USA), who opened the Phase II preliminary session Monday afternoon. As Gregory Isaacs notes in his TheaterJones review:

Her performance of excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Sleeping Beauty, in a virtuoso arrangement by the Russian pianist Mikhail Pletnev, has surely caused the judges to reconsider her. Marquis said that the second recital might make up for an off day in the first round. In this case, it allowed Huangci to have a spectacular day after a good one. Also, it helped to make up for her falling, by luck of the draw, into the dreaded first position in the competition.

As it happens Ms. Huangci’s Sleeping Beauty suite was one of the few performances I’ve been able to catch on the Cliburn’s live webcast, and I heartily second Mr. Isaac’s comments.

Alex McDonald

Meanwhile, wall-to-wall coverage by Mr. Isaacs and Scott Cantrell of the Dallas Morning News continues. In addition to Ms. Huangci, Mr. Isaacs’s favorites from the first, second, and third Monday sessions were:

Mr. Cantrell’s morning, afternoon, and evening reviews singled out:

By way of contrast, he named Mr. Favorin “most annoying player so far.”

And so it goes.

The Cliburn Report 6: First movement coda

Jayson Gillham

Photo: Ralph Lauer

[I will be covering the final round of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in June.  Meanwhile I’m picking the best of the current press coverage for you dining and dancing pleasure.]

As some of you may know, this is the first edition of the Cliburn in which the thirty semi-finalists are given a literal second chance to show their abilities as soloists. Previously, the field was cut from thirty to twelve after only one round of recitals. This year, each contestant gets to perform two forth-minute programs, beginning today. That’s a classic good news/bad news scenario, as Fort Worth Star-Telegram writer Tim Madigan observes. “For all the positives,” he writes, “the new format has brought scheduling challenges and intensified the already grueling nature of the preliminary round. In past competitions, with just one recital per competitor, the preliminaries started to feel like a slog for the media and audience members committed to sitting for every note.”

The Star-Telegram also has a photo gallery of day three for your perusal.

Alexey Chernov

Photo: Ralph Lauer

Mr. Madigan also has a nicely balanced article on what winning the Cliburn does—and doesn’t—mean to a young pianist’s career. It’s well worth a read.

Dallas Morning News music critic Scott Cantrell continues his coverage of the competition with reviews of the Sunday evening recitals as well as the morning and afternoon performances at the paper’s arts blog.

The pianists he singles out for special praise this time are Jayson Gillham (26, Australia-U.K.), Alexey Chernov (30, Russia; “the most riveting contestant so far”), and Sara Daneshpour (26, U.S., who “gets the prize so far for the most ravishing playing”).

Sara Daneshpour

Photo: Ralph Lauer

Gregory Isaacs of the Music Critics Association of North America continues his more detailed coverage of the first, second and third rounds on Sunday at the TheaterJones site. He shares Mr. Cantrell’s enthusiasm for Jayson Gillham, Alexey Chernov, and Sara Daneshpour, but has positive things to say about many of the others as well.

Phase two of the preliminary round began Monday, May 27, at 3 PM central. You can view the entire series live at, hosted with great charm by pianist Jade Simmons.

The Cliburn Report 5: Morning, Noon, and Night in Fort Worth

Nikolay Khozyaninov

[I will be covering the final round of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in June. Meanwhile I’m picking the best of the current press coverage for you dining and dancing pleasure.]

Note-for-note coverage of Phase 1 of the preliminary round continues with Dallas Morning News music critic Scott Cantrell’s reviews of the Saturday afternoon and Saturday night recitals at the paper’s arts blog. None of his reviews are unqualified raves although his comments on Russia’s Nikolay Khozyaninov (age 20) include praise for his “pretty amazing performance of Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit.” He also singled out Italy’s Alessandro Taverna (age 29) for the way he “managed to find some surprises in that Cliburn cliché, the Three Movements from Stravinsky’s Petrushka.”

Lindsay Garritson

Meanwhile, my fellow member of the Music Critics Association of North America, Gregory Isaacs, continues his coverage of the first, second and third rounds on Saturday at the TheaterJones site. He has something positive to say about nearly everyone, but his favorites so far are Ukraine’s Oleksandr Poliykov (age 25; Mr. Isaacs loved his Pictures at an Exhibition); Taiwan’s Kuan-Ting Lin (21), who did well by Liszt; American Lindsay Garritson (25) whose performance of Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 7 in B-flat Major, Op. 83 earned a standing ovation; Nikolay Khozyaninov (he loved the pianist’s Ravel as much as Mr. Cantrell did); and Italy’s Alessandro Deljavan (27) whose outrageous stage persona (he grimaces and hums along, a la Glenn Gould) nevertheless appears to come with good musical judgment. “Weird facial expressions matter not a whit,” notes Mr. Isaacs, “and he received a standing ovation.”

The Cliburn Report 4: Morning Mood

Beatrice Rana

[I will be covering the final round of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in June. Meanwhile I’m picking the best of the current press coverage for you dining and dancing pleasure.]

If you missed the first day of the Cliburn’s seven-day marathon of preliminary round recitals, never fear; the Fort Worth Star-Telegram has a huge photo gallery of the contestants in action, along with an article by Tim Madigan describing some contestant and audience reactions to opening day. Mr. Madigan isn’t doing any handicapping yet, but he did describe 20-year-old Italian pianist Beatrice Rana’s recital as “a highlight of the first day, particularly her exquisite sonata composed by Muzio Clementi…The piece featured slow, pianissimo passages requiring a delicate touch, interspersed with fast music that allowed Rana to showcase her speed and dexterity at the keyboard.”

Nikita Mndoyants

Scott Cantrell of the Dallas Morning News, on the other hand, is doing mini-reviews of each recital. His Friday report is less enthusiastic about Ms. Rana than Mr. Madigan’s (although it’s still mostly positive). His praise of Russia’s Nikita Mndoyants and Italy’s Luca Buratto mostly mirror my own impressions from the webcast (although I’m less bothered by Mr. Buratto’s presentation eccentricities than he is). His blog coverage of this morning’s concert singles out Taiwan’s Kuan-Ting Lin as “one of the most impressive performers so far, sensitive to melodic shape and harmonic nuance,” although he also has praise for the Ukranian Oleksandr Poliykov.

My fellow Music Critics Assocaition of North America member Gregory Isaacs is also doing wall-to-wall Cliburn coverage at the TheaterJones site. The link will be updated as he adds more reviews, so it’s worth a bookmark.

Finally, those of you wishing to escape the hype around the Cliburn (and competitions in general) might want to check out Brad Hill’s curmudgeonly (but thought provoking) article at Huffington Post. You may or may not agree with all of it, but I think you’ll have to admit he makes some telling points.

The Cliburn Report 3: Trial by Jury

[I will be covering the final round of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in June. Meanwhile I’m picking highlights of the current press coverage for your dining and dancing pleasure.]

This is the second in the grueling seven-day marathon that is the preliminary round of the Cliburn competition. Each of the thirty contestants will perform two 45-minute recitals in front of a live audience in the 2,056-seat Bass Performance Hall, located in the city’s Modern Art Museum on Commerce Street, and for a world-wide audience via the Cliburn Foundation’s professionally-produced live webcast at

The concerts start at 11:00 AM and run, with two 90-minute intermissions, until after 10 PM each day. It’s a killer schedule that reminds me of nothing so much as the old “continuous vaudeville” shows of a century ago.

For those of you who might not be familiar with the term (i.e. pretty much anyone who hasn’t made a study of the Vaudeville era), “continuous vaudeville” was an arrangement devised by producer Benjamin Franklin Keith in the early years of the 20th century whereby vaudeville theatres were kept open for twelve hours per day, with entertainment being offered continuously. The same bill of acts would cycle three of four times, with audience members coming and going at will. As Rick Easton notes in his on-line vaudeville history site, “[t]he continuous provided the illusion of a constant and thriving business, eliminating what Keith saw as ‘hesitancy’ on the part of patrons to enter the theatre until they were ‘reassured by numbers.’” It was a great deal for Keith; less so for his acts, who had time to do little else than perform and (maybe) sleep.

The Cliburn’s schedule may not be as punishing to performers as Keith’s was, but it seems to me that it must be every bit as hard on a group that’s equally as critical to the competition: the judges. They’re obliged to not just listen to almost eight hours of recitals per day but to listen attentively as well—a daunting task, to say the least. In his backstage look at the 1989 Cliburn, The Ivory Trade, Joseph Horowitz neatly summarizes the hazards of such a schedule: “Impressions, sharp at first, blur and refocus intermittently. The mind wanders. The ears tire.”

John Giordano

And yet listen they must, and with care. When the preliminary round is over, they’ll have to vote to advance twelve of the thirty contestants to the semifinals. If they take their jobs seriously (as I presume they must) they have to make sure that no nuance of any performance is missed. They need to feel confident that their twelve choices are, in fact, the best of the bunch.

I don’t envy them that task. Listening to some of the live webcast last night, I was struck by the stunningly high level of pianism on display. If asked to pick a “best” among the few I heard, I’d be hard pressed to do it with any degree of assurance. The members of this jury—headed by Fort Worth Symphony director emeritus John Giordano—have their work cut out for them.

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