Starting with the day of arrival, I began keeping a journal of thoughts regarding the 14th Cliburn competition. All the entries are as I wrote at the end of the day, with nothing altered.
June 4, 2013
It’s hot here in Fort Worth, and not only outside. This is the final day of competition to determine the six finalists in the fourteenth Van Cliburn Piano Competition. After ten days of solo playing and chamber music, the thirteen judges will reach a decision around 11 o’clock tonight. These will be the pianists who play concerti with me.
I arrived at 2:00 in the afternoon, only to discover that most of the Dallas-Fort Worth area is under construction. It seems that there is not a road or street that is not undergoing some transformation. It took about 45 minutes to drive to the hotel, which is three blocks from the hall. A box of scores awaited me, with all the pieces that could possibly be played. I will wait for the decision and then open the package.
On our way to dinner, Cindy and I ran into a couple of jurors, who we have both known for quite a while. They looked surprisingly fresh, considering all the music they have had to digest. One said that they think there are a couple really fine pianists but others have some “strange” ideas. I hope they make it through. Strange can be fun.
Not the best start to a day. At 1:30 in the morning, an alarm went off at our hotel, causing the evacuation of floors 8-10. Cindy and I were on the eighth and fast asleep but we had to get out of the building. Nothing was found so 15 minutes later were allowed to go back upstairs.
It is a three-block walk to Bass Hall, a facility funded by an incredible family who has done so much to transform this city. The staff introduced themselves and things got off to a start with an interview. I had requested some time with each pianist to discuss matters of tempo, phrasing and dynamics. This day was devoted to rehearsing with each of the six finalists and we focused only on the Romantic concerti.
All of the pieces in this round were by Russian composers, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and Prokofiev. No surprise there, although it struck me as a bit odd to be doing the two that Van himself did to win the Tchaikovsky competition. You would think that at this point the repertoire would have expanded somewhat.
The oldest pianist is 26 and the youngest 19. There are four different instruments to choose from and several selected the Hamburg Steinway, as it is the most brilliant of the lot. I can see why these musicians were chosen but it seemed as if a couple of them were quite tired from the punishing schedule. There were moments where it was clear that some of them were playing their concerti with orchestra for the first time.
Out of the six, two of them made a strong impression on me, one from Italy and the other from the Ukraine. It will be very interesting to see how they fare in the other concerto, taken from the classic repertoire of Beethoven and Mozart.
The orchestra played quite well and I enjoyed working with them for the first time. They are responsive, but they have to be in order to adjust to the different pianists. Rehearsing for six hours is not the norm for any orchestra in the states, and by the time we got to the final contestant, all of us were pretty tired.
There was only a fifteen-minute turn-around, giving me just a short time to change and get ready for a reception at the zoo. Since Texas is one of the great barbeque parts of the country, I worried a little about what we would be eating. Grilled hippo anyone?
Tomorrow we start the first of four dress rehearsal and concert days, with the evening’s program being played in the morning. When we get to the classic concerti, that will be the only time we see the music so there will be a lot of work to do.
The first round of the finals are now history. Each day we have a dress rehearsal for that evening’s performance. The 3rd Beethoven Concerto had not been rehearsed yet, so this required the most work. I think the competition should consider two rehearsals for the classical works and only one for the big romantic statements.
This is because the amount of detail is much more critical to the overall performance in Beethoven and Mozart, as opposed to Rachmaninov and Prokofiev. I went through the bowings with the concertmaster and made the appropriate changes. The strings seemed happy with our decisions.
Meeting with the soloist, Beatrice Rana, I tried to understand what her wishes were for the 3rd. This mostly consisted of knowing the tempi, which notes she preferred long or short, and where she wanted some time to end a phrase. When we got to the orchestra, much of what I had to say was intoned while we were playing, as there was only 50 minutes allotted for this piece.
The other concerti had been rehearsed yesterday, so we were all more familiar with the predilections of the soloists. They were not as tired today so we got a clearer idea of what they wanted to do. The Prokofiev 2 had more sparkle and Fei-Fei Dong seemed more comfortable with the Rachmaninov 3.
Cameras are everywhere. The whole competition is being recorded for a television documentary. There is one that is above the stage and moves around like some sort of alien ship. It is distracting at first but you get used to it.
The performance started at 7:30. One surprise is that the audience fills only about ¾ of the house. I would have thought that this event would bring all of Fort Worth as well as international musicians flocking in droves. Perhaps the ticket prices are prohibitive or possibly the high quality of the web streaming makes people want to experience it from their homes.
Beatrice did a superb job. Great clarity and poetry. She is my initial pick to win the whole thing, but that is only based on the concerti. I did not hear any of the solo performances or chamber music. Nikita Mndoyants got around all of the technical hurdles in Prokofiev 2 but I thought it was just a bit lugubrious, as if he was trying to downplay the difficulties. Fei-Fei started well enough but it was clear as Rachmaninov 3 progressed, that this concerto might be a bit too much for her. She had a rough moment in the slow movement and the orchestra was quick to pick up on it. We came back together a couple bars later but the pianist was clearly shaken. Still, there was much to admire in her performance.
Tomorrow we have the other three finalists. These are long and demanding days for everyone. My respect for the competitors is increasing as we go along. I am still not sure that this is the way to identify the next super star but it will certainly go a long way in helping some of the pianists make a career.
It turns out that there is more to the Bass performing center than just the auditorium. On the next block stands another building which houses other venues, including the Van Cliburn recital hall. It was there that the day began with a discussion between me and radio host Fred Childs. An audience of about 200 attended and we spoke of many things.
Among the questions posed was why I was conducting without a baton. As much as I would have loved to give an erudite answer, the plain truth is that I forgot to pack any. Fortunately, I am just as comfortable with or sans baguette. In some ways, it is possible to create a more intimate feeling without the stick. This forum was also a good opportunity to plug my book. Several people went to the Barnes and Noble across the street to purchase it, but they were sold out.
A half hour later, we were back into rehearsal with the three pianists who did not perform last night. There were two concerti from the classic period and that meant that these were only getting one rehearsal. This program was a bit shorter than the night before, so the time element was not as crucial.
First up was the youngest contestant at the Cliburn, Tomoki Sakata from Japan. His selection was the D-minor Mozart. It was a somewhat understated view of the work. I tend to associate the piece with the Don Giovanni style of that composer’s writing so clearly there was a bit of a conflict when it came to the approach to the piece.
And this was where I decided things had to change. The previous evening, perhaps I was not aggressive enough in pushing my own ideas forward. After all, I have done these works many more times than the pianists, but also had been overly cautious in accommodating all the soloists. This led to what I felt was a somewhat generalized reading on my part. Now that would change.
The second pianist was Sean Chen, the only American in the finals. He played the Emperor and his approach was pretty much of the same mold as I took. I enjoyed his large-scale view of the work and found some lovely details in his playing. Based on the previous night, I began to think that he posed some serious competition for Ms. Rena.
Finally, the Ukrainian Vadym Kholodenko, who at 26 is the oldest of the finalists. His blazing account of the 3rd Prokoviev had a lot going for it. Of all the pianists, I felt that he was the one who truly knew exactly what he wanted at every step of the way.
All these aspects held true at the performance in the evening. Sakata was still a bit reserved but I pushed him just in an effort to help out. Chen was consistent from the morning but also exhibited the ability to take liberties. Kholodenko was clearly the favorite of the audience and was the first pianist to get three curtain calls, this time from a pretty full house.
It might be worthwhile to establish a degree of difficulty for the repertoire. Prokofiev 3 and the Emperor are not easy works, but they are also not as hard as the former’s 2nd or the latter’s 4th, at least in conveying more thoughtfulness and even virtuosity. I do not mean to take anything away from the pianists here, but it is worth considering which pianist has chosen what pieces.
Certainly with this second round, things have heated up as regards the actual competition. Tomorrow should be most interesting, as Rena will perform the 2nd Prokofiev, which was stunning at the first rehearsal. It is also a chance for Fei-Fei to make up some lost ground.
This was the day when things got really interesting. There was an early morning press conference, at which only 13 people attended. Guess what we had to say was not all that important. I decided to let those present know that we were re-seating the orchestra to their regular configuration, with split violins. The reason is that several people had mentioned that the bass response was too strong in the auditorium with those instruments on the right.
Now we began the second round for each finalist. This time each played a contrasting concerto from what they had performed earlier. The rehearsal contained one work that had not been practiced prior to this day, the fourth piano concerto by Beethoven. This was Fei-Fei’s choice and although everything went relatively well, it seemed to me that she was slightly out of her element in this piece. A better choice might have been the same composer’s first concerto. Her sound was lovely with some nice details, but his is a work that requires a great deal of maturity.
Nikita Mndoyants, who had a somewhat lugubrious Prokofiev 2 the other night, seemed more at ease with the Mozart D-minor. He wrote his own cadenzas, which were interesting but seemed out of character with the rest of the piece. Between the Wagner and Busoni harmonic progressions, we all felt that he would have been better served with something simpler.
Beatrice Rana continued to impress, this time in Prokofiev 2. Her technical command of the work was astonishing, but what struck me is her flexibility. She knew what she wanted and had no problems adjusting to the sounds the orchestra was making.
Pretty much all went the same at the concert. Nikita was fine but perhaps a bit too understated. Fei-Fei showed the fatigue and stress that had appeared the other night. This time she really had technical problems as the Beethoven progressed and my feeling was that she was just happy to get through it.
Beatrice dominated the concert in the way that Vadym had the night before. Those that had not been won over with her Beethoven 3 were completely captivated with Prokofiev 2. She was impetuous and played at breakneck speeds. This is the one pianist that clearly is not afraid to take chances. Not having heard any of the solo or chamber performances, and based solely on the concerto, I would say that she is now the front-runner to take the gold.
But we still have to hear from Kholodenko and Chen, who play at the last concert tomorrow.
This has all become much more interesting than I expected.
The last pieces of the puzzle fell into place for me at the rehearsal. Vadym Kholodenko seemed to be in a virtual tie with Beatrice Rana so everyone was anxiously waiting to hear his Mozart. Prior to going on stage, he told me that he had never played the work before and this sent up a red flag. No need to worry though. It was clear he had the work firmly in his grasp.
Tomoki was a bit more confident in the Tchaikovsky Concerto. When we went through it on Wednesday I was not so sure he had really learned it but now things were better. Still, the pianist seemed at odds with the stylistic demands of this piece.
Sean was confident and regal with the Rachmaninov 3rd. I told him that he needed to forget that he was in a competition and simply enjoy himself. There was a certain restraint at the rehearsal and that would not suffice at the concert.
Sure enough, the final performance went pretty much as the rehearsal. I felt a bit sorry for the pianists, as they only had a couple hours between the morning practice and the final. It is not so easy to play the big pieces twice within a three-hour time span.
Vadym had written his own cadenzas for the Mozart and they were delightful. Apparently he was not satisfied with the ones that already existed so on the long flight to Fort Worth, he composed it on the plane. Clearly he was the audience favorite of the afternoon, much as Beatrice had been the night before.
After the performance, I met with the jurors. They wanted my opinion about working with the finalists. When asked about my own picks, I had it as Vadym, Beatrice and Sean as 1,2,3. But I cautioned that this was based solely on the concerti.
The end result was as I predicted, prompting more than one juror to comment that in four years, the Cliburn could save a lot of money by hiring me as conductor and sole judge. Kholodenko also took home prizes for best performance of the commissioned work as well as chamber music collaboration. The judges voted without discussion and there was no question that the system was the best possible for making a decision without politics being involved. Those that had students in the competition could not vote for those candidates. It was all completely above board.
It would be difficult to argue with the final decision. Beatrice had won as the audience favorite, but Vadym seemed more well-rounded at this point. Keep in mind that he is 26 and she is 20, not that age matters, but his poise was remarkable and the victory was certainly deserved. With that being said, I will most likely find time to engage these two as well as keep an eye on Sean. They were outstanding.
In the end, I came away with a newfound respect for the world of musical competition. It is an arduous task for everyone. Deciding who is best seems impossible, but the rigors of this two-week contest show a survival of the fittest mentality. After the last notes of Rach 3, I felt truly exhausted. There were bumps on some of the roads but for the most part, all the pianists got the support they deserved.
The unsung heroes of the week were the members of the Fort Worth Symphony. With all the concerts lasting two and a half hours, plus the full rehearsals prior, this was a punishing schedule. If they had let down at all, it might have been possible to undermine any one of the contestants. Stetsons off to this hardy bunch of musicians.
Van’s memory was honored throughout the competition. It was somewhat ironic that the last two pieces played were the ones that won him the Tchaikovsky prize in 1958. The gentle giant seemed to be smiling at all of us. Somewhere those rolling chords of the B-Flat Concerto are resounding as if calling young pianists to the next contest in four years.