Saturday, 8 June 2013

QUEST FOR THE NEXT CLIBURN / Article on the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition for The Straits Times

Here is the article about the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition which I wrote for The Straits Times, published on Saturday 8 June 2013.

Come Sunday afternoon, one very talented pianist will be crowned Gold Medallist of the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition at Bass Performance Hall, in the gentrified Texan city of Fort Worth. With this accolade comes a bounty of fifty thousand American dollars (SGD 62,5000), instant fame or notoriety, concert engagements around the globe, and a stellar career of performance artistry. Of these, only the first three are a given. The Cliburn, and others of the “Big Five” fraternity of international piano competitions (which include the Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Queen Elisabeth and Leeds), has been accused of extravagance and the inability to uncover true talent. 

There are several pathways in which a young artist can achieve fame and fortune in an overcrowded world of classical performance. One is to be recognised and championed by a famous and well-established conductor, orchestra, impresario or recording label. That is the rare privilege of a select handful, such as Chinese pianist Lang Lang and his Russian counterpart Evgeny Kissin, who perform at the world’s top concert venues and command astronomically high fees. The other is to get noticed by winning important music competitions, high-profile events of often-gruelling intensity and arduousness which have been compared with the Olympics, Tour de France and Wimbledon.

Van Cliburn's ticker tape parade in New York City in 1958.

World-renowned pianists like Maurizio Pollini, Martha Argerich, Murray Perahia and Krystian Zimerman were discovered through winning major competitions. Even Ivo Pogorelich, Youri Egorov and Peter Donohoe made their names by not winning competitions, the controversy which arose buoying them to critical successes and notices. Arguably the world’s most famous piano competition winner was Van Cliburn himself, who won First Prize in Moscow’s Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in 1958 amid Cold War neuroses and Soviet-American intrigue.

Hailed as “the Texan who conquered Russia”, he garnered a ticker-tape parade in New York City befitting war heroes, sold a million records of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto and became a figure of adulation like Neil Armstrong or Elvis Presley. However within twenty years, his career had all but fizzled out, with the legend living out the comforts of celebrity retirement until his death from metastatic bone cancer on 27 February this year.

A jubilant Alexei Sultanov in 1989. 

Held every four years, The Cliburn - named after Fort Worth’s most illustrious resident - has attempted to recreate a similar success for its winners but results have fallen short. Only the Romanian Radu Lupu, winner in 1962, has gone on to become a household name, albeit without the glitz or glamour of Cliburn himself. Most other winners have languished in the periphery of consciousness, or in the case of 1989 winner Alexei Sultanov, suffered a precipitous comedown. The 19-year-old Uzbek “wild child”, dissatisfied with his American victory, attempted both the Chopin and Tchaikovsky competitions without winning either. He fell into alcoholism and died after a series of strokes at 35.

Asia ruled  at the 2009 Cliburn. Joint winners Nobuyuki Tsujii and Zhang Haochen.

To its credit, The Cliburn and its foundation has a policy of managing the careers of its six finalists for a period of three years post-competition, helping them find their feet in the uncertain world of the concert stage. Both its 2009 joint-winners have benefited. The blind Japanese Nobuyuki Tsujii, already a star in his homeland, became known universally. The Chinese student Zhang Haochen, then only 19, has steadily built a base upon his musical maturity, sensitivity and personal modesty. Zhang has already performed with both the Singapore Symphony and Singapore Chinese Orchestras to rave reviews, while tickets to Tsujii’s 25 June Esplanade Concert Hall recital have already been sold out. Neither would have been heard in Singapore if not for the competition.

What about the cohort of 2013? Having heard its 30 pianists (whittled down from 132 in live auditions held worldwide) in two 45-minute preliminary round solo recitals, There seems to be two trends emerging; the prodigious youngster (22 years and younger) with fingers of amazing dexterity versus the world-wizened veteran (pushing 30, the upper age limit) of experience and well-formed ideas.

A study in contrasts: Clean-cut tomoko Sakata, mature Alexei Chernov and the Beatles-mullet of Sean Chen.

Judging by the six pianists selected by the 13-member jury formed by performers, professors and a soul music critic, the former demographic seems to be favoured. How else would the youngest participant, Japanese Tomoki Sakata, 19, he of the ultra-slick Albeniz, Liszt and Pabst transcriptions, have edged out the Russian Alexei Chernov, 30, whose darkly hewn and deeply-felt Beethoven Sonata Op.111 was one of the most satisfying performances of the competition thus far? Interestingly, the only American pianist to progress to the grand concerto final was the Chinese American Sean Chen, 24, whose vision of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata was glib and superficial.

The always passionate Alessandro Deljavan, for whom music has no half measures.

Ultimately it comes down to an enviable but elusive combination of a natural, unforced virtuosity, rare artistry, stage presence, charisma and likeability, qualities which Cliburn possessed in loads. In this respect, my votes went to the balding and hirsute Italian Alessandro Deljavan, 26, whose performances of Chopin Twelve Etudes Op.25 and Schumann’s Fantasy Op.17, evincing a passion and pain borne of life’s turmoils and torments. A touching life story, one of losing his father at an early age and needing to support his family through teaching and performing, was wholly believable given the depth of his playing. He, with five others, was eliminated after the semi-finals stage.

Beatrice Rana plays and looks far older than her 20 years.

That leaves my two other favourites Italian Beatrice Rana, 20, an artist of uncommon maturity of expression, and China’s Dong Fei-Fei, 22, whose fair China doll looks belie an inner fire and febrile intensity, to vie for top honours. If this competition raises the living life-as-artistry philosophy to the highest echelons of the world’s performing stages, this competition would be deemed a success. The teacher of Deljavan and Sakata, the American-born Italian resident William Grant Nabore, 71, who had three other pianists in this competition, summed it up nicely, “We are hopefully looking out for maturity and true artistry. Just about anybody can play the piano.”   
Dong Fei-Fei is anything but bone china.
Photos courtesy of Fort Worth Star-Telegram (the other ST).

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