Going into the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition awards ceremony last weekend, I correctly guessed the three medalists. But I wasn’t at all sure of their order. It would depend on how the jury — a distinguished panel of pianists — would weight the players’ strengths and weaknesses.
In the event, at Fort Worth’s Bass Performance Hall, the gold medal and $100,000 cash prize went to the amazing 18-year-old South Korean Yunchan Lim, the youngest first-prize winner in the competition’s 60-year history. The silver medal, worth $50,000, was awarded to the oldest competitor this year, Anna Geniushene, a 31-year-old Russian. The bronze medalist, winning $25,000, was Dmytro Choni, 28, from Ukraine.
I covered just the semifinal and final rounds this time, although in checking out Texas Christian University’s new Van Cliburn Concert Hall as a new venue for preliminary and quarterfinal rounds, I happened upon Genuishene’s performances in both.
For what it’s worth, having covered at least part of seven Cliburns, and listened to heaven knows how many other pianists live and on recordings, I would have ordered the winners differently. I’m the first to admit that this is a product of my personal tastes and the priorities I bring to listening.
Lim displayed mind-boggling virtuosity and interpretive depth scarcely imaginable in one so young. In the semifinal round, he gave as brilliant a performance as you’ll ever hear of Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes, containing some of the hardest music ever composed for piano. Although some found his Mozart and Beethoven concertos undistinguished, I relished an understated freshness.
I wasn’t entirely convinced by his Rachmaninoff Third Concerto. It started with great promise, and there was elegant expression in more introspective parts. But some fortissimos were banged out with a nasty metallic clang — to which I’m as allergic as to the frequent overplaying these days by string ensembles. His race through the finale, at the fastest tempo I’ve ever heard, sacrificed nobility for mere technical brilliance.
Smart and accomplished pianist friends, including professors prominent in the field, were willing to overlook those issues for the overall brilliance and interpretive depth elsewhere. That, clearly, was the mind of the jury.
Lim is a one-in-a-million talent. But, brilliant as he is, he’s still an 18-year-old college student. I wonder if he’s ready to be thrown into a significant performing career. At the awards ceremony, while the other medalists shook hands and beamed as they took their places onstage, Lim looked lost, wandering around aimlessly. Hardly ever smiling, he had to be repeatedly guided into place for photos.
History is littered with young prodigies who exploded on the scene, then burned out early. I wonder if 18 isn’t too early an eligibility age for a competition clearly designed to set winners on performance careers ― or give major boosts to careers already underway.
But one of the best things the Cliburn does for its medalists is give them career management and counseling for three years, along with pre-arranged performance opportunities. I hope Lim gets the best possible guidance. As superbly as he obviously has been trained so far, at some point he probably could use a different teacher to cultivate more breadth and depth of touch and tone. But I’m in awe of what he’s accomplished already, and wish him a glorious career ahead.
My vote for the gold would have gone to Choni. Each time he strode onstage, it was with winning confidence and a big smile. His Prokofiev Third Concerto was a bit machined, but other performances were replete with deft touches. Whatever bones one might pick with an interpretation here or there, he’s clearly an accomplished, assured ― and communicative — pro. He already has a significant concert career, and now there’s every reason to expect it to flourish even more.
Geniushene is a solid, substantive musician in the venerable Russian tradition. Her Brahms Op. 10 Rhapsodies in the preliminary round were ravishing, reminding me of the late Radu Lupu (gold medalist in the second Cliburn back in 1966). Her Tchaikovsky First Concerto at the competition’s end didn’t strike me as particularly distinctive, but it was thoughtful and authoritative. Like Choni, she’s got the goods for a concert career.
Among the finalists who didn’t win medals, Clayton Stephenson, the sole American, has a charismatic stage presence that whipped Bass Hall audiences into roaring ovations. His accomplished performances just needed a bit more seasoning and subtlety to win a medal. But he’s young, 23, and there’s every reason to expect a rewarding career ahead of him.
Even younger, the 20-year-old Belarusian Uladzislau Khandohi supplied some excellent performances, but an overindulgent Rachmaninoff Second Concerto may have doomed him. Ilya Shmukler, a 27-year-old Russian who also competed in 2017, sometimes seemed to try too hard to impress.
Russia, long fertile ground for pianists, supplied the largest contingent of six competitors in this year’s Cliburn. China was next, with five; South Korea with four; the United States, with three. Of the 30 competitors, surprisingly, only three were women.
The concerto performances
A required Mozart concerto was new in this year’s semifinal round, replacing the piano quintets long a Cliburn staple. According to Cliburn president and CEO Jacques Marquis, past winners said pianists relatively new to the concert circuit need as many concertos as possible under their fingers, and Mozart is certainly a staple.
I missed the chamber music performances, which in past years often revealed the most profound musicianship of the competition. But the Mozart concertos revealed more than I expected about senses of timing and taper, and, of course, interactions with an orchestra and conductor.
The Cliburn was smart to tap Nicholas McGegan, a specialist in 18th century music, as conductor for this round. The Fort Worth Symphony, excellent as it has become in recent years, has had little experience with fine points of 18th century style, but McGegan got spirited, nicely nuanced playing from the orchestra. And he was clearly supportive of the pianists.
With the Mozart addition, the FWSO was tasked with rehearsing and performing an overwhelming 21 different concertos in a mere two weeks, with young pianists of varying experience. This would have challenged the biggest-name orchestra anywhere. Alas, in neither Bass Hall nor online did the FWSO have a chance to sound its considerable best, especially in the final round of larger-scale concertos.
I never got an answer as to who decided to draw sound absorbent curtains over interior side walls of Bass Hall. They were designed to deaden the acoustics for amplified performances, and I’d never before seen them at a classical orchestra concert. They didn’t seem to be a problem with the piano sound, but they dried out orchestral sonorities.
Weirdly, Marin Alsop, the conductor of the final round concertos — and jury chair — kept shushing the orchestra, even when it had the most important parts. In the hall, the orchestra often sounded inhibited and colorless, in ways I’d never before experienced.
Friends following the competition online said balances were fine there, but multiple microphones and a mixing desk can manipulate balances. And Alsop, nothing if not an experienced conductor, seemed to let the orchestra play out more the last couple of days.
Judging by the YouTube livestream on the last afternoon, on two different but pretty good playback systems, the online audio left a lot to be desired. Violins sounded as if they were playing in a clothes closet, and first-chair flute and oboe stuck out due to what sounded like a microphone too close between them.
An endurance contest
One of the world’s highest visibility classical music competitions, the Cliburn has long been a pioneer in media coverage. This time, it drew more than 10 million views of its live and delayed webcasts, including interviews and behind-the-scenes vignettes. On Monday, Lim’s performance of the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto was No. 24 globally in YouTube views.
Having delayed this 16th competition by a year because of COVID-19, the Cliburn will return to what would have been its normal quadrennial schedule in 2025.
Above all, the Cliburn — now requiring three solo recitals and three concertos to be considered for a medal — is an endurance contest. You can hear when contestants’ energies are flagging, and when they go into overdrive to try to power through it.
Whether this is the best way to judge career prospects, let alone the nominally “best” pianist, will continue to be debated. In the end, the jury, no more prescient than the rest of us, makes a judgment at one point in time.
Whoever “wins” or “loses,” the Cliburn remains a showcase for a lot of amazing young talents from around the world. In whatever directions their lives and careers take them, may they prosper.