There are many different ways to judge the success or failure of the first-ever Cliburn Junior Piano Competition, but the yardstick I’m using is that the three performances in the final round of the competition would not have been out of place in the senior Cliburn competition.
Family obligations and other Weekly duties prevented either Edward Brown or Kristian Lin from covering the semifinal and final rounds of this new contest by ourselves, so we split up the duties and, with an assist from the Cliburn’s high-quality streaming-video service, we covered it piecemeal-style. Here are our notes on what we heard. You can also hear all the performances yourself on the Cliburn’s YouTube channel.
The first-place winner was Alim Beisembayev, a native of Almaty, Kazakhstan, a fact that sorely tempted me to make a joke that included the phrase “for make benefit glorious nation.” The guy has studied ballroom dancing but this burly 17-year-old looks like he’d be perfectly at home on the terrace of some soccer grounds with his shirt off, screaming for his club. His rendition of Prokofiev’s Seventh Piano Sonata in the semis was too tame, but he made up for it with some heaven-storming performances of Liszt’s B minor Ballade in the quarterfinals and a version of Chopin’s Fantaisie in F minor that caught fire in the second half. He also turned in a well-articulated rendition of Ligeti’s étude “Der Zauberlehrling” (translation: “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”). His final performance was of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, and conductor Mei-Ann Chen had the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra playing with frightening purpose.
The second-place prize went to Arsenii Mun, a slender native of St. Petersburg (the one in Russia, not the one in Florida) with his hair piled high on top of his head. His semifinal recital wasn’t that impressive. He drew a magnificent sound from the piano with Beethoven’s Variations in C minor, but his playing of Debussy’s Pour le piano was self-indulgent, and we were mystified why he programmed Rodion Shchedrin’s slapstick obscurity Humoresque. (Maybe it’s because he’s 16 and likes it?) His final-round performance of Grieg’s Piano Concerto quite a bit better, though. It was overpedaled rather thickly in some places, but it was assured and deeply felt.
Third place was awarded to Ji Youlan, a 16-year-old girl from Beijing with glasses who looks unassuming until she smiles when she’s onstage. Edward Brown noted that she seemed in her element with the counterpoint in Bach’s Overture in the French Style and admired her restraint with Beethoven’s 24th Piano Sonata. Kristian Lin heard her final-round performance of Chopin’s Second Piano Concerto and thought she seemed a natural fit for the Polish master. Both of us were impressed by her elegance and refinement, though those qualities tend not to win competitions.
As for the semifinalists who didn’t make it to the finals, the 16-year-old Japanese pianist Yukine Kuroki distinguished herself in Liszt’s “Harmonies du soir” with her voicing of the main theme and accurate playing of the jutting chords shooting from the piano’s extremities to its center. Along with a gleeful rendition of Minako Tokuyama’s Musica Nara (a fusion of Western and Asian music that mimicked Debussy and Gershwin at times), she showed a wide color palette and an uncanny command of the instrument.
A 16-year-old from Virginia, Evelyn Mo offered a more introspective program, differentiating the items in Mendelssohn’s Variations Sérieuses and balancing delicacy with urgency in Chopin’s Fourth Ballade, resisting the urge to oversentimentalize the music. She then shifted into an intoxicating performance of the nightmarish, percussive first movement of Lowell Lieberman’s Gargoyles.
Luo Wei is also 16 years old, but she’s from Shenzhen, China. She gave a well-laid-out and reasonably pretty account of Shostakovich’s Prelude and Fugue in A-flat major, and her playing of Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Paganini was both energetic and architecturally sound. The recital would have been worth recommending unreservedly, except that her version of Ravel’s La Valse was fussy and labored, missing the angst of the piece.
The audience award and the award for best classical sonata performance went to Misha Galant, the 17-year-old quarterfinalist from California. The award for best performance of a lyrical work went to Ádám Balogh, the 17-year-old Hungarian who shares his name with one of his country’s military heroes, an 18th-century freedom fighter. Discretionary awards from the jury went to 17-year-old Clayton Stephenson from New York and 16-year-old Tony Yike Yang from Toronto. Many of these competitors will be old enough to qualify for the senior competition when it rolls around in 2017. Best of luck to all of them.