In one way, I’m perfectly qualified to cover the Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition. Who better than a film critic who occasionally forays into classical music criticism because he likes doing it to cover a bunch of pianists who make their living from other jobs but pursue music because they like it? And this year, the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra was led by another talented amateur: Damon Gupton, a trained actor who moonlights as a symphony conductor. My office duties at the Weekly kept me from attending the earlier rounds of this year’s competition, but I was able to catch the final-round performances on Saturday afternoon, so here’s my report on what I heard.
The six finalists had to play a movement from a piano concerto, and had to make their selection from a predetermined list of only 13 works, so musical diversity was in rather short supply. The evening was led off by Gregory Knight, a 53-year-old software consultant from Morganton, N.C. who proved to be a tall man with a distinguished head of gray hair. He was the first of three pianists to play the first movement of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto. His interpretation of the work was pretty and liquid, with some particularly good work in the cadenza.
Ken Iisaka is another software engineer, though he’s from Foster City, Cal. I saw him at a previous competition playing some unforgettable renditions of Alkan and Scriabin’s piano music. Later, I shared the newsroom with him at the last Van Cliburn Piano Competition, when the Cliburn Foundation hired him to do some blogging for the competition’s site. I thought he should have won in that previous year, but his version of the third movement of Mozart’s Ninth Piano Concerto wound up getting away from him, growing faster and more rushed as he went on.
Parisian strategy consultant Xavier Aymonod turned in the second of the opening movements of Beethoven’s Third, and while his version wasn’t as pretty as Knight’s rendition, he offered up more clarity and point. It may be my imagination but FWSO also seemed sharper behind him on the orchestra’s second run-through of the piece.
Still, the best Beethoven performance of the afternoon came from Matthias Fischer, a physician from Würzburg, Germany. (Hey, that’s Dirk Nowitzki’s hometown!) He played the first movement of Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto. This performance had everything, beauty, structure, articulation, directness, restraint, and emotional depth, especially in the movement’s climax. No wonder he got the strongest response from the crowd.
Perhaps it was the order of the performances that made Michael Slavin‘s take on the first movement of Beethoven’s Third Concerto seem blah. Maybe I’d have been more impressed if I’d heard it before the other Beethovens, or if it hadn’t come immediately after Fischer’s. The retired ophthalmologist from Manhasset, N.Y. played with no shortage of technical skill or confidence, and yet something seemed to be missing from the performance.
The final round went out with a bang when Thomas Yu played the finale of Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 5. Perhaps the audience (like me) was in the mood for something opulent and splashy after so much Mozartean and Beethovenesque restraint, but we were relieved to see the periodontist from Calgary play something like a showpiece. I was unfamiliar with the piece (nicknamed “Egyptian” because the composer wrote it while on vacation in Luxor) before this performance, and Yu and FWSO made me sorry not to have made its acquaintance earlier. It’s a fun piece with some chintzy orientalist color, and Yu tossed off the finale with a dizzying whirl of alternating octaves that brought the audience to its feet.
From that performance alone, you could see the logic in Yu winning the top prize at this year’s contest, with Slavin placing second and Aymonod third. Yu also won the competition’s Audience Award and Press Award, while Knight took home a prize for creative programming, Iisaka won for best performance of a work from the Classical Era, and Fischer won for best performance of a work from the Romantic Era. Looks like the judging committee, which took more than two hours to hand down its decision, spread the wealth here. Congratulations to Thomas Yu, and we’ll look forward to hearing the other pianists at future amateur competitions.