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Dmytro Choni represents Ukraine at the Van Cliburn Competition. Photo by Kristian Lin.

The Van Cliburn Competition started out at TCU and took place there for decades before Bass Hall was built. It makes sense that the early rounds move back to the school’s spiffy new music center, especially since those parts of the competition tend to draw smaller crowds than the finals anyway. The hall is two-thirds full on Saturday afternoon and fuller in the evening, and the experience is much better than having that same crowd spread out thinly over Bass Hall. The gallery seats extend all the way around the stage, which is why you’ve noticed the contestants bowing to all directions before and after their performances. I like the blond wood along the sides, and the acoustics are doing wonders for the piano sound: All the contestants I hear sound so much fuller than the ones that I’ve heard at home. Also, the seats (appropriately covered with purple fabric) are actually comfortable to sit in. I want to come back here even after the competition is over.

The first two contestants play the Hough piece without the benefit of a score, and they sound very assured. Kim Hong-gi was a semifinalist here five years ago, and he’s playing like he wants a repeat gold medal for South Korea. His four Scarlatti sonatas are played with bell-like clarity and explosive energy as required, and he does a great impression of the various orchestral instruments with Mikhail Pletnev’s transcription of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite. Just as good is Kate Liu, the Singapore-born pianist who represents USA and puts together a sturdy version of Schubert’s Allegretto in C minor before delivering a smashing version of Prokofiev’s Eighth Piano Sonata, the Soviet composer’s epic depiction of the devastation wrought on his country by the Nazi invasion. (No comment here.) Another South Korean player, Park Jin-hyung, paints in primary colors as he plays the first book of Debussy’s Images. He lacks the finesse that we hear from great Debussy players, but a brasher-than-usual Debussy isn’t necessarily a bad one. His sound would seem to suit Liszt better, but Park’s version of Venezia e Napoli turns into mush. This concert might still be good enough to put him into the next round, but I’m not sure of his prospects going forward.

Dmytro Choni (that last name pronounced with a hard “ch” and rhyming with “pony”) is the only pianist here playing for Ukraine, though as a soccer fan, I’ll point out that tomorrow, the Ukrainian soccer team plays Wales for a spot in December’s World Cup. I’ll update you on the outcome. He plays an energetic if somewhat meandering version of Schumann’s Novelette in F-sharp minor, and the first movement of his Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Sonata is ponderous with some muddy colors. Yet that great, sorrowful second movement of the sonata takes on some extra meaning when you consider what his homeland is going through right now, and he brings the piece home with marvelous aplomb.

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Shin Chang-yong delivers an inconsistent program to start the evening session. His Chopin Nocturne in B major falls apart, but he makes up for it with a hellacious “Los Requiebros” from Granados’ Goyescas. Ilya Shmukler is the third 2017 contestant to make the competition again, and he’s the classical music equivalent of that heavy-metal guitarist who can out-shred everyone but is lost when you ask him to play “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” Playing loud and fast is the only thing he knows how to do, and while his bombast isn’t out of place in his clockwork version of Busoni’s transcription of Bach’s Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue, it bores me well before his Three Movements from Petrouchka ends. Lim Yun-chan is the other kind of dull, tasteful and bland, and his rendition of Chopin’s “La ci darem la mano” Variations doesn’t convince me that that student work deserves deeper consideration.

The 18 pianists who made it to the second round have been announced: Cano Smit, Choni, Crema, Geniushene, Kamei, Khandohi, Kim, Li, Lim, Linnik, Kate Liu, Park, Shin, Shmukler, Stephenson, Sun, Tadokoro, and Yoshimi. I missed the morning session, when Crema and Tadokoro played, but I’m including a link here. I’ll catch up on their performances later and include my thoughts when I comment on them in the next round. I don’t envy the musicians who have to play their second-round recitals less than 12 hours after learning they’ve advanced.

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