The ‘Yoda’ of the piano world dominates the Tchaikovsky competition

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer and critic with special interest in piano. He spent nine years on the board of the London International Piano Competition and has written extensively on music for leading publications, including the International New York Times, Clavier Companion, The Washington Times, American Spectator and the website Facts & Arts. He spent four years in Moscow as a correspondent and also worked as a journalist in Paris, London and New York. 02.07.2015

The International Tchaikovsky Competition in St. Petersburg and Moscow ended last night (July 1) in a virtual American sweep in the piano category, with gold and bronze prizes going to American-trained Russian boys and the silver to a Chinese-American player from Boston.

Never has the competition been so influenced by U.S. pedagogical talent. 

The audience roared its approval as Dmitri Masleev, 27, the shy, modest pianist from the Siberian city of Ulan-Ude, stepped forward to accept the top prize, worth 20,000 euros, one of the richest piano awards in the world. Second place, for 15,000 euros, had just been announced for George Li, 19, a student of Russell Sherman, and the bronze third prize for 10,000 euros went to Sergei Redkin, 23.

The competition also included categories in voice, violin and cello. Full results are available at the competition site.

Other Tchaikovsky piano winners have included Van Cliburn (1958), Andrei Gavrilov (1974), Barry Douglas (1986) and Boris Berezovsky (1990).

To aficianados of the piano world, the thread linking the first and third prizes last night was the most stunning. Both Masleev and Redkin are studying with William Grant Naboré, [in the picture] the American virtuoso who serves as president and artistic director of the International Piano Academy Lake Como in Dongo, Italy. He personally worked with Masleev and Redkin, even coaching them by phone from during the long trials of the competition. 

Naboré’s students have walked off with so many major competition prizes over the past few years that he has acquired the nickname of the “Yoda” of the piano world. Naboré is a black American of small stature, a ready smile and wise teachings.

Reached by phone in Rome, he was relishing his double victory, only the latest in an extraordinary history of training next-generation artists, but he was quick to credit his faculty of master class teachers for their role. “Our academy was founded on the ideal of promoting high art for the piano,” he told me. “All our students and master class faculty are chosen for their adherence to these principles. These latest winners are helping us keep our pianistic utopia alive.” 

Current Como faculty include Dmitri Bashkirov, Leon Fleischer and Fou Ts’ong, Malcolm Bilson, Menehem Pressler and Peter Frankl, among others. The late Charles Rosen and Alicia de Larrocha were also regular faculty members. Many donate their time as a way of “giving something back to their art,” said Naboré, “and they are all passionate pedagogues”. The teachers will be critical to the new Como partnership with the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, which will be inaugurated in September.

Among his students who have rocked the competition world are Yulianna Avdeeva, who took first prize in the Chopin Competition in Warsaw in 2010, Denis Kozhukin won first prize in the Queen Elisabeth Music Competition in 2010, Severin Von Eckardstein, who won the Queen Elisabeth Music Competition gold in Brussels in 2009. Martina Filjk won first prize at the Cleveland Piano Competition in 2009, and Behzod Abduraimov won the London International Piano competition in 2009. Stanislav Ioudenich, who won gold at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2001, now serves on the Como faculty.

The Como concept provides about seven young pianists, chosen from about 1,000 applicants annually, with room and board and the freedom to develop repertoire with a minimum of pressure. Teaching is provided by Naboré and his hand-picked faculty who fly in and out of Italy for week-long sessions with the students. Naboré believes competition winners in particular need such breathing space before setting out on a rigorous career path.

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