Jun 10th 2009

Odd couple share Cliburn gold

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

The Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas, ended Sunday on a somewhat sour note, with some critics and former winners wondering how the jury could award the top prize jointly to the two young winners - one a Chinese teenager, the other a blind, autistic Japanese boy who memorizes music from CDs.

South Korean Yeol Eum Son, 23, won the silver medal. No "crystal" award, or third prize, was given. This was the first time the Cliburn has awarded the top three prizes to Asians.

Italian finalist Mariangela Vacatello, 27, won the first audience award, determined by webcast viewers. As a tribute to her outstanding performance, she was besieged on her way out of the hall by fans and autograph-seekers. Some critics felt she had been undervalued by the jury.

Jury discretionary awards went to Lukas Vondracek, 22, of the Czech Republic, Alessandro Deljavan, 22, of Italy, and Eduard Kunz, 28, of Russia. Deljavan was also touted early on as a possible gold medal winner.

Haochen Zhang, the Chinese gold winner, who turned 19 during the competition, was noticed throughout the two-week eliminations as a player with strong technique but sometimes superficial grasp of the music. This is a common complaint about Asians now flooding U.S. and European conservatories and competitions.

The Japanese pianist sharing the gold was Nobuyuki Tsujii, 20, blind from birth and mentally handicapped, who offered undistinguished performances but was the object of sympathy from jurors, the public and some of the press. One blogger called him the "Susan Boyle of the piano", referring to the British amateur singer who recently created a stir on a television talent show with her combination of a clear voice but limited social skills.

One critic said in his internet blog: "The trouble (with Tsujii) popped up in … Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata. It sounded entirely too much like everything else he's played. There's too little variability in his frequently shallow tone … The structure was all over the place, too. Simply, he doesn't understand the music."

The critic wrote that if Tsujii made the finals, which he did, the jury "will be ignoring his performances and voting for the blind guy. And this undeveloped but talented musician deserves more consideration than that."

Said another critic: "He's not quite there yet. He went right past the music in the famous (Chopin) third etude, because he couldn't wait to get to the thirds. His Debussy sounded exactly like the Chopin, too,"

"Nobu", as he became known to his fans, said virtually nothing during the competition, allowing his mother, father and translator to do the talking. From my Bordeaux study, I watched a webcast of one of his rehearsals for a Chopin Piano Concerto. His keyboard touch was uncertain but the conductor seemed to be giving him the benefit of the doubt. As his translator relayed the conductor's suggestions to him, his head rolled about on his shoulders and he said nothing.

The only comment from him relayed by the media in Fort Worth concerned his admiration for another blind pianist. "I listen to jazz a lot," he said through his translator, "and I like Stevie Wonder. Meeting him was the happiest moment of my life."

Other than that comment, it emerged in an interview with his father that Nobu likes cowboys and he likes Texas. "Many people in Texas were very kind. And Texas is very wide," his father said.

Others at the competition noticed that Nobu was surrounded by an entourage of assistants who protected him from contact with others. Too much socializing was said to risk interfering with his musical skills.

One leading pianist compared Tsujii to sufferers of the "idiot savant" syndrome as described by neurologist Oliver Sacks in his recent book "Musicophilia". Sacks recalls the case of American black pianist "Blind Tom", who in the 1860s displayed "prodigious musical powers" but little else and became a national curiosity. Many other odd musical prodigies have since been identified.

The syndrome, wrote Dr. Sacks, allows "prodigious development (of music skills) in a mind that may otherwise be underdeveloped in verbal and abstract thought."

Conductor James Conlon, who led the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra through the finalists' concertos, said Tsujii was his first encounter with a blind pianist. "I don't think he should be viewed as some sort of circus act," Conlon said. "Obviously he's an extraordinarily musical person, an extraordinary pianist. And I think he will do very well on the absolute objective scale of his talent."

The competition's integrity was further undermined by what some critics saw as a bias against Russian applicants, and jury members openly voting for their own students.

Others complained that a disproportionate number of students from the Juilliard School of Music in New York made it into the semifinals. Mme. Yoheved "Veda" Kaplinsky, head of piano at Juilliard, was on the pre-selection committee that identified the 29 competitors, then also on the jury. Most competitions, including the London International Piano Competition, prohibit such conflicts of interest.

Of the 12 Cliburn semifinalists, six were Asian, and of the six finalists, four were Asian.

Complained one critic: "What does that say about the judges' preferences? Or more broadly, what does it say about where classical music is headed in the next decade?"

International piano competitions, ever more numerous in Europe and the United States, have become somewhat tainted by the closed community of jurors and participants, many of whom are part of a circle that moves from venue to venue. Integrity will suffer further if criteria other than the quality of performance are allowed to weigh on the results.

Below video clips of performances by the top four. Your views on the competition, or music competitions in general, would be much appreciated. Please write your comments below.


Haochen Zhang, Gold Medalist, Final Recital:

Nobuyuki Tsujii, Gold medalist, Semifinal Recital:

Yeol Eum Son, Silver Medalist, Semifinal Recital:

Mariangela Vacatello, First Audience Award, Final Recital:



Your views on the competition would be much appreciated. Please write your comments below.

Should you wish to publish your own article on the Facts & Arts website, please contact us at info@factsandarts.com.

Editor


 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Jul 15th 2019
".....one of the most accurate recession indicators, known as the yield curve, has recently been flashing warning signs. Every postwar recession in the US was preceded by an inversion of the yield curve, meaning that long-term interest rates had fallen below short-term interest rates, some 12 to 18 months before the outset of the economic downturn."
Jul 6th 2019
Extract: ".........growing poverty even when working, the collapse of stable and safe social identities linked to work, the increasing instability of employment security, and the rapid change of local communities due to emigration, migration, collapsing housing affordability, and redevelopment initiatives that displace communities. These provide precise and urgent electoral rallying points. They are particularly effective given that so many mainstream politicians ignore these basic grievances. In recent years, the lineup of politicians opposing the New Right – Hillary Clinton, the Remain campaign, Emmanuel Macron and Matteo Renzi – have been unwilling to even recognise these structural problems. This provided the New Right the opportunity to appear credible, simply by acknowledging them."
Jul 6th 2019
".........an openly Russophilic administration in the US may be one reason why Putin’s domestic support has been declining so sharply."
Jul 3rd 2019
"Extract: .........in a world of rapidly expanding automation potential, demographic shrinkage is largely a boon, not a threat. Our expanding ability to automate human work across all sectors – agriculture, industry, and services – makes an ever-growing workforce increasingly irrelevant to improvements in human welfare. Conversely, automation makes it impossible to achieve full employment in countries still facing rapid population growth........The greatest demographic challenges therefore lie not in countries facing population stabilization and then gradual decline, but in Africa, which still faces rapid population growth."
Jul 1st 2019
Trump’s personal style – vocal, expertise-averse, scandal-prone and driven by a focus on his partisan base – may be unusual, but aspiring Democratic presidential contenders may be making a serious error in allowing Trump’s “Wizard of Oz” act of big claims and small achievements to pass unchallenged. There is a massive gap between the pledges he made to voters and the reality of an outsider presidency thoroughly co-opted by its party. So far, the “Trump revolution” turns out to be an ordinary Republican presidency.
Jun 25th 2019
"Trump’s vindictive bluster has steamrolled economic-policy deliberations – ignoring the lessons of history, rejecting the analytics of modern economics, and undermining the institutional integrity of the policymaking process. Policy blunders of epic proportion have become the rule, not the exception. It won’t be nearly as easy to spin the looming consequences."
Jun 19th 2019
Solar energy is one of the fastest-growing energy sectors in the world, and has the great advantage of producing no carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that is raising the average surface temperature of the earth. India is now for the first time in history investing more in solar energy than in coal. There is a simple reason for this. Coal costs roughly 5 cents a kilowatt hour to generate electricity. India just let a bid for 1.2 gigawatts of solar energy and four companies scooped it up at 3.6 cents a kilowatt hour.
Jun 19th 2019
Extract: "Abe has reportedly nominated Trump for a Nobel Peace Prize – at the request of the US – for opening talks with North Korea. And he has offered to mediate in America’s dispute with Iran. (His recent visit to Tehran – where he reportedly asked Iran’s leaders, at Trump’s request, to release detained Americans – made clear that, even squeezed by sanctions, Iran has no interest in negotiating with a serial violator of signed agreements.) What Trump calls an “incredible partnership” is, in reality, a largely one-sided relationship. But, for Abe, appeasing Trump is not so much a choice as a necessity: he must prove to Japan’s people and their neighbors, particularly the Chinese, that he knows how to keep Trump on his side."
Jun 17th 2019
Extarct: "We know well the damage that corrupt leaders do to their people. We should therefore have much more to say about the quintessential corruption entailed by tolerating lies. Such tolerance allows the poison to spread through the body and soul of democracy, undermining democracy’s institutions by attacking the invisible norms and tacit understandings that support them."
Jun 11th 2019
Extract: "I noticed this dynamic firsthand a few years ago in Blagoveshchensk, on the Siberian border, just a half-mile from the Chinese town of Heihe. A century and a half ago, Blagoveshchensk was part of China. Then the Cossacks took control of it, along with many other territories in Chinese Outer Manchuria, on behalf of the Russian czar. Blagoveshchensk’s local history museum presents the development of the town after the Cossack takeover as a civilizing mission. The Russians, it seems, still view themselves as superior Westerners. As for Heihe, it got rich a quarter-century ago, after capitalizing on Russia’s post-Soviet disarray to sell cheap goods to then-starving Russians. Its own history museum presents the Cossacks as “hairy barbarians” (Lao Maozi) and lists the towns of Russia’s far east by their historical Chinese names: Blagoveshchensk is Hailanpao, Vladivostok is Haishenwai, and Sakhalin is Kuye. Local behavior reflects these perspectives. At the ferry port, the Russians sneer at the Chinese traders who bring Russian vodka and chocolate to Heihe, while the Chinese move past the Russians as if they do not exist."
Jun 5th 2019
Extract: "....the Constitution, which established the impeachment process as a check on the president’s behavior between elections, says nothing about using it only when politically convenient. Moreover, given the results in 2018, Democratic Party leaders might well discourage making the disposition of the president the key issue in the next election. Most important, a decision not to initiate an impeachment process against Trump could set a terrible precedent. If Trump isn’t impeached for his numerous criminal acts and abuses of power, would impeachment remain a viable check on the presidency? "
Jun 3rd 2019
Extracts: "Sooner or later, all smaller powers dependent on global markets would have to choose a side, unless they are somehow strong enough to withstand both American and Chinese pressure. With China and the US both demanding clarity, even economic giants like the European Union, India, and Japan would be faced with an intractable economic dilemma."
May 24th 2019
Waging a war against Iran, or even thinking of doing so, is sheer madness. Trump has thus far wisely rejected the warmonger National Security Advisor John Bolton’s outrageous advice. Waging another war in the Mideast, this time against Iran, would have not only disastrous consequences for the US but will also engulf our allies from which they would suffer incalculable human losses and destruction. Bolton was the architect behind the devastating war in Iraq in 2003, which inflicted more than 5,000 US casualties and a cost exceeding two trillion dollars, allowed Iran to entrench itself in Iraq, and gave way to the rise of ISIS.
May 24th 2019
The private Tasnim news agency reports from Iran that in a speech to thousands of university students, Iran’s clerical leader Ali Khamenei made an unusual and extraordinary criticism of president Hassan Rouhani and foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif over their handling of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or deal on limiting Iran’s nuclear enrichment program.
May 21st 2019
Extract: "Brexit, after all, is as much a Kremlin project as it is anyone else’s. Putin wants to divide Europeans, and in the UK, Brexit has succeeded in dividing Britons like nothing since the Corn Law debates almost 200 years ago. Putin wants the EU to fragment, and Brexit is causing the biggest crack yet in the bloc’s history. Putin wants to sow doubt about the legitimacy of traditional news sources; pro-Brexit media consistently promote lies as truth and inveigh against reputable papers like the Financial Times as elitist enemies of the people."
May 16th 2019
Iraq’s population when invaded was 26 million. Iran’s population today is 81 million..........Whereas Iraq’s neighbors– Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia in particular– had been mauled by Saddam and so did not strongly oppose Bush’s invasion, Shiite Iraqis, many Syrians, the Hazaras of Afghanistan, and the some 40 million Shiites of Pakistan would support Iran.
May 15th 2019
It’s time that economists, pundits, and politicians start looking holistically at life in our times, and take seriously the long-term structural changes needed to address the multiple crises of health care, despair, inequality, and stress in the US and many other countries. US citizens, in particular, should reflect on the fact that many other countries’ people are happier and less worried, and are living longer. In general, those other countries’ governments are not cutting taxes for the rich and slashing services for the rest. They are attending to the common good, instead of catering to the rich while pointing to illusory economic statistics that hide as much as they reveal.
May 8th 2019
"........Meanwhile, Trump is leaving the door open for Russia to come to his aid again in 2020. The White House and congressional Republican leaders have been blocking a bill to secure US elections against foreign attacks. And administration officials have been instructed not to raise the issue of Russian interference with the president, lest it cast a shadow on his legitimacy.  The next phase in this affair is already coming into focus. Barr, with the help of Trump’s golfing buddy Lindsey Graham, the Republican chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is now enlisted in peddling the president’s fantasy that the Mueller investigation was a “witch hunt” orchestrated by “deep-state” supporters of Hillary Clinton. Once again, current and former FBI agents will be targeted, either because they expressed criticism of Trump or because they opened a national security investigation into a hostile power’s meddling in the US presidential election (which continued in the 2018 midterms). FBI director Christopher Wray, commenting on the Mueller report, said that the Russians are “upping their game” for 2020. "
May 7th 2019
We are witnessing the loss of biodiversity at rates never before seen in human history. Nearly a million species face extinction if we do not fundamentally change our relationship with the natural world, according to the world’s largest assessment of biodiversity.