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

May 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human history, ancient and contemporary, is replete with instances of genocide – that is, the effort to eradicate a people, erase their history, denigrate their culture, and destroy their physical presence. Many of these atrocities have been recognized by the victims and other nations who support them. But, with the notable exception of the German acknowledgment of the Holocaust, rarely have the perpetrators of these crimes accepted responsibility and offer recompense "
May 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "The best way to defend liberal democracy is to practice it at home and abroad with the “courage and self-confidence” that Kennan touted at the dawn of the Cold War. This is also the best way to ensure the survival of our own conception of human freedom. And survive it will."
May 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – Sammy Roth at the LA Times/ Boiling Point Newsletter reports that California’s main power grid was powered for several hours last Saturday by 90% renewables. For just four seconds that day, the grid, which covers 4/5s of the state, reached 94.5% generation by green energy. California is the world’s fifth largest economy. The main grid does not cover Los Angeles County. On the other hand, these figures do not include the electricity generated by the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, which is not counted as renewable but which is also very low-carbon."
Apr 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "It is no accident that there has been an economic divergence in Central and Eastern Europe. Those countries that have joined the European Union have improved their economic governance, and GDP has begun to converge with Western Europe. Between 2014 and 2019, Hungary, Poland, and Romania grew at an annual average rate of 3.9%, 4.1%, and 4.7%, respectively. Meanwhile, Belarus and Ukraine experienced minimal growth during this period, and Russia’s economy expanded at an average annual rate of just 0.7%. Though Russia had a higher per capita GDP (in terms of purchasing power parity) than Croatia, Poland, Romania, and Turkey as recently as 2009, all of these countries have since overtaken it. Russians today are shocked to learn that they are worse off than Romanians and Turks. Among EU member states, only Bulgaria is still poorer than Russia. With its close proximity to the EU single market, Russia could have had higher growth if it had pursued sound economic policies. Instead,..... "
Apr 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "As far as anyone can tell, the US military is not on the verge of an internal breakdown, let alone primed to stage a coup d’état. But few predicted anything like the US Capitol riot before protesters equipped with body armor, stun guns, and zip-ties breached the building. Before the US is blindsided again, its leaders must act resolutely to root out extremism in the military."
Apr 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "The new report on 2020 by the International Renewable Energy Agency reveals that the world’s renewable energy generation capacity increased by an astonishing 10.3% in 2020 despite the global economic slowdown during the coronavirus pandemic." .... "In 2020, the global net increase in renewables was 261 gigawatts (GW). That is the nameplate capacity of some 300 nuclear power plants! There are actually only 440 nuclear power plants in the whole world, with a generation capacity of 390 gigwatts. So let’s just underline this point. The world put in 2/3s as much renewable energy in one year as is produced by all the existing nuclear plants!"
Apr 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "When we examined the development of nations worldwide since 1820, we found that among rich Western countries like the United States, the Netherlands and France, improvements in income, education, safety and health tracked or even outpaced rising gross domestic product for over a century. But in the 1950s, even as economic growth accelerated after World War II, well-being in these countries lagged.
Apr 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Some presidents indulge in the “Mount Rushmore syndrome” making an obvious effort to achieve greatness. Normally soft-spoken and apparently modest Biden is making his own bid for immortality."
Apr 9th 2021
EXTRACT: "New ways of thinking about the role of government are as important as new priorities. Many commentators have framed Biden’s infrastructure plan as a return to big government. But the package is spread over eight years, will raise public spending by only one percentage point of GDP, and is projected to pay for itself eventually. A boost in public investment in infrastructure, the green transition, and job creation is long overdue."
Apr 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " One can, and perhaps should, take the optimistic view that moral panics in the US blow over; reason will once again prevail. It could be that the Biden era will take the sting out of Trumpism, and the tolerance for which American intellectual life has often been admired will be reinvigorated. This might even happen while the noxious effects of American influence still rage in other countries. For the sake of America and the world, one can only hope it happens soon.  "
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "By refusing (despite having some good reasons) to end electoral gerrymandering, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., has directly enabled the paralyzing hyper-partisanship that reached its nadir during Donald Trump’s presidency. By striking down all limits on corporate spending on political campaigns in the infamous 2010 Citizens United decision, he has helped to entrench dark money in US politics. And by gutting the 1965 Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, Roberts has facilitated the racist voter-suppression tactics now being pursued in many Republican-controlled states."
Mar 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "the UK’s tough choices accumulate, and the problems lurking around the corner look menacing. Britain will have to make the best of Brexit. But it will be a long, hard struggle, all the more so with an evasive fabulist in charge."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Over the years, the approach of most American policymakers toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been Israel-centric with near total disregard for the suffering endured by the Palestinian people. The architects of policy in successive US administrations have discussed the conflict as if the fate of only one party (Israel) really mattered. Israelis were treated as full human beings with hopes and fears, while Palestinians were reduced to a problem that needed to be solved so that Israelis could live in peace and security.  ..... It is not just that Israelis and Palestinians haven’t been viewed with an equal measure of concern. It’s worse than that. It appears that Palestinians were judged as less ​human than Israelis, and were, therefore, not entitled to make demands to have their rights recognized and protected."
Mar 8th 2021
EXTRACTS: "XThere’s a global shortage in semiconductors, and it’s becoming increasingly serious." ...... "The automotive sector has been worst affected by the drought, in an era where microchips now form the backbone of most cars. Ford is predicting a 20% slump in production and Tesla shut down its model 3 assembly line for two weeks. In the UK, Honda was forced to temporarily shut its plant as well." ..... " As much as 70% of the world’s semiconductors are manufactured by just two companies, Taiwan Semiconductor (TSMC) and Samsung."
Mar 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Back in 1992, Lawrence H. Summers, then the chief economist at the World Bank, and I warned that pushing the US Federal Reserve’s annual inflation target down from 4% to 2% risked causing big problems. Not only was the 4% target not producing any discontent, but a 2% target would increase the risk of the Fed’s interest-rate policy hitting the zero lower bound. Our objections went unheeded. Fed Chair Alan Greenspan reduced the inflation target to 2%, and we have been paying for it ever since. I have long thought that many of our economic problems would go away if we could rejigger asset markets in such a way as to make a 5% federal funds rate consistent with full employment in the late stage of a business cycle."
Mar 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Under these conditions, the Fed is probably worried that markets will instantly crash if it takes away the punch bowl. And with the increase in public and private debt preventing the eventual monetary normalization, the likelihood of stagflation in the medium term – and a hard landing for asset markets and economies – continues to increase."
Mar 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Massive fiscal and monetary stimulus programs in the United States and other advanced economies are fueling a raging debate about whether higher inflation could be just around the corner. Ten-year US Treasury yields and mortgage rates are already climbing in anticipation that the US Federal Reserve – the de facto global central bank – will be forced to hike rates, potentially bursting asset-price bubbles around the world. But while markets are probably overstating short-term inflation risks for 2021, they do not yet fully appreciate the longer-term dangers."
Feb 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, calls to “build back better” from the pandemic imply some awareness of the need for systemic change. But the transformation we need extends beyond constructing modern infrastructure or unlocking private investment in any one country. We need to re-orient – indeed, re-invent – global politics, so that countries can cooperate far more effectively in creating a better world."
Feb 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "So, notwithstanding the predictable release of pent-up demand for consumer durables, face-to-face services show clear evidence – in terms of both consumer demand and employment – of permanent scarring. Consequently, with the snapback of pent-up demand for durables nearing its point of exhaustion, the recovery of the post-pandemic US economy is likely to fall well short of vaccine development’s “warp speed.” "
Feb 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human rights abuses under Erdogan are beyond the pale of inhumanity and moral decadence. The list of Erdogan’s violations and cruelty is too long to numerate. The detention and horrifying torture of thousands of innocent people for months and at times for years, without being charged, is hard to fathom. Many prisoners are left languishing in dark cells, often in solitary confinement. The detention of tens of thousands of men and hundreds of women, many with their children, especially following the 2016 failed coup, has become common. It is calculated to inflict horrendous pain and suffering to bring the prisoners to the breaking point, so that they confess to crimes they have never committed."