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.

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