Piano competitions: rhinoceros hide required

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He is now based in Bordeaux, France, where he writes for the International Herald-Tribune and other publications. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine. In 1990 he was appointed chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique where he worked as Editorial Director for two years. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of four books and recently edited “24/7 Innovation” for an Accenture consultant and “Nokia: The Inside Story”, written by historian Martti Haikio, for the Nokia Corporation. A fluent French speaker, he also speaks Russian

Young pianists who decide to go into major international competitions will need much more than musicianship from now on.

They are already accustomed to being insulted by the closed-door decisions of jurors. They may crack under the strain of massive repertoire requirements. Some will quietly withdraw and go into insurance. 

But probably the most wrenching strain on a competition pianist today is the public battering they are exposed to by critics amateur and professional, now spreading their instant opinions by social media to a global audience. Pianonerds are tuned into this show via their own iPads and they can’t get enough of it.

The competitors will need to grow the hide of a rhinoceros to continue their artistic progress. 

We saw all of this at the recent Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Ft. Worth, Texas, the first major competition to take place since Twitter, Facebook and personal blogs became ubiquitous via portable devices, often operated in real time during performances.

Some of the bloggers were out-of-town music critics -- from as far away as Idaho and Germany – and others were local critics and groupies, all enjoying newfound audiences for their purple prose. And in the Cliburn case, a free-wheeling uncensored blog was provided alongside its on-demand webcasts of performances. 

More than half a million viewers clicked onto the Cliburn site for various treats, creating another layer of support for some competitors and shooting abrasive criticism at others. One player who was ejected after the semifinals, Alessandro Deljavan of Italy, received hundreds of anguished emails from fans who had followed his progress and thought the jury dealt unfairly with him. In Russian music circles, there was a reported wave of “Deljamania”.

Wrote one Cliburn attendee following his preliminary recital: “I am almost speechless myself. If he (Deljavan) does not progress, some people need to be shot.” He did not make the finals but so far no one has been shot.

A violinist of the Ft. Worth Symphony Orchestra, the band that accompanied the finalists in their concertos, felt he had to come forward on Facebook with this comment after rehearsal with another pianist: “Totally surprised by one finalist who came in and didn't know the concerto AT ALL today---embarrassing…” 

Scott Cantrell of the Dallas Morning News had a bad feeling. “Uh-oh. Yeah, I had the same feeling--no one consistently stood out. Of course, two of the players I liked best got eliminated.”

One prominent teacher exploded: “(Finalist from China) Fei-Fei Dong played the most ridiculous Brahms Quintet I ever heard. However, I must say that Sean Chen played the most disgraceful Hammerklavier Sonata I ever heard as well 

The Cliburn audiences were notoriously unreliable. Wrote one critic: “… almost everybody gets a standing ovation, which can be pretty deceptive. When a recital ends with fortissimo, it is almost guaranteed of a standing ovation.”

But the most revealing aspect of this new world of instant communication is the heated emotions that once roiled beneath the surface in the piano world but now have become public eruptions. And while much of the comment celebrated the 17 days of high-level performance of piano repertoire, a sampling of the strong critical language will illustrate the point.

Wrote one unhappy pianist: “How shameful! Real artists are not advancing. Van must be turning over in his grave over what has been done to his heritage!!! AWFUL!!!” 

Cantrell came back after the first night of the finals with this slam: “Beatrice Rama didn’t get the concerto round off to a promising start. Her account of the Beethoven Third Concerto began sluggishly and turned downright deadly in the slow movement. There was no indication of where the music was going, or why, or why we should care.”

“After all the glorious music making that has come before,” wrote one critic, “it appears that Gustavo Miranda-Bernales of Chile has arrived at the wrong party… (He indulges in) conscious posturing posing as profundity, attention-grabbing accents, funny eyes and extreme facial grimacing. While Deljavan’s faces come across as genuine, Miranda’s looked like faked orgasms. And he comes from Juilliard? Standards must have fallen, I’m afraid… Adios, please.” 

Another critic offered: “Fei-Fei Dong's performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 was very distracting to watch. She signals moments of high emotion by scrunching her nose, tilting back her head, and closing her eyes, as if she were perpetually on the verge of a sneeze… The ubiquity of the expression suggests it has hardened into a calculated mask meant to project pathos. Her playing fails to create the rapture her face strives to convey.”

And in a backhanded compliment, Ukrainian winner of the gold medal Vadym Kholodenko was given a thumbs-up by comparison with others. He “closed the evening with an absolutely riveting performance of Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto... It was quite a change from some of the somnolent semifinal performances, during one of which loud snoring echoed through the hall.”

The second-place finalist got off easily, I thought, for a lackluster recital. One listener wrote: “I am still on the fence about Beatrice Rana -- she plays some things extremely well, while other things sound fairly routine. She is clearly a first-class, mannerism-free pianist with a wide-ranging repertoire … Today however her performance, which was dominated by Chopin's 24 Preludes, had little to distinguish it from the two or three other performances of the preludes we have heard recently, other than that the slow ones were very slow and the fast ones very fast.”

Nikita Mndoyants joined the Brentano (string quartet) for a fine performance of the Brahms Piano Quintet, “except that the piano balance too often was overly dominant… This one sounded downright sleepy.

Nikolay Khozyainov of Russia got mixed reviews for his Liszt B Minor Sonata. “The climaxes were plangently built up, and he does not bang… I just have the niggling feeling that something is missing; this interpretation sounds like the life experience of a 20-year-old that has been carefully cultivated, watered and pruned in a sterile bubble, one that has yet to taste life in a rough and tumble world.” 

Another premature eviction, most listeners seemed to agree, was French pianist François Dumont who was inexplicably thrown out after the first round. Wrote one critic: “He is Mr. Cool, like most Frenchmen tend to be… His Chopin Sonata No. 3 was outstanding, breathing music from every pore. When you hear this warhorse in his hands, you do not think of a competition, but rather a recital where a close friend pours out his heart to you in his art. Does someone like Dumont need a competition? He should already be playing around the globe.”

Sean Chen (United States) became known as the winner of the best hair-do and was roughed up badly by one observer. His Hammerklavier Sonata left this critic cold: “I won’t call it a travesty but his interpretation sounds like a revisionist one. What are they teaching him at Juilliard and Yale these days? … Sorry to spoil the party, but this doesn’t do it for me.”

Oleksandr Poliykov of Ukraine got some praise for his Liszt and Mussorgsky but one critic predicted he had too much style for a competition jury. He was right. He did not make it beyond the preliminaries. “A viscerally exciting rather than accurate performer. Competitions tend to leave them by the wayside,” the critic wrote.

Kuan-Ting Lin of Taiwan was too precious for one writer: He “appears diffident, even painfully shy, and half his programme seems to echo that sentiment. Haydn’s final Sonata in E flat major (Hob.XVI: 52) sounds pristine, very pretty and carefully manicured in his hands. He is incapable of an ugly sound, but does not seem to raise the temperature of the work. He applies a Mozartean touch when some Beethovenian brio and vigor is called for… Brilliant in fits and starts, might benefit from some musical equivalent of Viagra.

In a heart-felt plea, one European observer put in these terms: “The Cliburn has a festering wound in its heart. This has to be dealt with an open admission of the conflict of interest that has spoiled its reputation with aficionados all over the world. Many are bewildered and angry. These horse trading tactics have to stop. »

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