Jun 16th 2013

Piano competitions: rhinoceros hide required

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.

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. »

Related articles - please click the title to proceed to the article.

If you wish to comment any of these articles, please do it below.

Competing at The Cliburn

Published 23.04.2013
The first edition of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition since the founder’s recent death is well under way as30 preselected young pianists  prepare for two weeks of playoffs beginning May 24 in Fort Worth, Texas. Piano and music...

Odd couple share Cliburn gold

Published 10.06.2009
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...

Behind the scenes at piano competitions

Published 27.08.2009
Has the time come to rethink the concept of piano competitions? Many participants and leading musicians believe so. The proliferation of international competitions - now numbering more than 750 - is producing hundreds of annual laureates who...


-----------------------

Facts & Arts is a platform for owners of high quality content to distribute their content to a worldwide audience.

Facts & Arts' objective is to enhance the distribution of individual owners' content by combining various types of high quality content that can be assumed to interest the same audience. The thinking is that in this manner the individual pieces of content on Facts & Arts support the distribution of one another.

If you have fitting written material, classical music or videos; or if you would like to become one of our regular columnists, a book reviewer or music reviewer; or if you wish to market or broadcast a live event through Facts & Arts, please contact us at info@factsandarts.com.





 


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 Music Reviews

Jan 17th 2015

French pianist Hélène Grimaud returned to Bordeaux Friday night (Jan.

Jan 17th 2015

One would think that a reliable warhorse like “Tosca” might be a dull affair because it is performed so often, but the most recent Seattle Opera production shows that Puccini’s masterpiece still can grip audiences in the gut.

Jan 15th 2015
Even casual fans of classical music know of Ludwig van Beethoven’s deafness.  But could his hearing loss actually have been his greatest advantage as a musician?

Maybe so, says Leif Ove Andsnes, the highly acclaimed Norwegian pianist touring th

Jan 2nd 2015

The one thing the blogosphere does not need is another article about trendy, hip, ironic, facially-haired Brooklyn. In fact some recent articles now toll the death knell of the borough, saying that Brooklyn is passé; it seems that Queens is the new Brooklyn.

Dec 28th 2014

A powerful new recording of Rachmaninov’s familiar Sonata for Cello and Piano in G Minor Op. 19 (Light and Shadow, Becsta Records) manages to take this rich Russian music to new heights. It ranks comfortably alongside several impressive readings by other major cellists.

Dec 12th 2014

Marc-André Hamelin, Canadian-born and now residing in the Boston suburbs, has just completed a highly successful two-concert series in Bordeaux, playing the Beethoven piano concerto No. 4 including his own cadenza.

Dec 11th 2014

Canadian-born pianist Marc-André Hamelin kept a Bordeaux audience riveted Wednesday evening (Dec. 10) by his super-sensitive rendering of a familiar warhorse, the Beethoven piano concerto No. 4. Familiar, yes, but Bordeaux had never heard it performed quite so perfectly.

Dec 10th 2014

Canadian-born virtuoso pianist Marc-André Hamelin, looking relaxed and happy about his debut in Bordeaux this week, took time out between rehearsals at the city’s new concert hall, l’Auditorium, to talk about his past and what is coming next.

Nov 29th 2014

As any honest critic will tell you (if you can find one), writing about contemporary piano  is a long and thorny process requiring multiple hearings or multiple arguments with the composer.

Nov 27th 2014

You don’t have to be Irish to fall in love with music from the Emerald Isle.

Nov 20th 2014

The fifth annual Bordeaux piano festival, l’Esprit du Piano, concludes nine days of keyboard music on Friday Nov. 21 with Henri Barda playing works by Mozart, Brahms and Chopin.

Nov 18th 2014

Conducting is essentially a phenomenon associated with Western classical music. As a rule, rock and jazz bands do not employ a conductor unless they are teaming up with a symphony orchestra.
Nov 8th 2014

The NEC Philharmonia’s world premiere performance of Leon Kirchner’s retouched version of his charming Music for Flute and Orchestra arrived at Jordan Hall Wednesday with the popular Paula Robison and her gold flute.

Nov 6th 2014

It wasn’t so long ago that many musicians feared the piano was losing its way in serious music. The repertoire had not grown significantly in the 1950s and 1960s, and technology was increasingly favored by composers on the cutting edge.

Oct 2nd 2014
Abba - Knowing me, knowing you

I’m quite used to receiving abuse concerning the content of this column, but in contrast my previous post (about

Sep 30th 2014

In the hit parade of operas, Puccini’s La Bohème rates a solid third place after La Traviata and Carmen, so it was pretty much guaranteed a rousing reception as the opener of the new season in Bordeaux last week.

Sep 25th 2014

Think of your favourite piece of music. Do you get shivers when the music swells or the chorus kicks in? Or are the opening few bars enough to make you feel tingly?

Despite having no obvious survival value, listening to music can be a highly rewarding activity.

Aug 18th 2014

Pianist Mordecai Shehori’s prodigious output of CDs over the past few years must be setting some kind of record. Almost every piece of the piano repertoire he has studied throughout his long career is being preserved for posterity, now amounting to 31 CDs.

Aug 14th 2014

The past may be a foreign country, but in terms of war, they do not do things differently there; death is death at any time and in any language.

No other work in the Classical repertoire could be more topical or appropriate in commemorating the centenary of the Great War than Benjamin Brit