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Cliburn Contest Shapes Up to Be One of the Best


by Olin Chism 26 May 2009

This is getting to be one of the best Cliburns. Each session seems to turn up at least one exceptional artist, and sometimes more than that. With this strong a field, the semifinals should be something to hear. Monday night’s star was Haochen Zhang of China, at 19 the competition’s youngest contestant. His program of […]

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This is getting to be one of the best Cliburns. Each session seems to turn up at least one exceptional artist, and sometimes more than that. With this strong a field, the semifinals should be something to hear.

Monday night’s star was Haochen Zhang of China, at 19 the competition’s youngest contestant. His program of Beethoven, Chopin and Stravinsky was strong and consistent, with no weaknesses despite the range of styles it encompassed.

Zhang (photo above) opened with Beethoven’s Sonata in A-flat, Opus 110, which had already received a quite decent performance by Ilya Rashkovskiy of Russia in Monday afternoon’s session. Zhang’s seemed even better. His performance of the sonata, which ranges from ruminative to triumphant, was deeply moving. He brought off the shifting moods of the piece beautifully.

Chopin’s Polonaise-fantasie in A-flat explored a different kind of musical poetry with great effectiveness.

Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrouchka was dazzling — a brilliant technical display and a well told musical story. Italy’s Mariangela Vacatello had given another awesome Petrouchka to end Sunday night’s session. It’s not often that you get to hear two such performances of this work in close proximity.

Monday night’s two other contestants were by no means victims of Zhang’s success. Ang Li of Canada and Andrea Lam of Australia each had something valuable to offer and no major misfires.

Li combined power and grace in a sensitive performance of Brahms’ Sonata No. 3 and produced flowing, elegant playing and again power with grace in two Debussy Preludes, “Minstrels” and “Feux d’artifice.” She also ventured well off the beaten track with a rare performance of British composer Edwin York Bowen’s Toccata, Opus 155, which was an exhilarating keyboard exercise.

Lam explored a variety of moods well with Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, Opus 12, and two of Granados’ Goyescas. (One of them, “Quejas o la maja y el ruiseñor,” has a theme reminiscent of “Bésame Mucho”). A spirited performance of Aaron Jay Kernis’ Superstar Etude No. 2 brought her program to an unusual conclusion.
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Thanks to reader Nikola Olic for informing me that the Czech word “skocna” means something like “jumpable” or “jumpy.” That certainly fits the character of the lively Smetana dance that Lukas Vondracek played Sunday night at the Cliburn. (Sorry, but my computer can’t produce Czech characters, so I can’t print the name of the dance or Vondracek quite right. It also means I’ll never get Dvorak right, which pains me since he’s one of my favorite composers.)

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