Reflections on the 2017 Cliburn Competiton

Sat Jun 10, 2017 at 9:40 pm
By Wayne Lee Gay

Winners of the 2017 Van Cliburn Piano Competiton: Silver medalist Kenneth Broberg, left, of the United States, gold medalist Yekwon Sunwoo, center, of South Korea and bronze medalist Daniel Hsu, right, of the United States. Photo:Ralph Lauer

Friday night’s scintillating performance of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto provided the final boost to propel South Korean pianist Yekwon Sunwoo, 28, into first place at the 2017 Cliburn Competition. Sunwoo, whose multi-continental studies have extended across three major American conservatories (Mannes, Julliard, and Curtis) and currently continue in Hannover, took a tried and true route to the gold medal, opening his attack with the lean classicism of a Haydn Sonata and finishing with the supreme romantic virtuosity required by Rachmaninoff.

Sunwoo’s emergence from the pack began with his recital in the semifinal round, where he demonstrated emotional and intellectual depth with twin poles of late Beethoven (Opus 109) and mid-twentieth-century Prokofiev in the form of that composer’s Sixth Piano Sonata.

In a stroke of programing genius that definitely contributed to his continued rise in the ranks, he sandwiched, between the Prokofiev and Beethoven, the showy glitter of Percy Grainger’s “Ramble” on a theme from Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavelier, demonstrating beyond doubt his breadth and versatility.

Besides voting in favor of breadth, range, and intellect, the Cliburn jury collectively produced a loud vote of confidence for calm, non-pretentious stage presence. In terms of physical gesture Sunwoo is virtually still on the piano bench, except for the impressively controlled movement of his hands across the keyboard.

Indeed, Sunwoo is very much the sort of pianist who focuses on art rather than extra-musical personality: audiences will likely find neither immediate glamor nor charisma in his suddenly expanded presence on the international stage. Serious connoisseurs will, however, find plenty to ponder in his performances.

Interestingly, Hong Kong pianist Rachel Cheung, who won the audience favorite award, while presenting a cooly glamourous presence onstage, was able to win that popular following without the benefit of a thunderous final concerto. Obviously for the Cliburn jury and the Cliburn audience, neither blood and thunder nor media-friendly personality was enough in itself.

In terms of international breakdown, the American musical establishment did well in the final results, with two American-trained Americans, Kenneth Broberg and Daniel Hsu, taking the second-place silver and third-place bronze, respectively. Dark Russian virtuosity, personified by Yury Favorin and Georgy Tchaidze, which traditionally makes a strong showing at the Cliburn, showed up in the final round but didn’t rate a medal; these two finalists clearly have the ethos and necessary skills to join past Cliburn finalists who translated high placement below a Final into an international career.

The Cliburn Competition gets points for a high-prestige jury that arrived at a conclusion clearly based on traditional standards of artistry. However, while it may well be the optimal procedure for arriving at the best possible decision, the stupefying, two-and-a-half week obstacle course should definitely be examined, questioned, and, if necessary, revised. Likewise, while there is much to be said for the limited, tried-and-true chamber music list, as well as for the Mozart concerto phase, these two aspects should always be subject to reexamination and possible revision. A problem that might not have a solution was the obvious shortage of rehearsal time (as reflected in the performance) for the semifinalists and finalists. And, while Bass Performance Hall is ideal for orchestral music, it swallows the fine points of chamber music.

Finally, what does the 2017 Cliburn Competition tell us about the condition of the classical music world today? On one hand, that world continues to be as international as ever—unlike during the decades when the People’s Republic of China didn’t even exist for the Cliburn Competition, or when international politics kept Russia from being represented. In terms of repertoire trends, young pianists are not so strongly attached to a standard short list of works dominated by Liszt and Chopin (wonderful as those composers’ music is); although the Cliburn Competition officially commissions and enforces the performance of the commissioned work by every competitor, the young pianists are as shy as ever when approaching the music of living composers, which (at least partly by coincidence of elimination of competitors), was all but absent after the beginning of the semifinal round.

Classical music in 2017 constantly questions and seeks to ensure its existence in a world that often seems less and less interested. The good news is that live internet broadcast of the Cliburn drew millions of views. Equally significant, however, the two or three thousand live audience members were met on the sidewalks by 30,000 attendees at the Akon anime convention a few blocks away. In spite of the excitement of the Cliburn Competition and the extraordinarily high quality of performance, the battle for survival is far from won.

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