New Leadership Sparks Cleveland Piano Competition

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'Play Me, I'm Yours' street pianos, an idea of British artist Luke Jerram, spread the news of Cleveland's piano competition. (Daniel Hathaway)
‘Play Me, I’m Yours’ street pianos, an idea of British artist Luke Jerram, spread the news of Cleveland’s piano competition. (Daniel Hathaway)
By Daniel Hathaway

Several innovations marked the 2013 Cleveland International Piano Competition (CIPC), which ran from July 30 through Aug. 11 and involved 28 contestants from 15 countries. Director Pierre van der Westhuizen, a South African pianist who moved from Heidelberg College in Tiffin, Ohio, to Cleveland with his pianist wife, Sophié, and two young children, set a number of new initiatives in motion for 2013. He used a sophisticated, online audition system to recruit contestants, repopulated the jury and moved the early rounds to the Cleveland Museum of Art, whose director, David Franklin, is an enthusiastic amateur pianist.

Van der Westhuizen also created a festival featuring a series of lectures and roundtable discussions and arranged for the installation of “Play Me, I’m Yours,” which comprised more than 20 decorated “street pianos” placed at outdoor locations in partnership with British conceptual artist Luke Jerram, who created the initial installation in 2008 in Birmingham, England. Looking ahead, van der Westhuizen is changing the competition from a two-year to a three-year cycle: the next contest will be held in the summer of 2016.

Contestants at the opening ceremony of the 2013 CIPC (Roger Mastroianni)
Contestants at the opening ceremony of the 2013 CIPC (Roger Mastroianni)

CIPC’s new director turned the 2013 opening ceremony into a festive occasion at the museum featuring 2011 gold medalist Alexander Schimpf in a Mozart concerto backed up by CityMusic Cleveland under the baton of Joel Smirnoff, president of the Cleveland Institute of Music and former violinist in the Juilliard String Quartet. That was followed by a reception in the museum’s stunning new atrium – part of a just-completed renovation by Uruguayan-born architect Rafael Viñoly.

First Prize winner Stanislav Khristenko (Roger Mastroianni)
First Prize winner, Russian pianist Stanislav Khristenko, 29 (Mastroianni)

It was apparent from the quality of playing in the first round that a new era was at hand for CIPC. The 28 contestants were more accomplished than before, a fine augury for a contest that has previously hung medals around the necks of such pianists as Sergei Babayan and Antonio Pompa-Baldi (both of whom stayed on to teach at CIM), as well as Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Angela Hewitt, Spencer Myer, and Roberto Plano (who returned this year to serve on the jury). Also returning was 2005 third-place winner Stanislav Khristenko (29, Russia), who completed his artist diploma with Babayan at CIM and this year won first prize.

CIPC is unusual among competitions in that all contestants are allowed to play two complete rounds of 30 and 35-minute recitals before the culling begins. This humane gesture gives some players who made ill-advised repertory choices in the first round – or had butterflies, suffered memory lapses, or clutched up – to redeem themselves in the second. For some, it provided the opportunity to build on impressive first-round showings or, conversely, to show weaknesses in second-round repertory that weren’t apparent in the first. The drawback was that after six days of first and second rounds, 20 of the 28 contestants would be voted off the island in one stroke of the jury’s digital pen.

French pianist François Dumont, 28 (Roger Mastroianni)
French pianist François Dumont, 28 (Mastroianni)

The axe fell on Aug. 5. The eight pianists who advanced were Khristenko, François Dumont (28, France), Ruoyu Huang (24, China), Oskar Jezior (28, Poland), Jin Uk Kim (29, South Korea), Jiayan Sun (23, China), Arseny Tarasevich-Nikolaev (20, Russia) and Annika Treutler (23, Germany). These contestants would play hour-long recitals over the next two days that the audience was invited to treat as real performances “and cheer and applaud,” urged van der Westhuizen, whenever they felt inclined.

Given space to construct a real program, several of the semi-finalists rose to the occasion and gave well-chosen mini-recitals. Others merely assembled a collection of pieces, but all eight upheld the lofty playing standards they had already established. After the last notes had been played, the jury announced the four finalists: Dumont, Khristenko, Sun and Tarasevich-Nikolaev, who would have the privilege of playing concertos with the Cleveland Orchestra under Stefan Sanderling on Friday or Saturday night.

Chinese pianist Jiayan Sun, 23 (Mastroianni)
Chinese pianist Jiayan Sun, 23 (Mastroianni)

Two contestants chose Tchaikovsky’s B-flat Minor Concerto. On Friday, Dumont played with consistent strength and utter confidence, bringing a muscular tone to tuttis that clearly penetrated and sometimes even overbalanced the orchestra (though it was fun finally to hear some passages that are, normally, only a visual experience).

On Saturday, Sun gave a nuanced view of the piece, varying his touch to produce colorful strength of tone one moment and delicate filigree the next and exploring a wide range of dynamics in a highly kinetic performance, with considerable body movement and armsmanship.

Russian pianist Arseny Tarasevich-Nikolaev, 20 (Mastroianni)
Russian pianist Arseny Tarasevich-Nikolaev, 20 (Mastroianni)

Tarasevich-Nikolaev followed on Saturday evening with Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 2 in C Minor. His performance was skillfully controlled and masterful, his tone rich and dark. He was intent on keeping things moving in the opening movement, but was beautifully relaxed and self-possessed in the last (Allegro scherzando), not allowing himself to wallow in its big tune. The performance lacked only the patina of age and experience.

Second to play on Saturday was Khristenko, who brought an individual take on Brahms’s Concerto in D Minor to the Severance Hall stage. Notably slow tempos in the first two movements gave him lots of room to emote, sometimes at the expense of musical structure and flow, but his playing was rich, sonorous and expressive, and he brought the concerto home with bursts of magnificent playing in the final Rondo.

Winner Stanislav Khristenko with conductor Stephan Sanderling at Severance Hall (Roger Mastroianni)
Winner Stanislav Khristenko at Severance Hall (Mastroianni)

In the end, Khristenko took first prize, Tarasevich-Nikolaev second, Dumont third and Sun fourth – results anyone could live with.

Launched in 1975 at the Cleveland Institute of Music (CIM) as the Robert Casadesus International Piano Competition, the biennial contest was reorganized under the aegis of the Piano International Association of Northeast Ohio (PIANO) in time for the 1995 competition.

That transition was shepherded by Karen Knowlton, who became executive director in 1988 and served for 23 years, a tenure that saw the creation of a professional staff, the hosting of a New York debut recital, wall-to-wall coverage by Cleveland’s fine arts radio station, WCLV FM, the institution of a computerized voting system, a $50,000 prize for the first-place winner, worldwide webcasts, and the expansion of final concerto rounds at Severance Hall, first accompanied in 2001 by an ensemble of freelancers and since 2003 by the Cleveland Orchestra. (Knowlton retired after the 2011 competition, during which she mentored her successor.)

A rich menu of morning lectures leavened all of the piano playing during these 11 days. Oberlin College’s David Breitman and Webb Wiggins talked about historically informed performances of keyboard music, using instruments from the museum’s collection. CIM’s Marshall Griffith explored improvisation and the cadenza, with illustrations by 2011 winner Schimpf. A roundtable with the jury – Nelita True, USA; Frank Weinstock, USA; Daejin Kim, Korea; Elinar Steen-Nokleberg, chairman, Norway; Roberto Plano, Italy; Andrzej Jasinski, Poland, and Alexander Korsantia, Georgia – chaired by van der Westhuizen revealed what those mysterious people in the back rows were listening for. Oberlin’s Peter Takács delved into the issues of performing Beethoven’s sonatas, and Gerard Caillat’s film, The Art of Chopin, was screened during the second week.

CIPC 2013 was remarkable in many ways, not the least for its smooth organization and the spirit of easy camaraderie van der Westhuizen seems to have inspired among 28 pianists. Though they arrived in Cleveland as competitors, many of them left as friends.

Daniel Hathaway studied historical musicology at Harvard and Princeton and orchestral conducting at Tanglewood. He launched ClevelandClassical.com in 2008 after thirty years as music director at Cleveland’s Trinity Cathedral. Together with fellow MCANA members Donald Rosenberg and Mike Telin, he team-teaches the fall term Introduction to Music Criticism course at Oberlin College.

ClevelandClassical.com covered every session and event in the 2013 Cleveland International Piano Competition. Reviews are archived here.

Another version of this article is scheduled to appear in American Record Guide.

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