BEIJING — As the hunger for classical music in China grows, international competitions are emerging whose resources may quickly outshine those of their western counterparts. The China International Music Competition, inaugurated here May 4-21, offered its contestants a chance to perform a concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra in a televised concert at the National Center for the Performing Arts; take home a cash prize of $150,000; and win three years of management in the Americas, Europe, and China.
The engagement of the Philadephians, who were touring Asia under their music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, meant that the event had to forego the traditional application process so the dates would align for the final concert. Instead, the judges screened through private recommendations and invited twenty pianists between the ages of 17 and 28.
Norman Lebrecht was quick to point out after the winners were announced that, while no candidate had studied with a member of the jury, two of the three laureates are students at the Juilliard School, where the competition’s jury chair, Yoheved Kaplinsky, heads the piano department. The circumstances were fully transparent, however, and going forward — on what is predicted to be a three-year cycle rotating between piano, violin, and voice — competitors will have the opportunity to apply.
Kaplinsky admitted that, when approached by the president of the China Conservatory of Music to head the competition, her first reaction was that “the last thing the world needs is another competition. But then he convinced me that there were reasons to hold this particular one,” she said. “Mainly, it comes down to resources. And the resources here were unlimited.”
According to estimates, China is home to 40 to 60 million piano players — more per capita than any other country. “There is tremendous excitement here,” Kaplinsky said. “You don’t go to a concert hall in the States or in Europe and see teenagers riveted. You can question the motive of the parents, but even if a small percentage of these kids ends up as concert-goers or musicians themselves, then the future of classical music is assured.”
This time around, only six of the 20 candidates — and none of the finalists — hailed directly from Asia. The competition’s general director, Richard Rodzinski (who led the Van Cliburn Competition for more than two decades and overhauled the Tchaikovsky Competition in 2011), emphasized that there was rarely an unambiguous first-place winner but rather a top margin of excellence within which there is no objective hierarchy. He compared that bracket to the cream that rises to the top of a milk bottle.
“Every now and then you’ll have a Trifonov or a Van Cliburn or an Argerich who is the number one,” Rodzinski said, “but generally it’s that cream, and to say that one is better than the other is so difficult.”
Indeed, there were major talents who did not make it to the second tier of the final rounds (the first phase consisted of Mozart and Beethoven concertos with the Orchestra Academia China at the China Conservatory of Music). The Russian native Arseny Tarasevich-Nikolaev, 26, brought nobility and elegance to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, communicating effortlessly with the conductor En Shao. And the 23-year-old Leonardo Colafelice, of Italy, brought a more Mozartean quality to Beethoven’s First Concerto than some of the other Mozart performances on the program.
Yet there was also a player who gave a fresh, daring yet stylish interpretation of Wolfgang Amadeus’ Piano Concerto No. 20: the Canadian Tony Siqi Yun, who would go on to the win the gold medal. At only 17, Yun has appeared professionally with the Cleveland Orchestra and China Philharmonic (cheers in the audience indicated a local fan base).
This listener was not as taken by his performance of Tchaikovsky’s First Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra as during the first phase of the finals. While he had brought an unusually bright but elegant tone to the Mozart, the chords of the opening and final movements here lacked depth, and he did not always cut through the orchestra.
Third-place winner Mackenzie Melemed — a 24-year-old American who, like Yun, is studying at the Juilliard School — underwhelmed in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 but made a strong impression in Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. His clean, at times showy playing was ideally suited to the music. The second-place winner, Russian native Alexander Malofeev, 17, was also more in his element in the second phase of Romantic concertos. But as much as he mastered the technical demands of Prokofiev’s Third Concerto, the performance lacked emotional maturity.
And while both Yun and Melemed responded beautifully to Nézet-Séguin’s generous, sensitively timed gestures, Malofeev missed an opportunity to join the orchestra in the rousing climax of the final movement. He has nevertheless proved himself capable of sustaining the demands of an early career, having already been signed to the management firm Opus 3 Artists, which has now also added Yun to its roster as part of his first prize (the silver and bronze medalists received the not-too-shabby cash awards of $75,000 and $30,000, respectively).
The challenge is of course to guide these young, ambitious talents at a healthy pace. “Hopefully, these managements will be very wise to make sure that engagements are very carefully selected,” Rodzinsky said of Opus 3 and Armstrong Music and Arts, which will be handling Yun’s tours in China, “[so] there will be rest time, vacations, and time to learn [new] repertoire, which is absolutely critical.”
As to whether the competition will join the ranks of leading international institutions of its kind, Rodzinski believes that “only time and good fortune will tell.” Holding the event in China taps into a rapidly growing market but also presents its share of logistical challenges in terms of organization, distribution on social media, and more (Rodzinski spent nine months in Beijing to get the event off the ground).
“What will really put this on the map is the quality and success of the winners,” he said, “just as the winner of the Cliburn gets prestige and in turn gives prestige back to the Cliburn.”
Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin, contributing to publications such as the Financial Times and International New York Times. As a doctoral candidate at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, she is writing about the compositional legacy of Kurt Weill.