In Cliburn Competition Concertos, 3 Pianists Swing For The Fences

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American pianist Clayton Stephenson chose a distinctly American work, Gershwin’s Concerto in F, for his final round with Marin Alsop and the Fort Worth Symphony. (Photos courtesy of the Cliburn Competition)

FORT WORTH, Tex. — When I arrived at the ballpark, the game was in the eighth inning.

At least, that’s how it felt when I traveled to Fort Worth, Tex., on June 13 for the final round of the Sixteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. For eleven days before I got here, the competition’s two venues — Van Cliburn Concert Hall at Texas Christian University and Bass Performance Hall downtown — had been the scene of countless thrills and spills, justice done and what-were-they-thinking, all to narrow the field from 30 competitors to the final six.

At this point, enter myself and seven other lucky music critics from the U.S. and Canada, attending an institute on the Cliburn Competition sponsored by the Music Critics Association of North America with the generous support of the Cliburn Foundation and the City of Fort Worth.

Having missed the melodrama of the preliminary, quarterfinal, and semifinal rounds — in which the young pianists had competed in a nerve-racking whirl of short recitals, Mozart concertos, and a Cliburn-commissioned piece by Stephen Hough — I decided to go into this event cold.

The 18-year-old South Korean pianist Yunchan Lim, youngest of the Cliburn’s 30 contestants, performed Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto .

This is not a reference to Fort Worth’s ubiquitous air-conditioning, which has been turning the 103-degree outside heat down to the 60s indoors. Rather, I decided to take my pen and notebook to Bass Hall the night of June 14 and review Concert One of the Final Round as if it were any other concert.

It’s not, of course.  How often do you hear a symphony concert consisting of three concertos?  It will require four such programs, with Marin Alsop conducting the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, for the six finalists to perform two concertos each before the jury renders its verdict.

And more is riding on these performances than on your average orchestral gig — money prizes, career mentoring and door-opening, and some Texas-size bragging rights, for starters. These talented twentysomethings have been able to think of little else for months. The past week and a half has been a severe test of stamina and nerve.

So how did they play that night?

The concerto marathon began with South Korea’s Yunchan Lim, at 18 not only the youngest finalist but the youngest of the original 30 entrants, in an elegant performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor. Beethoven in that key, of course, immediately suggests passion and turbulence, but Lim went a different route, emphasizing the soft answer that turneth away wrath, keeping the passagework bright but fluid, and expertly relating phrases to each other, especially amid the shifting harmonic colors of the first movement’s development.

The Largo was as leisurely and dreamy as one could wish for, the piano glowing under lovely wind solos and soaring strings. The finale was “up” throughout, the piano sparkling with mischievous humor, to the audience’s evident delight. The applause was loud and long, and Alsop greeted young Lim with an embrace that scored at least a 9 on the conductor hug-o-meter.

Next was Ilya Shmukler, 27, from Russia, with the first of three traversals of the Rachmaninoff Concerto No. 3 in D minor to be heard in this final round. Signs of limited rehearsal time were evident in occasional conductor-pianist disagreements over tempo and issues of balance between soloist and orchestra. Shmukler had plainly mastered the blizzard of notes in his part, playing with fluent assurance and observing the indicated “hairpins” and rubato, but the performance lacked something in spontaneity and organic growth. It communicated a kind of dogged determination—as if the pianist was playing in a competition.

But he deserved credit for big, unforced fortissimos, especially in the massive “ossia” first-movement cadenza. And orchestra and soloist coordinated for a splendid final peroration that earned Shmukler a big hand from the audience and a level-6 hug from the conductor.

Russian pianist Ilya Shmukler performed Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 during his final round.

The concert’s brief second “half” consisted of Gershwin’s Concerto in F — somewhat pedantically listed as “Piano Concerto in F major” — with a 23-year-old American, Clayton Stephenson, as soloist. One was immediately struck by Stephenson’s ease at the instrument as he leaned in, shaping phrases with long fingers and marvelously flexible wrists. He also gave a lesson in swing that the orchestra evidently hadn’t had time to learn from him or conductor Alsop.

Unfortunately, although deservedly beloved for its wealth of melodies and snazzy pianism, the Concerto in F isn’t a composition on a level with Beethoven and Rachmaninoff, and it proved a poor showcase for a pianist’s interpretive insight. The piano is silent for much of the nocturnal slow movement, and elsewhere the music’s episodic character discourages taking the long view.

Stephenson will be heard in the “Rach Three” Friday night. Meanwhile, he showed how a sensitive pianist with good timing and tonal range can mine beauty and meaning from a comparatively simple score. The audience clearly was appreciative, and Stephenson’s conductor hug rated at least an 8.

Besides their fine performances, Lim and Stephenson doubtless owed their ovations to the American love of the underdog — Lim for his short stature and youth; Stephenson for providing the chance to hear a first-rate African American talent in the classical arena, where it’s all too rare for Black musicians to be engaged.

We’ll see what those sourpuss judges say. With three competitors still to be heard, I have Lim with a substantial lead as we head into the ninth inning.

More on Anna Geniushene (Russia), Dmytro Choni (Ukraine) and Uladzislau Khandohi (Belarus), who competed in the second round, will follow.