If You’re Looking for the Cliburn Winner, Don’t Bother With Friday Night’s Finalists

Every contest has winners and also-rans. Friday night, in the second evening of the four-part concerto round of the 2013 International Van Cliburn Piano Competition at Bass Performance Hall, Beethoven and Prokofiev were the losers.

The evening, which featured performances by three of the six finalists, opened promisingly enough with Japanese pianist Tomoki Sakata joining the Fort Worth Symphony and competition conductor Leonard Slatkin for Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor. Slatkin is taking a mainstream, subtly romantic  approach to the classical-era concertos in the event. This matched up nicely with Sakata’s suave, controlled reading of a work that contains some of Mozart’s darkest music in the first movement and some of his brightest moments in the Finale. In terms of competition advancement, Sakata’s performance certainly did no harm to his chances at taking a medal, though it would be difficult to pin down anything particularly memorable in the performance. Sakata will perform Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 on Sunday afternoon in his second performance in the finals, and it will be interesting to hear what level of depth and insight a 19-year-old can bring to that warhorse.

Meanwhile, in the second performance of the evening, American pianist Sean Chen revealed a disturbing lack of emotional and intellectual readiness in his rendition of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5. Chen has much going for him—not least an obvious joy in and devotion to the music. His enthusiasm unfortunately translated into an ugly, percussive sound at key moments and a sense that this pianist simply was not listening to himself. Chen is clearly a pianist of great promise; he has figured out what Beethoven can do for him, but he hasn’t yet matured to the point of figuring out what he can do for Beethoven.

The third pianist of the evening, Ukrainian-born, Russian-trained Vadym Kholodenko, served up Prokofiev’s Third Concerto, a longtime concert hall favorite that has also become a standard at competitions, and that has frequently sealed the deal for contest winners.

Kholodenko possesses relentless power, velocity, and accuracy, but, like Chen in the Beethoven, viewed his concerto selection not so much as a work of art and means of expression but as a vehicle for display. That he thrilled with his sheer power was evident in the roaring ovation he won from the audience. What was missing was any sense of respect or love for the music itself. Kholodenko started off at fortissimo and stayed there for most of the work, resulting in an absence of drama or transformation. The glorious lyrical theme of the final movement emerged lackluster and mundane, and the final, potentially amazing return to C major was hardly noticeable, since Kholodenko had already pretty well sapped the piece of its color and contrast.

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