Will Cliburn history repeat?

Posted Friday, Jun. 07, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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In 1997, an Asian-American named Jon Nakamatsu came from nowhere to advance through the first round of that year’s Cliburn Competition, then through the semifinals. In the finals he brought down the house with his performance of Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto, one of the most electrifying moments in Cliburn history. Oh, and Nakamatsu was from California.

Then came this year, the first time an American advanced to the finals since Nakamatsu. The new guy is also an Asian-American from California, Sean Chen, who has come out of nowhere to advance not once but twice in this year’s competition. He plays the Rach 3 last on Sunday. Chen has a bit more hair than Nakamatsu did, but still. After the ovation on Friday for Chen’s first final round concerto, Beethoven’s Fifth, the question was natural.

Will history repeat itself?

“Well, I try not to think about those things,” Chen said after his performance. “I just try to play my best on stage and that’s all I can ask for.”

He might not think about it, but a lot of other people do, he was reminded. Chen laughed.

“I know,” he said.

He is the classic all-American boy who graduated from public high school, dabbled in tennis, basketball and is still a video games nut, but tried to downplay the only-American-in-the-finals-since-1997 thing.

“It’s kind of amazing sounding, but a lot of students study in America,” he said. “A lot of the finalists in the past have been students in the States and for a long time, too, so they’re like honorary Americans.”

But still.

“I’m really honored to be carrying the American flag, even though I look Asian,” Chen said.

— Tim Madigan

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