Is this the most compelling Cliburn ever? If so, now what?

Posted Sunday, Jun. 09, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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In the last 48 hours, this Cliburn has erupted into one of the most compelling competitions in its long history. It began on Friday night when Ukrainian Vadym Kholodenko brought down the house with Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto. A night later, Beatrice Rana of Italy did the same with Prokofiev’s Second.

Both pieces were written to inspire that kind of over-the-top crowd reaction, but ovations were magnified by the obvious mastery of both young musicians. Even conductor Leonard Slatkin, on record here as saying he does not believe in music competitions, seemed swept up in the excitement.

“Now it’s a horse race,” he said after Rana’s performance.

It brings to mind 2001, when Olga Kern and Stanislav Ioudenitch electrified Fort Worth with their sharply contrasting styles. But this is what makes this year’s competition unique, perhaps historic. It’s not just Rana and Kholodenko. Nikita Mndoyants of Russia and American Sean Chen have both played their way into legitimate gold medal consideration.

Mndoyants has been a courtly and captivating presence at the keyboard. I have come to think of him as a gentleman pianist. Chen is a brilliant musician who has brought his own brand of California charisma to the stage.

But this current abundance runs headlong into a fallacy of music competitions: that with four artists of this quality, anyone can say with certainty that one is better than the other.

Sometimes things sort themselves out, and there can be one clear winner. That seems to be the case at the 2011 Tchaikovsky Competition when Daniil Trifinov took first and is now well on his way to stardom. (The Cliburn’s 2009 silver medalist Yeol eum Son also finished second to Trifinov in Moscow.) In other years the Cliburn has acknowledged the fallacy by naming multiple gold medal winners.

That was true with Kern and Ioudenitch in 2001, and again with Haochen Zhang and Nobuyuki Tsujii four years ago.

But this year, fallacy or not, there will be only one. At the end, three of the four pianists I have mentioned will have lost. There is no other way to put it.

And this is not an empty parlor game. The decision of the jury on Sunday will have profound implications for several careers. There is a huge drop-off in cache between Cliburn gold and silver winner. I’m aware of at least one classical music presenter who is interested in engaging the gold medalist only. I assume there are many others.

Given the excitement of the last few days, coming from so many different artists, the Cliburn Foundation now bears a great responsibility to ensure that all of this year’s medalists reap full benefits of the Cliburn brand.

Ultimately, of course, we become reconciled to the fallacy, the flawed premise. In the 21st century, it’s hard to argue with anything that creates this much excitement about classical music. Without that premise, however flawed, those of us who live in Fort Worth would not luxuriate in the gifted artists from around the world every four years.

I have covered the Cliburn since 1993, and every competition has left a memory, a profound mark. Another was made on Saturday, but not in one of the Prokofiev show-stoppers.

Mndoyants was on stage, playing Mozart, and had arrived at one of the quietest passages of the competition. It is a daunting thing to play pianissimo in a venue the size of Bass Hall, and Mndoyants told me later he was worried that the hall would swallow up the fragile sound. Yet he barely touched the keys in that passage, and the notes drifted softly but distinctly into the most distant reaches. The moment took real artistic courage. For me it was transcendent.

How do you judge that?

--TIM MADIGAN

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