After seven days of preliminary competition, the field of 30 performers in the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition was narrowed to 12 semifinalists Thursday night at Bass Hall.
• Nikita Abrosimov, 24, Russia
• Sean Chen, 24, United States
• Alexey Chernov, 30, Russia
• Alessandro Deljavan, 26, Italy
• Fei-Fei Dong, 22, China
• Jayson Gillham, 26, Australia/United Kingdom
• Claire Huangci, 23, United States
• Vadym Kholodenko, 26, Ukraine
• Nikolay Khozyainov, 20, Russia
• Nikita Mndoyants, 24, Russia
• Beatrice Rana, 20, Italy
• Tomoki Sakata, 19, Japan
The group has four Russians, including Nikita Mndoyants, whose father, Alexander Mndoyants, placed fifth in the 1977 Cliburn competition.
He said his father was probably listening to the announcement in Moscow.
“I think that he is also glad, and maybe a little proud,” he said.
Another Russian, Nikita Abrosimov, had been an alternate until just weeks before the competition, when a competitor dropped out and he was invited to Fort Worth.
“It’s a relief, but I’m also nervous because the next stage starts just a day after tomorrow,” Sakata said.
On being the youngest competitor, he said: “If you are one of the semifinal stage, there is no difference between the youngest and the oldest. We all have a responsibility to do our best on the stage.”
Deljavan made it to the semifinals in 2009 and was praised for his chamber music performance.
The dramatic facial expressions he makes while playing, broadcast on the big screen inside Bass Hall and on the competition webcast, have been the subject of much talk among critics, social media followers and audience members this year.
“I have to say, I thought I did play very well, especially in my second preliminary round, after perhaps being too emotional in my playing during the first round,” he said. “Four years ago, I was the funny one in the competition. This time around, I’m probably more relaxed. That comes with more experience.
“But now the pieces must be better.”
Fellow Italian Beatrice Rana, who earned early critical praise in the preliminaries, said she felt nervous before the announcement Thursday and continued to be nervous when she heard her name called.
“I thought maybe it was a hallucination, I don’t know,” she said. “I’m really glad to be one of the 12. Now I hope I deserve what they thought of me.”
“Basically I just need to practice,” Chen said of how he’ll spend the time before his next performance.
Before calling the semifinalists to the stage, Cliburn jury chairman John Giordano briefly remembered Van Cliburn, who died in February.
“A tall man, about 6-foot-4, used to always stand next to me, offstage, before these ceremonies would begin, and he would always ask me before we walked out: ‘Did they do a good job?’
” he said, his voice cracking. “I know he’s with us tonight.”
The preliminary round began May 24, and in a change of format this year, each of the 30 competitors was required to play two 45-minute solo recitals.
The semifinal round begins Saturday afternoon. Each competitor will perform one 60-minute solo recital and one piano quintet with the Brentano String Quartet. The six finalists will be announced late Tuesday.
Thursday was a bittersweet night for the pianists, their fans and their host families, as the announcement that 12 of the 30 were advancing meant that 18 were going home.
“To tell you the truth, I’m most upset that my friends [Alessandro] Taverna and especially Francois Dumont didn’t make it,” Deljavan said. “Understand that he is a very big artist, one of my favorite friends. I honestly don’t know what to say for why he didn’t make it because I feel so respectful of his musicianship.”
Though the pianists, representing 13 countries, have competed onstage for almost a week, many came into the Cliburn as friends.
Some go to the same school or study with the same teacher; others know one another from competitions around the world.
“I’m really happy to be one of the 12, but a lot of my friends who I thought should have gotten through didn’t,” Chen said.
Other advancing competitors echoed that sentiment.
“I feel fine but I also feel sad for the others who weren’t chosen, as so many of whom are my friends,” China’s Fei-Fei Dong said.
Fellow semifinalist Gillham added: “I’ve got some mixed emotions because it’s genuinely sad to see the others who didn’t get chosen. So it’s kind of an odd moment for me right now, as I’ve listened to so many of the others play. And to have even two members of the jury even agree on us as being the final 12, I just didn’t picture this happening like this because, honestly, everyone is so, so great.”
The 18 competitors who didn’t advance will receive $1,000 from the Cliburn and will get a chance to play in a “Piano Lunch” recital, which is free and open to the public, on Thursday in McDavid Studio. Some will leave Fort Worth before then.
“Of course, I have a sad feeling, but the rules of the competition are the rules, and we must accept them,” Taverna said. “But it was a wonderful special adventure to come to Texas, to play in Van Cliburn’s space at the Cliburn.”
Staff writer Tim Madigan and correspondent Andrew Marton contributed to this report.