Experience has taught us not to underestimate the caliber of the field in each variant of the Van Cliburn Competition.
When the Cliburn “for outstanding amateurs” was launched in 1999, there were those who anticipated evenings of wrong notes, memory slips and slapdash interpretations. Reality corrected that expectation — for the most part, the amateurs were not amateurish.
Veteran fans of the Cliburn Competition learned a lesson from that and succeeding events, so when the sponsoring foundation announced the inauguration of a new “Cliburn International Junior Piano Competition and Festival” for 13- to 17-year-olds, there were few condescending remarks.
The festival got underway Sunday morning in TCU’s PepsiCo Recital Hall, and the six contestants of the first session demonstrated the wisdom of withholding any snickering. These were topnotch people who could easily have been playing in the adult Cliburn — and that includes the one 13-year-old of the day.
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Zitong Wang, a 16-year-old from China, drew the traditionally dreaded first position and demonstrated the qualities that were common throughout the day: a confident manner, secure technique and the ability to communicate musically with her audience. Her program of Beethoven, Chopin and Scriabin was typical competition fare but always interesting.
The same could be said of the 13-year-old, Xiaoxuan Li of China, who played music of Haydn, Rachmaninoff and Chopin. In another five years he may show up in the adult Cliburn.
Although Li looks a little older than 13, contestants had to submit birth certificates or passports as proof of age.
The morning’s other performers were Anna Boonyanit, 16, of the United States; Alim Beisembayev, 17, of Kazakhstan; Wei Luo, 16, of China; and Jeong Min Kim, 17, of South Korea.
The afternoon’s performers, like the morning group, were uniformly skilled and more mature than their ages would leave one to expect. Misha Galant, a 17-year-old American, was a prime example with his program of Haydn, Rachmaninoff and Liszt.
Besides Galant, the afternoon group included Roger Shen, 16, of the United States; Adam Balogh, 17, of Hungary; Amir Saraj, 15, of the United States; Natasha Wu, 15, of the United States and Taiwan; and Arsenii Mun, 16, of Russia.
The 12 broke new ground for the Cliburn: Past competitions have tended to run over a little. All 12 met their 20-minute time limit and some even came in quicker. This may be the first Cliburn competition to run on time.
Sunday afternoon’s session packed PepsiCo Hall. There was some shrinkage near the end, but still the numbers were impressive.
Tuesday’s two sessions, at 2 and 7 p.m., will wind up the prelims. Twelve quarterfinalists will be named around 9:30 after the final notes of the day.