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Kapell Competition: Day 1

Anyone who has been a music major or conservatory student knows the anguish of juries. They are the final exams for applied performers, and they are really not supposed to be as terrifying as they are. Perhaps it is just the word -- jury -- that summons up the image of a darkened star chamber, a panel of grim-faced judges haloed in bright light, who listen to you play and then pronounce their verdict -- "GUILTY!" Perhaps this is mostly the imagery of my own nightmares, but the point is that a musician's life is full of stress and worry.

The pressure is magnified for those taking part in a major piano competition, but the preliminary round of the 2012 William Kapell International Piano Competition and Festival, which began on Tuesday morning, was set up in a rather similar way. Each pianist received a half-hour of time in the large concert hall of the Clarice Smith Center, with the jury seated above in the balcony and a small audience in the orchestra section. One of a handful of gleaming Steinways, all with that new piano smell, was wheeled into center stage. Each performer had to show as many facets of his or her performing personality and technical expertise as possible, and each had distractions -- summer camp kids brought in for the free performance, errant cell phone rings, women in the front row throwing colorful shawls around their shoulders mid-performance -- to do their best to ignore.

At the end of the preliminary round, the jury has to eliminate two-thirds of the competitors, from the twenty-seven twenty-four (some withdrawals) who started down to nine semifinalists. It is not an enviable task, and it does explain at least some of how most competitions work. All of these musicians are playing at a high level, but small technical issues -- even memory slips, reportedly heard from one candidate on Tuesday morning -- are likely to be an easy factor to lead judges toward elimination. Having heard only part of the morning session and the whole evening session on Tuesday, I offer the following thoughts.

Jin Uk Kim, from South Korea, played a technically stunning set (the jury selects from each candidate's submitted repertoire list, including choosing only some movements of a work in some cases) that opened with a remarkably colorful "Le Loriot" from Messiaen's Catalogue d'oiseaux, velvety parallel chords over which lunatic, ecstatic bird calls shattered the silence. He took the first movement of Beethoven's op. 7 sonata extremely fast, using a mostly clipped attack that showed off his virtuosic panache. He ended with Liszt's showpiece transcription of the valse from Gounod's Faust, the sort of Liberace-style work that Chico Marx parodied so memorably.

Moldovan pianist Maria Sumareva showed herself a finesse player, which is not necessarily rewarded in competitions, with a subtly voiced "Night's Music" movement from Bartók's Out of Doors suite, a half-remembered folk melody over ostinato frog croaks and mosquito buzzing. Two movements of Schubert's D. 850 sonata were a little precious in her hands, a lot of music-box sounds that did not give her much room to make an impact. With Richard Egarr, a historical instrument specialist, on the jury, it has been interesting to hear how these mostly mainstream pianists are confronting the work of HIP performers: Sumareva's rendition of Handel's G major chaconne was crisp and fluidly ornamented, seeming to show the influence of early music-minded pianists like Alexandre Tharaud or Angela Hewitt.

Canadian pianist Younggun Kim (image courtesy of 2012 William Kapell International Piano Competition)
The evening's two other performers impressed with fiery technique, beginning with Chinese pianist Diyi Tang. Three movements from Haydn's C minor sonata (Hob. XVI:20) went by very fast, as did three movements from Stravinsky's Petrouchka, so fast in the fast sections that it was a bit of a blur. Competition pianists work so hard to perfect the surfaces of this kind of music that they are left with little depth below the shine. Tang drew out some nuances -- the questioning pause before a closing section in the Haydn, the dreamy ballerina's theme in the Stravinsky -- but it was all a little mechanical. Another Chinese pianist, Yue Chu, was even more technically astounding and even more robotic. Beethoven's C minor variations (WoO 80), a ground-bass piece that sounded like a tribute to the Handel chaconne heard just before, was virtuosic but empty, with three of Rachmaninoff's Moments Musicaux bordering on banal. He then pulled the Circus stop with Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12, to show off more razzle-dazzle. Mercifully, the jury told him to stop before the end, a request that he did not hear or chose to ignore, insisting on playing to the bitter end, even taking a curtain call to acknowledge the crowd's applause.

This was playing that, sadly, garners the attention of a competition jury, but that ultimately sounds empty-headed. By contrast, the performance that most impressed me was that of Canadian Younggun Kim, who had just as much technical acumen but much greater subtlety of phrasing, his superior rendition of the same Haydn sonata (Hob. XVI:20) marked by sensitivity of touch and light facility. The same qualities were heard in Poulenc's Trois Novelettes -- a great example of classical music in touch with popular music, they could be chansons de boulevard -- and a sharp-fingered but still varied seventh sonata by Prokofiev. Kim did not push the tempos to the breaking point and in fact kept many slow enough that he could still bring out subtle details: some listeners, including those on juries, could see this tendency as erring on the side of caution.

The preliminary rounds of the 2012 William Kapell International Piano Competition continue today and tomorrow.

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