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Kapell Competition, Nearing the End

Competitions are strange things, and members of juries tend to hear things differently than other listeners. In any case, it is unwise to second-guess the jury at this year's 2012 William Kapell International Piano Competition, but some very interesting performances in the preliminary round went unrewarded, apparently overshadowed by players with greater technical flash.

French pianist Guillaume Masson, currently studying with Christopher Elton at the Royal Academy of Music in London, showed an idiosyncratic approach to all three of the pieces the jury requested. A Mozart sonata (C major, K. 330) had a fast movement a little too fast for the Allegro Moderato tempo marking: although Masson gave it a winsome, fluffy touch, the runs were not always clear and the trills a little dusty. His interpretation was subtle and diverting though, emphasizing a precise control of the piano side of the dynamic spectrum. An outstanding slow movement still had bounce, never becoming too languid, with a poetic minor section. A Debussy prelude ("Canopic Jar," from Book 2) was oneiric and strange, as if one were walking into a vision, in this case of the funereal practices of ancient Egypt. Masson turned on his story-telling power for a theatrical performance of Liszt's "Fantasia quasi Sonata" (After reading Dante), again keeping much of the piece contained, which made the explosive passages at the end all the more explosive. It was a performance that stood out for its interpretative oddities, the kind of playing that one enjoys hearing in an actual concert but that does not always win competitions.

American pianist Jun Asai was the last to play in the preliminary rounds, the only competitor I saw who chose a Kawai piano. The instrument's brasher sound suited what she did with her selections, emphasizing stark differences between piano and forte and Grave and Allegro in the first movement of Beethoven's "Pathétique" sonata. She gave distinct sounds to three singing voices in Liszt's spitfire transcription of Schubert's song "Der Erlkönig." Slow passages tended to stymie her energy, as in an overly precious performance of a Chopin nocturne (op. 27/2). Her overindulgence of the Chopin put her over the time limit, meaning that a rather dramatic performance of two movements of Stravinsky's "Petrouchka" was cut short by the judges.

I was not able to hear much of the semifinal solo rounds, but of those I did hear, Yekwon Sunwoo distinguished himself the most. Currently studying with Robert McDonald at Juilliard, the South Korean 23-year-old played a daring rendition of Schumann's Symphonic Etudes, with exceptional panache, although his Chopin G minor ballade was a little shy and retiring, if finely nuanced. The semifinal solo round was when each pianist performed his or her required piece, one of a series of pieces by American composers from the last 50-some years. Sunwoo gave the most convincing performance of Leon Kirchner's Interlude II, from 2003, smoothing out its jagged edges and making the bluesy passages sing. Perhaps hoping to make the grandest impression in his concerto performance, with Colette Valentine playing the orchestral reduction, he took the last movement of Rachmaninoff's third concerto at breakneck speed, missing little bits along the way but with remarkable fire in his belly.

Based on comments from many people I spoke to during the early rounds, American pianist Steven Lin has emerged as the leading contender of the competition. After finally hearing him in the semifinal chamber music round on Tuesday afternoon, I can say that his technique is indeed clean and bewildering. Another student from Juilliard, where he was a pre-college student after moving back to the U.S. from Taiwan and where he will start as a Master's student with Robert McDonald this fall, he has a beautiful touch at the keyboard. However, the chamber music part of the competition does reveal something about each musician's musical maturity, and while Lin had a solid handle on the piano part of Beethoven's third cello sonata, he was not particularly adept at listening to and melding with his partner, cellist William DeRosa.

The most accomplished accompanist heard that day, in fact, was Chinese pianist Yue Chu, who gave a sensitive and full-bodied rendition of the third Brahms violin sonata, subtly bringing out inner voices under and around the solo line and grounding the work on Brahms's bass line. With a nice leggiero touch in the scherzo and plenty of agitation in the finale, his collaborative approach brought out superior playing from violinist Melissa White, who sounded more comfortable than she had in the same piece earlier in the day. Based on his technically astounding (if musically lackluster) performance in the preliminary round, Chu seems most likely to join Lin among the three finalists, who will perform concertos with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Saturday's final concert (July 21, 8 pm).

The third slot seems much less clear, although two possibilities would be South Korean pianist Jin Uk Kim and Chinese pianist Diyi Tang. Both gave striking performances in the preliminary round -- stronger on technical force than subtlety, true, but that is generally the way to go in a competition -- although neither distinguished himself in the chamber music department. After today's conclusion to the semifinal chamber music round, the announcement of the names of the three finalists is expected at around 7:45 pm.

The three finalists for the 2012 William Kapell International Piano Competition will be Jin Uk Kim (playing the Brahms second concerto), Steven Lin (Rachmaninoff, Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini), and Yekwon Sunwoo (Rachmaninoff's third concerto).

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