Our Woman at the Cliburn: He Was Robbed

Cliburn Winners107

June 11, 2017

Author’s Note: Like so many of you, I watched the June 10 Cliburn finals online. (My daughter was graduating from high school on June 10. I can’t imagine why the school district didn’t plan around the Cliburn.)

God save the child whose piano lesson followed little Georgy Tchaidze’s. Georgy has his own. And he was robbed.

Certainly, all six finalists in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition play well, and the jury’s job is an unenviable one. On the other hand, the jury’s choice of Gold Medalist seems puzzling.

Saturday, June 10, after the usual lengthy and—for the competitors—torturous introductory remarks, Cliburn Jury Chairman Leonard Slatkin announced the results of the three-week competition. South Korean Yekwon Sunwoo, 28, took the Gold Medal, and American Kenneth Broberg, 23, received the Silver Medal. Daniel Hsu, 19, also an American, received the Bronze Medal, the Steven De Groote Memorial Award for the Best Performance of Chamber Music, and the Beverley Taylor Smith Award for the Best Performance of a New Work. 

Sunwoo, who has degrees from Curtis and Juilliard, performed the Rachmaninoff Concerto No. 3 in Friday evening’s final round. Although he turned in impressive and highly lyrical performances in the Mozart and chamber rounds, his Rachmaninoff was technically admirable but harsh in tone. Disappointing in the extreme.

Broberg, on the other hand, displayed consistent attention to musical detail. In the Mozart No. 25, the Dvořák Quintet in A major, and the Rachmaninoff Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Broberg never lost track of why he was playing: He loves music, and he wants the audience to love it, too.

Bronze Medalist Hsu is a charmer. (To get an idea of his ability to delight an audience, take a look at the live stream of his concerto round.) He plays well, no doubt, and with maturity. His tone in the Tchaikovsky Concerto No. 1, however, often became jarring.

So where does the aforementioned Georgy Tchaidze come in? Regrettably, this year’s Cliburn, the 29-year-old Russian finalist didn’t come in at all. Making the finals in the three-week competition is, of course, in itself a significant achievement. But his June 10 performance of Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 3 was truly stellar. Prokofiev’s thrill ride of a concerto requires stamina, chops, and the ability to shift character in a single bound. Tchaidze had them all, and his concerto performance was thirty minutes of musical bliss; even online, Tchaidze blew everyone else out of the water. With or without the Cliburn, Tchaidze will continue building a solid career.

Georgy Tchaidze 035

This and That:

  • When watching physically emotive performers, the trick is to look away. How does the music sound without the visual cues?
  • It is noticeable that the three medalists played warhorses: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Tchaikovsky 1, and Rach 3.
  • Hong Kong’s Rachel Cheung, 25, received the Audience Award. She is talented and delightful, and is another finalist who looks to have a successful career.
  • The John Giordano Jury Chairman Discretionary Award went to South Korea’s Dasol Kim, 28, and the Raymond E. Buck Jury Discretionary Award to Italy’s Leonardo Pierdomenico, 24. An additional Jury Discretionary Award went to Canada’s Tony Yike Yang, 18.

For information on the goodies that accompany each award, visit cliburn.org.

Our Woman at the Cliburn: Judgment is Nigh


June 9, 2017

“Dies Irae.” Judgment Day. In Fort Worth, that day is tomorrow, June 10, when, at the end of the three-week Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, final judgment will be passed on the six finalists.

How apt, then, that, in Friday’s night concerto round, American Kenneth Broberg performed Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43. Rachmaninoff quotes the “Dies Irae” plainchant melody throughout the 1934 composition; indeed, he uses it as the skeleton of the seventh of the work’s twenty-four variations.

Kenneth Broberg004

Of course, any Rachmaninoff work makes great demands on the performer, and Rhapsody is no exception. Broberg, however, never seemed to break a sweat as he expertly coordinated with Leonard Slatkin and the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. His tone production on the Hamburg Steinway was among the best of the week, rich and colorful. Further, Broberg’s thoughtful voicing and consistently precise rhythmic execution are much appreciated: The Rachmaninoff swings when it needs to swing, and sings when it needs to sing. Broberg made the piece sound new, and the audience had a wonderful time.

But—sigh—the Cliburn would not be the Cliburn without at least one performance of the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3. South Korea’s Yekwon Sunwoo did the honors, and the audience seemed to like him. Certainly he has the chops for the piece. On Friday night, however, brusque tone marred much of the performance and diminished Sunwoo’s lyricism.

Yekwon Sunwoo014

The night’s third concerto was the Prokofiev No. 2, Op. 16. Russian finalist Yuri Favorin knows the piece—without doubt—and he has the stamina for it. The concerto rarely allows the pianist to breathe, and Favorin barreled through diligently. Interestingly, the program notes emphasize Favorin’s interest in improvisation and contemporary composition, and his own performance group is cleverly named ERROR 404. It would be interesting to hear him in a different musical setting.


Saturday afternoon’s concerto finals feature Rachel Cheung playing the Beethoven No. 4, Daniel Hsu playing the Tchaikovsky No. 1 (someone had to), and Georgy Tchaidze playing the Prokofiev No. 3. The concert begins at 3 p.m. and will be live streaming at cliburn.org.

This and that:

  • “Dies Irae” shows up in numerous classical works. Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead, a 1909 symphonic poem written in 5/8, makes particularly eerie use of the melody.
  • Did anyone else think the orchestra sometimes had a hard time keeping up with the soloists?
  • Let’s stipulate that all the finalists are skilled pianists. Now we’ll see what the jury thinks.

After the finals, the blog will return with a summary of the proceedings. Stay tuned!

Our Woman at the Cliburn: Brahms Triumphant

Rachel Cheung098

June 8, 2017

There’s good, and there’s Brahms. The Franck F-Minor Quintet and the Dvořák Op. 81 in A Major allow pianists to display their chops, but, baby, when Brahms enters the room, other composers might as well step aside.

It takes intellect as well as musicality to play the Brahms Op. 34 Quintet in F-Minor, and Cliburn finalist Rachel Cheung possesses both. She plays the work with the confidence and the richness of tone that Brahms deserves. In fact, if the jury based its decision strictly on quality of sound, Cheung would easily walk away with First Prize.

Thursday evening’s concert marked the end of the chamber portion of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, and this year’s contest shifted the chamber performances from the semifinals to the final rounds. Georgy Tchaidze, Daniel Hsu, and Cheung joined the Brentano Quartet in Fort Worth’s Bass Hall. Hsu did a good job with the Franck, and Tchaidze turned in an intense performance of the Dvořák. (Yes! Again!) All three played the Hamburg Steinway, but, of the six finalists heard in the chamber finals, Cheung alone discovered the harmonic depths and myriad voicings the German instrument can produce.

Further, her performance reinforced the idea that, when choosing repertoire, taste matters. Many can play with volume and speed, but a pianist with aesthetic heart and refined taste can remind listeners why the great nineteenth-century German conductor Hans von Bülow considered Bach the Father, Beethoven the Son, and Brahms the Holy Ghost of music. Brahms is a composer able to reach across the centuries and grab listeners by their hearts and minds. What a delight to hear his quintet played well.

Cliburn concerto finals begin Friday evening, with Yuri Favorin playing the second Prokofiev concerto, Kenneth Broberg playing Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, and Yekwon Sunwoo playing more Rachmaninoff, the third concerto. (Surely you didn’t think you would escape the Rach 3.)

So why are you still reading this piece? Grab a laptop and watch Cheung’s performance at cliburn.org  

This and that:

  • Pity the Cliburn audience. The recital program lists only the title of each quintet, leaving many listeners to wonder how many movements should go by before they applaud. Since the finalists have a choice of only four quintets, certainly the Cliburn could prepare a program listing the movements of each chamber work.
  • Dvořák’s use of folklike melodies in his 1877 quintet precedes the beginning of Bartók’s ethnomusicological research by only about thirty years.

How lovely it would be if the 2021 Cliburn allowed a maximum of two performances of the same quartet. A pipe dream (or perhaps a string dream?), but one can hope.


Our Woman at the Cliburn: Dvořák. And More Dvořák.

Our Woman at the Cliburn: Dvořák. And More Dvořák.

Kenneth Broberg297

June 7, 2017

How much Dvořák is an innocent listener expected to endure? Quite a bit, apparently, at least if the listener is attending this year’s Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

The competition has moved into the final rounds, and each of the six remaining contestants joins the Brentano Quartet in the Cliburn’s chamber portion. The finalists could choose one of four piano quintets: the Dvořák A Major, Op. 81; the Brahms F Minor, Op. 34; the Franck F Minor; and the Schumann E-flat Major, Op. 44. Finalists Daniel Hsu and Yury Favorin chose the Franck; three contestants—Kenneth Broberg, Yekwon Sunwoo, and Georgy Tchaidze—chose the Dvořák, and Rachel Cheung chose the Brahms (thank you!).

Broberg’s performance of Dvořák’s 1887 work opened the June 7 final round. Broberg, a Minneapolis native, is a controlled, expressive player, and, at 23, he seems destined for a productive career. His playing is mature, thoughtful, and eminently rhythmic. Throughout, his ensemble with the string players was solid, and, without fail, Dvořák’s characteristic snapping rhythmic patterns were precise and dancelike.

But is it fair to play the same work (in the same evening) as Korea’s Yekwon Sunwoo? Sunwoo, 28, seems to have music pouring out of his fingers; his musicality and elegance—combined with an economical technique and multiple variations in tone and dynamic levels—are gaining him fans. His opening tempo was brisk (the quartet had to look sharp to keep up with him), and his energy, command of sound, and clearly communicated cues sold the performance and kept the audience attentive.

Yekwon Sunwoo059

Yury Favorin, the oldest of the finalists at 30, provided a break from Dvořák with his performance of Franck’s 1879 quintet. The composition’s acrobatic piano part certainly showed off Favorin’s impressive technique, but his upcoming performance of the Prokofiev Concerto No. 2 should give audiences a fuller idea of his emotional range.

Yury Favorin e095

The June 8 evening concert will feature the Dvořák (surprise!), the Brahms, and the Franck. Performances and archives are streaming at cliburn.org.

(By the way, is Fort Worth in the middle of a tuberculosis epidemic? Granted, audience members reflexively cough between movements, but Wednesday night’s audience seemed to be at death’s door. The only thing to do was laugh.)


Our Woman at the Cliburn: Exposure on the Concert Stage

Performing Mozart is precarious business. The pianist who tackles a Mozart concerto—in public, no less—is a brave person indeed. 
To play Mozart is to risk exposure; so many things can go wrong. Miss a note, and there is no thick, Romantic, bulwark of harmony to cover your mistake. Minimize the shading, and the scalar passages sound like clicking computer keys. And heaven protect the pianist who forgets the composer’s intellectual through line! (Don’t worry; you’ll know when it’s not there. Audience members will be yawning and reading their program books.)
This year, for the first time, the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition required each of the twelve semifinalists to play a concerto by Mozart. What a fiendish and effective method of narrowing the field! The Mozart performances, which were June 3-5, required intense concentration, innate musicality, and expert ensemble coordination with the Fort Worth Symphony, led by Nicholas McGegan. Now that those performances are complete, six finalists remain.
Cliburn competitors must be between the ages of eighteen and thirty, and the ages of this year’s finalists encompass most of that age range:
Kenneth Broberg, 23, from the United States
Rachel Cheung, 25, from Hong Kong
Yury Favorin, 30, from Russia
Daniel Hsu, 19, from the United States
Yekwon Sunwoo, 28, from South Korea
Georgy Tchaidze, 29, from Russia
It’s a good group. Two of the performers, however, stood out. Korea’s Sunwoo established congenial camaraderie with the conductor and orchestra in Mozart’s Concerto in C Major, K. 467. Sunwoo combines beautifully released phrases with swinging rhythmic vitality, and—even in online video—conveys expertise and affability. He is one to watch in the finals.
Also notable was Kenneth Broberg, who, in the Concerto in C Major, K. 503, captured Mozart’s whimsy and spice. He also provided a master class in shading and dynamic control. The highlight, however, came in the first-movement cadenza, with Broberg combining the movement’s second theme with the first phrase of “La Marseillaise.” Bravo.
Final rounds begin this evening, June 7, 2017 at 7:30 pm (Central Time). Broberg, Favorin, and Sunwoo will perform Dvořák and Franck with the Brentano Quintet. Live and archived concert viewing is available at www.cliburn.org