Four years ago, I became hopelessly addicted to the livestream of the famous international Van Cliburn Piano Competition. The fact that it featured a blind piano player Nobuyuki Tsujii (who ended up winning a shared gold medal) and some brilliant performances that still stand out in my mind today, only fueled the fire. The fourteenth Van Cliburn Piano Competition is currently underway in Fort Worth, Texas, once again, and again, the competition is kindly offering a free livestream of the competition to audiences all around the world.
And people are watching. And commenting. And having opinions. And in general, having a blast and enjoying some incredible piano playing. It’s so amazing that although these young piano players are playing halfway across the US, we are able to peek in and experience their triumphs.
The format of the competition has changed a lot this year, with all thirty preliminary round competitors playing a whopping two 45 minute recitals in the prelim rounds, and in exchange, taking out the solo recital in the finals. Thus it means in the finals, competitors are solely judged on their concertos and their ability to work with an orchestra, rather than their ability to take the stage as soloists. It’s nice to be able to hear more piano playing in the prelim rounds with lots more music to experience in this new format, but I’m afraid that this shifts the final winners to be better collaborators rather than solo piano players. But perhaps this is what also made the namesake Van Cliburn famous, with his Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 that earned him accolades at the International Tchaikovsky Competition, and thus it’s fitting that the competition reflects Van Cliburn’s success.
In general compared to four years ago, my opinion is that the general standard of piano playing is higher this year, with some incredible piano playing and virtuosity. However, I haven’t really heard anything outstanding yet, not like four years ago. No one performance has stuck out above the rest in my mind – Tomoki Sakata may have come the closest, but to be fair, I haven’t listened to all of the competitors play their entire recitals yet. Sean Chen also plays with incredible intelligence. And thankfully, the judges appear to be looking for the same thing I’m looking for, which is something surprising and unique. A lot of people were shocked when American Steven Lin didn’t make it to the semi-finals, a player leading his virtuositic foot that literally made my jaw drop. But it proved to not be enough. In the world of classical piano playing, even winning this competition means a very tough career ahead of these young piano players. There are so many players competing for a career, and in a saturated market, these judges appear to realize that virtuosity and the “wow” factor isn’t enough. Give us something unique, something surprising, something that grabs our attention in a busy iPhone crowded world. And the jurors have appropriately been picking competitors to advance based on these qualities rather than audience popularity alone.
The finals should be fascinating. I’m so looking forward to the Mozart Piano Concerto in d minor by Tomoki Sakata, as well as by Nikita Mndoyants, in addition to the standard romantic concertos by Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky. Kholodenko’s Mozart concerto in C major should be interesting as well.
A huge shoutout to the webcast team, who is doing an excellent job. I am consistently amazed at the quality of the filming on the webcast, as well as the excellent lighting.