Thoughts on the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition

Check out this video.

What do you think?

Now, what if I told you that he’s blind, since birth? He’s never read a note in his life (in the traditional sense, at least), and he has never seen the piano. Does that change your opinion of his playing?

Funny how the mind works. Bias is an invisible, elusive thing. I was flipping through some of the videos of the world famous Van Cliburn International Piano Competition which is amazingly live streamed across the internet. It’s incredibly addicting because the level of playing is so high and the intensity is palpable even through the internet. At a brief initial glance however, a lot of the competitors sounded the same to me. A huge part of this is no doubt due to the fact that I’m not listening live, but with the existing conditions, they all sounded really well studied, guarded, careful and precise. However, my ears perked up when I heard Nobuyuki Tsujii, the performer in the video above. He had the advantage of a fantastic beginning to the Chopin etudes, but his unique artistry stood out immediately. There was a warm flash to his playing layered with a well of sensitivity, a refreshing raw unfinished edge but real heart. A quick search on the Van Cliburn website led to his biography and information that he has been blind since birth. After acquiring that knowledge, I began to find his playing absolutely heartbreaking, even down to his practiced and awkwardly endearing bows. From my point of view, he isn’t technically the best player in the competition, yet I can’t help but to root for him.

Why is it that as audience members, we pore

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over artists’ biographies in the program? Their personal lives shouldn’t matter in the audience’s opinion of the artist and his or her art. Or does it, or more importantly, should it?

A friend of mine thinks it’s irrelevant that he’s blind, and pointed out that it would be more impressive if he played that way and he was deaf. True. He’s advanced to the semi finals, by the way. His semifinal chamber performance with the Takacs Quartet will be tomorrow afternoon if you want to tune in. I’m sending him the best of luck all the way over here from California.

I also listened to Stephen Beus who unfortunately didn’t advance to semi finals, but I liked the elegance in his playing.

Be sure to check out the live stream of the competition online, here. So worth it.

Who are your favorites, and who else should I check out? There are simply too many to listen to.

Update: my thoughts on the Van Cliburn finals.

3 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition

  1. leonard brill

    thanks for posting this entry. i was made aware for the first time of the webcasting of the complete cliburn competition, and especially the phenomenal nobu, whose performance of the appassionata on sunday afternoon left me weak.

  2. Greta

    Have you checked out Di Wu yet? Her chamber music performance of Dvorak w/ the Takacs Quartet is a must see! They had such great chemistry! She is one of my favs. :)

  3. jolene Post author

    Thanks for commenting, Leonard and Greta! In the few days since I posted this blog entry, I have become hopelessly addicted to the live stream at the Van Cliburn competition this year. I haven’t seen all of the videos yet (I’ll definitely check out Di Wu’s Dvorak) but you can believe I’ll be stuck to the computer throughout the finals. I love their live stream!!

    My favorite so far is Haochen Zhang’s Chopin preludes and anything Nobu Tsujii does. Tsujii isn’t the most refined of players, but he has this unique voice that grabs my attention and aims deep into the heart of his listeners. It’s this quality that I like a lot and as Leonard says, leaves me weak too. (Do you mean the Hammerklavier, Leonard?) If the Van Cliburn is looking for piano players with ‘something to say’, then Nobu is definitely one of those people with a unique voice. The finals should be exciting!

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