Classical Music World: Notes From Cliburn 9

Yekwan Sunwoo of South Korea and the Brentano String Quartet play as one. Courtesy photo
American Kenneth Broberg enjoys the final moment of his performance with the Brentano String Quartet. Courtesy photo

Artistic Director
Los Alamos Concert Association

The “plays-well-with-others” round of the Cliburn Competition has begun.

First, Cliburn competitors are required to choose one of five piano quintets to play with the Brentano String Quartet. Next, each competitor will play a concerto, any concerto, as long as it meets the approval of Maestro Leonard Slatkin who will conduct the performance with the Fort Worth Symphony.

Nothing tests a pianist’s musicianship like chamber music and this piano quintet test in the Cliburn is especially tough. Each competitor faces performing, in public, one of the towering works in the chamber music repertoire with a quartet of strangers after less than an hour of rehearsal time together. So many opportunities for things to go badly!  An unfortunate tempo, a sloppy transition, a misjudgment of sonic balance.

Of the three major international piano competitions, only the Cliburn demands this of its competitors. Moscow’s Tchaikovsky Competition requires only solo recitals (with lots of Russian repertoire) plus a Tchaikovsky concerto. In Warsaw’s Chopin Competition all they play is Chopin who wrote little in the way of chamber music, a single piano trio being the only piece that comes to mind.

The days are long gone when a pianist could make a living, as Van Cliburn did, traveling the world playing a handful of big concertos with major orchestras. Now, pianists (and all musicians, really) need to cobble together complex careers playing concertos, solo recitals, and chamber music with academic appointments or residencies on the side. The Cliburn understands this and aims to boost the careers of pianists who show the potential for making a success out of this patchwork.

We have heard three competitors in this round so far. Russian Yuri Favorin has been the subject of much comment among attendees mostly along the lines of, “Huh.” He redeemed himself somewhat with a workman-like performance of the quintet by César Franck.

Kenneth Broberg, one of two American finalists, gave us a beautiful account of the Dvořák Quintet in A Major, op.81. When he began I thought that perhaps the Bass Performance Hall was not the best venue for small string ensembles. Or maybe my ears were so attuned to booming Steinways that they needed to adjust. I was so wrong.

The problem was one of balance as we discovered when South Korean Yekwon Sunwoo performed the same quintet. What a difference! The balance between that Steinway and the Brentano was perfect. While Broberg certainly meshed nicely with the Brentano, Sunwoo achieved a complete mind-meld. It was impossible to believe that the five have not been playing together for years and years. This is no small achievement and the remaining three competitors in this portion of the round will need to go very far indeed to surpass or even match Sunwoo.