Oberlin, OH, July 27, 2010

by Daniel Hathaway

The plan was to advance ten young pianists into the concerto round of the Cooper Competition, but apparently the judges found the talent pool so deep that eleven players were actually scheduled into today’s pair of sessions in Warner Concert Hall at the Oberlin Conservatory. Good thing Warner Hall isn’t a cruise ship — it would have been listing seriously to the port side as nearly the whole audience of contestants, parents, friends and onlookers clustered on the keyboard side of the hall to get a good look at the twenty-two hands that would be performing today.

Afternoon Session

Considering only the five who performed during the 2:30 slot, there’s no lack of digital prowess among the 13-18 year old set. Concerto movements by Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Ravel, Mozart and Rachmaninoff received masterful performances by ten young performers with “orchestral” support ably supplied by second pianists James Howsmon, Yury Shadrin and Chien-Lin Lu.

The standout in this afternoon’s session for me was 14-year old George Li from Massachusetts, who played the opening movement of Chopin’s first concerto with assurance and accuracy. Li looks small for his age but plays with a strong, clear tone. He nailed the tough passages handily and shaped phrases expertly with an attractive lyricism. There might have been a bit more poetry at certain moments, but this was an impressive showing.

16-year old John Chen from Virginia began the session with a muscular performance of the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s first concerto. Nearly overpowering his “orchestra”, he strummed rich chords at the beginning, then took us on a sometimes breathless ride through the rest of this famous movement. Choosing not to linger over big tunes or lyrical moments, Chen consistently pressed forward, delivering a version of Tchaik 1 which was long on energy and excitement but could have benefited from more contrasts in color, mood and dynamics.

After George Li’s Chopin, 16-year old Korean pianist Su Yeon Kim served up the first movement of Ravel’s G Major Concerto. Her excellent and dependable technique served her well in this tricky piece, but because she’s so much in control of the notes, one wished she might have had more fun with it, made more of an emotional contrast between the cheeky opening material and the languidly jazzy second tune, and put a bit more spin on the decisive scale that suddenly ends the movement.

Fourth in line was 13-year old Bolai Cao of China with a tidy, understated performance of the first movement of Mozart’s d minor concerto, K. 466. Cao’s touch was elegant and his runs clear. More definite changes of affect and color, especially in the cadenza, would have given this entirely capable performance more character.

Last up was 16-year old Fantee Jones of California with the finale from Rachmaninoff’s second concerto. Jones has the big tone and big technique that Rachmaninoff demands. Adopting a more extroverted approach to the musical material would pay big dividends for her. Everything seemed a bit reined in emotionally this afternoon, even the big tune that everybody’s waiting to hear in this movement.

Each of this afternoon’s five contestants demonstrated admirable technique and easy stage presence — and different levels of interpretive savvy. It will be fun to hear the other six this evening.

Evening Session

Tuesday afternoon’s contestants played five different works. Tonight, two each doubled up on the first movement of Rachmaninoff 3 and the finale of Beethoven 3 — and there was a second performance today of the opening movement of Tchaikovsky 1 — allowing us to hear different interpretations of the same excerpts in close proximity. Again, everyone displayed impressive levels of technique and training, as well as a wide range of interpretational approaches to the repertory.

14-year old Italian pianist Leonardo Colafelice was up first with the Rachmaninoff. He began with an elegantly inflected statement of the opening theme and went on to demonstrate fine control of touch and color. He drew a rich, full tone that never got bangy even in the somewhat crazed textures of the cadenza, and countered dramatic passages with stretches of poetry in an emotionally mature performance.

At the other end of the lineup, Anna Han (14, from Arizona) offered a more straightforward look at the same Rachmaninoff movement. Her technique was impressive, her tone massive — and occasionally a bit harsh in the loudest passages. More dynamic contrasts and periods of relaxation could have added up to a more lyrical performance.

The finale to Beethoven’s third concerto figured in slots 2 and 5 (was the mirror-image setup of the program intentional?) 16-year old Texan Sahun Hong was No. 2, approaching this playful Rondo with businesslike efficiency and a serious demeanor. He negotiated all of Beethoven’s runs with admirable accuracy, but seemed a bit tight in the arms, which made his tone more steely than fluid and his releases somewhat abrupt.

At position No. 5, 13-year old Canadian Tristan Teo skillfully commanded touch, tone and color in his version of the Beethoven, bringing a welcome lightness to its texture and sending its coda off to a playful, scherzo-like conclusion. He seemed to be having fun with the piece, and conveyed that feeling to the audience.

Player No. 3, 17-year old Yon-Joon Yoon from Maryland, brought strength and accuracy as well as attractive nuances and contrasts to the second performance today of the opening of Tchaikovsky 1. Intelligently pacing his performance and pre-planning his climaxes, Yoon was at times messily exciting but at others flawless in his execution of virtuosic passages. Constantly mopping his brow, he obviously put a lot of himself into his playing tonight.

Prokofiev 3, third movement, was 16-year old Illinois pianist Kate Liu’s choice at fourth position tonight. Her bright, strong, clearly articulated and highly rhythmic version of this dazzling finale was characterized by well-balanced colors, crystalline runs and a thrilling dash to the finish line. She also looked like she was having a fine time under fire tonight.

My personal favorites in the evening session were Leonardo Colafelice and Kate Liu — but we’ll see what the judges have to say!

Before we move on to the solo finals, a big round of virtual applause to the collaborative pianists who did such a fine job reducing symphony orchestra scores to Steinway dimensions this afternoon and evening. Some have been named, some were anonymous, but all did a stellar job. Some of the contestants gave their partners a bow or at least a handshake. One, charmingly, got a hug.