Oberlin, OH — Tuesday, July 24

by Daniel Hathaway

The evening session of the Concerto Round brought the final five performers to the Warner Concert Hall stage along with the opportunity of hearing three more performances of Rachmaninov #2 and two versions of Chopin #2. Remember those “compare and contrast” exam questions? We’ll try to treat each repeat performance as if we were hearing it for the first time.

Micah McLaurin, 17, from Charleston, NC went first with Chopin’s second concerto. Sitting ramrod straight and barely changing his expression, Mr. McLaurin established a ruminative, poetic mood matched by an agreeably elastic tempo. His feathery touch produced beautiful, well-organized runs with shape and a sense of destination. But as the piece flowed on, Mr. McLaurin seemed largely to be playing on the surface of the music rather than digging into its underlying layers. Alicja Basinska was the attentive and supportive second pianist.

The second Rachmaninov #2 of the day was played by 15-year-old Xiaoyu Liu, who lives in Montréal. His journey through the work was like taking a ride on a local train, which gave passengers the opportunity to have a close look at each passing musical scene, all of which were masterfully played and full of character, rather than taking in the big picture. His episodic approach extended to the slow movement, where melodic lines got broken into sections. In the finale, however, Mr. Liu took us for a very fast ride on the express, a thrilling trip indeed. His cohort at the second Steinway, Yu Sakamoto, was tuned in to his every move.

14-year-old Torontonian Annie Zhou took a passionate and often fiery approach to Chopin #2, applying large doses of rubato and playing with riveting engagement. In her hands, Chopin’s passage work seemed more part of the fabric of the piece than decoration layered on top. The final Allegro vivace was dance-like with highly inflected rhythms. Alicja Basinska returned for her second transit of Chopin #2.

After the pause, Sarina Zhang (16, from San Diego) gave us her version of Rachmaninov #2, an approach full of dark drama in the slower parts and sudden athletic energy and fire when the music veered off into completely different moods. The Adagio sostenuto seemed static until a surprising urgency set in. The finale was exciting for its emotional heat but rhythmically slack in places that demanded more precision. Yu Sakamoto adapted to a different Rachmaninov #2 with admirable flexibility.

18-year-old Sahun Hong from Fort Worth, TX, was fourth place winner at the Cooper in 2010 and last to compete on Tuesday — with Rachmaninov #2. Taking a long view of the piece, Mr. Hong crafted an elegant performance distinguished by large musical arches, and a remarkable evenness of (dark) tone. A huge accelerando brought the first movement to a breathtaking conclusion. Only at one point in the Adagio did Mr. Hong’s sure sense of touch lapse for a moment, producing an odd, metallic-sounding solo line. The finale was exciting but seemed more calculated than spontaneous. As in 2010, Mr. Hong’s partner was his teacher, John Owings, who made for a distinguished virtual orchestra.

Click here to download the program book with biographies. (pdf file, 5mb).