Oberlin, OH — Tuesday, July 24

by Daniel Hathaway

There was a lot of impressive teen-aged piano prowess on display this afternoon in Warner Concert Hall as the Oberlin Cooper International Piano Competition went into the first of two concerto rounds and five of the ten competitors left in the draw played whole concertos by Beethoven, Rachmaninov and Schumann with a second piano filling in for the orchestra. (The three who are left at the end will get to play concertos for real with The Cleveland Orchestra in Severance Hall on Friday evening).

15-year old Rachel Breen from Oakland, CA set the bar high with an assured performance of Beethoven’s fourth concerto that adroitly pointed up both its exquisite seriousness and its sudden bursts of playfulness. She knew the piece thoroughly and communicated with her “orchestra” (pianist Yu Sakamoto) as though they were playing chamber music together (at the beginning of the second movement, hands in lap, she mimed playing along with the orchestra). Ms. Breen dispatched sequences of runs with sensitivity and clarity and made lovely transitions between sections.

16-year-old Sae Yoon Chon from Seoul followed Beethoven 4 with Beethoven 5, beginning with strong, clear runs. His command of the piano part was masterful, though the piece needed more dynamic contrasts and shaping of melodic lines. Mr. Chon’s excellent accomplice was pianist Alicja Basinska, with whom he could have established more communication — arrivals at downbeats were sometimes splattered.

Rachmaninov’s sprawly, undisciplined and magnificent third concerto was the concerto of choice for Leonardo Colafelice, 16, from Altamura, Bari, Italy, and he has the chops to play it. Producing a bright tone, he launched energetically if not entirely coherently into its busy first movement and went on to play a big, ringing cadenza. A dramatic bridge from the Intermezzo into the Finale heralded a splendid stint of playing — clear, rhythmic and strong, as though the piece had suddenly come into focus. His excellent second piano colleague was Elizabeth DeMio.

After a brief pause, Llewellyn Sanchez-Werner, a 16-year-old pianist, conductor and composer from New York, caught and held everyone’s attention with a lucid, completely intentional reading of Rachmaninov’s second concerto. He knows the piece from top to bottom and his engagement with the “orchestra” (Elizabeth DeMio again) was as impressive as his sense of rhythm, color and phrasing. He also has a mane of hair to throw around at climactic moments, his only theatrical gesture in a thoroughly musical performance.

Last up, 14-year-old Phoebe Pan from Irvine, CA, chose the Schumann concerto. Like her four predecessors, Ms. Pan was completely in control of her notes. After a somewhat frenetic opening gesture and a bit of Lisztian bombast in the first movement, she found her bearings and settled in for a lyrical performance of this eccentric work. Elizabeth DeMio (who is probably now applying ice packs to her arms) was once again deftly filling in for the orchestra.

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