16th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition
A. Geniushene, Y. Lim, D. Choni (© Ralph Lauer for the Cliburn)
The Sixteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, held in Fort Worth, Texas, from June 2‑18, was also a cause for celebration as it marked the event’s 60th anniversary. It was difficult to ignore, however, the fallout Russia’s invasion of Ukraine cast over the Western world’s cultural institutions during the competition. The six finalists included two Russians, one Ukrainian and one Belarusian (whose country is supporting the war!). But happily, this competition was a cultural rather than physical battle in which music‑making at the highest level served to elevate the good and the just.
In a July 7 New York Times article, Javier C. Hernandez reported that these four young pianists all spoke Russian and had formed fast bonds of friendship. None of these four, however, won first prize, therefore avoiding a potentially contentious outcome. That distinction, which automatically rockets the winner to world stardom, was nabbed by the 18‑year‑old South Korean sensation Yunchan Lim, the youngest gold medalist in Cliburn history. He not only walked off with the Van Cliburn Winner’s Cup, the Nancy Lee and Perry R. Bass Gold Medal and $100,000 U.S. in cash, but also claimed the prize for best performance of a new work (Sir Stephen Hough’s Fanfare Toccata) for $5,000, as well as the Audience Award for $2,500. In addition, Lim (and the silver and bronze winners) will receive three years of individualized career management, including underwritten concert tours and other goodies.
The shy, diminutive Lim created a sensation with his interpretation of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3. It was clear he had found the soul of the work, and the audience, whipped into a frenzy, knew it. The interpretations by the Russian Ilya Shmukler and American Clayton Stephenson, didn’t come close. Rachmaninoff maintained that the concerto’s famous opening melody was derived neither from folk music nor from liturgical chant, but simply wrote itself, i.e., came from within. Lim took this theme and ran with it, ensuring that it provided the focus and overall arc of the work. He played as if he were breathing life through his fingers into the music, entirely at one with the score and with the orchestra’s musicians. Everything worked—the ebb and flow of the rhythm, smooth transitions in dynamics, subtle phrasing, pointed articulation, and knowing when to “dig in”.
Lim also performed a felicitous Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 3. From the beginning he made every note sing—from his sturdy entrance in the first movement, to the deeply meditative passage in the Largo, to the visceral excitement of the vigorous Rondo.
Anna Geniushene, who won the Silver Medal and $50,000 cash, was another audience favorite, and stood out on several counts: the only woman among the 12 semi‑finalists, at 31 the oldest competitor, and seven months pregnant! She performed Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with subtle artistry and grace, but without much color and rhythmic impetus. Geniushene closed the competition on Saturday afternoon with a magisterial Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 (an audacious choice in many peoples’ minds, given today’s circumstances). She brought assured command to the double octaves in the first movement, whimsy and wit to the Prestissimo scherzando of the slow movement, and brilliance to the lively folk dance in the third. Calm, cool and dignified throughout, Geniushene shunned the histrionics in which other candidates sometimes indulged.
Dmytro Choni, 28, won the Bronze Medal and $25,000 in prize money. He had all the attributes of a star performer—handsome, courteous, a winning smile and well dressed; he looked every inch the professional. He played Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 earlier in the week and Beethoven’s Third during the final round. His smooth phrasing, subtle intonation, pointed articulation, bracing dynamism, effortless trills and arpeggios—showed the hallmark of the master craftsman. His playing sometimes verged on the monotonous, but polish and élan were much in evidence.
The remaining three finalists (non‑medalists) were not ranked but each received $10,000 in prize money. In addition, Ilya Shmukler, 27, the other Russian in the top six, won the $5,000 prize for best performance of a Mozart concerto (No. 20). His performance of Rachmaninoff’s Third flew by like the blur of a fast‑moving train but lacked color, character and depth. Shmukler also performed Grieg’s Piano Concerto with a detached, mechanical approach.
Clayton Stephenson, as the only American, and only African American of the six finalists, was still another crowd favorite, wooing the audience with an engaging performance of Gershwin’s Piano Concerto. His Rachmaninoff Third, however, just didn’t hang together and was marred by too many wrong notes.
Uladzislau Khandohi, 20, from Belarus offered a moving performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1, with an elegant, yearning slow movement and well‑paced finale. But his Rachmaninoff Third, although brilliantly executed, lacked color, passion and architectural integrity.
Activities and symposia held during the final week for the media and interested public featured a panel discussion with the nine jury members—all pianists, including such familiar names as Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (France), Sir Stephen Hough (Great Britain, knighted this year), Andreas Haefliger (Switzerland) and Anne‑Marie McDermott (United States), as well as conductor and jury chair Marin Alsop. (Ms Alsop would have voted only if there had been a tie. For the complete list of jurors see the Cliburn web site.) The jury members’ admirable commitment to nurturing young pianists included such nuggets of wisdom as:
“Marry well, someone who won’t mind you practicing on their leg in the middle of the night!”
“It’s not about you, it’s about the music; would Mozart have been happy with your performance?”
“Having a Beethoven sonata on your iPad is like having the Mona Lisa in your living room.”
“The audience knows when it’s right.”
“When you are playing you are two people—one is playing, the other observing.”
“The true mark of a great pianist is one you wish to hear again and again.”
The 2022 competition, delayed one year due to the pandemic, drew 388 applications from 51 countries. A screening jury reviewed 142 of these from which they selected 72 to attend an in‑person audition before a screening panel in Fort Worth from March 6‑12. From these, the panel selected 30 to compete from June 2‑18. The new Van Cliburn Concert Hall (opened in the fall of 2020) at Texas Christian University played host to the preliminary rounds from June 2‑6. Here, the 30 competitors performed a 40‑minute recital which included the commissioned work by Sir Stephen Hough. From these the jury chose 18 to perform another 40‑minute recital, which narrowed the field to 12 for the semi‑final round. Of these, four hailed from South Korea, two from Russia, and one each from Ukraine, Belarus, China, Japan, the United States and France/Japan. This line‑up of 30 included only three women, of which just one, Anna Geniushene, advanced to the finals.
Bass Hall, situated in the downtown financial heart of the city, hosted the semi- and final rounds from June 8‑12. This comprised two phases—a third recital (60 minutes in length) and a Mozart concerto performed with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra led by Nicholas McGegan.
Doing double duty, jury chair Marin Alsop conducted the Orchestra for the finals. This required the lucky six to perform two concertos, one from a list including works from composers such as Beethoven, Schumann and Grieg; and the other from among the great romantic blockbusters. Surprisingly, no one chose Brahms or Bartók, but four opted for Rachmaninoff and one each for Prokofiev and Chopin. The dedication and stamina required to learn so much music was almost superhuman. Each of the 30 candidates deserved a medal just for undertaking this herculean task.
A special feature of the competition was the opportunity to watch the entire proceedings online, hosted by the articulate and informative host Buddy Bray and his guests. For the first time this year, the competition was streamed, for a fee, in 4K HDR 5.1 surround sound. Fans could also watch repeats and follow along on You Tube, Facebook, and other social media platforms.
Fort Worth is a welcoming town with plenty of Southern hospitality. Special events hosted by the Cliburn included a reception at the Fort Worth Zoo, dinner at the Whiskey Ranch, and a generous after-competition reception with the winners, officials, media and guests at a café on the popular Sundance Square. The downtown core consists almost entirely of office buildings, hotels and steak houses, with nary a newsstand, bookstore or fruit seller to be found. Fortunately, there was bus service to the cultural district a few kilometers away, where one finds the other glories of Fort Worth—the Kimbell Art Museum and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.
It was thanks to the generosity of the Music Critics Association of North America (MCANA) and The Cliburn that I, with seven of my colleagues, had the pleasure of attending the final round of the competition from June 14‑18.
The Six Finalists and Prize Winners
Dmytro Choni, 28, Ukraine
Anna Geniushene, 31, Russia
Uladzislau Khandohi, 20, Belarus
Yunchan Lim, 18, South Korea
Ilya Shmukler, 27, Russia
Clayton Stephenson, 23, United States
Jury Discretionary Awards of $4,000
Andrew Li, 22, United States
Changyong Shin, 28, South Korea
Marcel Tadokoro, 28, France/Japan
The Cliburn International Piano Competition
The Music Critics Association of North America
Classical Voice North America
Earl Arthur Love