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Musical architecture to the fore

Jack Singer Concert Hall
09/03/2015 -  & September 5*, 2015 (solo recital)

September 3, Collaborative recital:
Antonín Dvorák: Ciganske Melodie, opus 55: 5. “Struna Naladena” & 4. “Kdyz mne stará matka”
Samuel Barber: Hermit Songs, opus 29: 8. “The Monk and his Cat” & 10. “Desire for Hermitage”
Arnold Bax: Sonata for viola and piano
Robert Schumann: Märchenerzählungen for clarinet, viola and piano, opus 132
György Kurtág: Hommage à R. Sch for clarinet, viola and piano, opus 15d
Johannes Brahms: Geistliches Wiegenlied, opus 91 no. 2

September 5, 2015: Solo Recital
Joseph Haydn: Andante from Symphony No. 94 in G major (arrangement Charles-Valentin Alkan)
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata No. 32 in C minor, opus 111
Alexander Scriabin: Preludes, opus 11

Isabel Bayrakdarian (soprano), James Campbell (clarinet), Hsin-Yun Huang (viola), Yoon-Jee Kim (piano)

Y.-J. Kim(© Chris Krieger)

South Korean pianist Yoon-Jee Kim was the sole female competitor in the 2015 Honens semifinals and, at age 30 (the competition’s cutoff age) was the oldest entrant. She was also the only pianist to choose this particular collaborative program among the three programs offered.

The first of the two Dvorák songs features jaunty dance rhythms and Ms Kim provided notably strong support. In the second song, the famous “Songs my mother taught me”, her accompaniment was very sensitive, although perhaps in a effort to avoid becoming maudlin the song, although beautifully sung, lacked expressiveness. The Barber songs went well, the first one rather playful, the second one evoking solitude.

The Arnold Bax sonata provided a chance for various types of expressiveness, from the wistful opening in which the warmth of the viola contrasts with a pointillist piano part, to the second movement which has a fiery, gypsy-style passage. The third movement provides a chance for interesting exchanges between the two instruments. Overall her contribution can be described as forthrightly assertive.

The Schumann Fairy Tales is a sunny, playful work without the composer’s usual fraught moodiness. All three players treated it with great care but without the sparks that can really make it live. It made an interesting companion piece to the following Kurtág Hommage, composed in 1992. It is in five sections, the first four of which are tiny Webernesque episodes, all requiring precise three-way alertness; the fifth section is longer with a kind of halting development, ending with a single muffled beat on a bass drum denoting Schumann's sad death.

The concluding Brahms Wiegenlied (which concluded all 10 collaborative recitals) went just fine.

This was the first of the collaborative recitals and it raised the question as to what can be expected from a group of four players who have just two and one-half hour to prepare a 65-minute recital. (One competitor compared it to speed-dating.) Do the three collaborators (all experienced performers) assume the pianist will take the lead, even though the piano part only some times assumes the foreground? Each work would need its own approach. In this case the relationship frequently seemed rather guarded.

Yoon-Jee Kim’s solo recital, two days later, opened with Charles-Valentin Alkan’s arrangement of the Andante movement from Haydn’s “Surprise” Symphony. She stressed the clarity of the work’s structure - the overall effect was instructional. Ms Kim also has conducting experience, and perhaps this explains her stress on the architecture of a work. This tendency also came to the fore in her next piece, Beethoven’s 32nd Sonata, especially in the second Arietta movement. Overall the piece lacked urgency in key moments. There was some excitement in places, but one waited in vain to be captured by the performance.

It is quite the daunting task to take on the 24 Preludes of Scriabin’s Opus 11 and she did a fine job with the work’s expressive variety.

Her encore piece was Carl Vine’s Bagatelle No. 5 “Threnody” of 1994 - very quiet, very lovely.

Yoon-Jee Kim’s strong suit seems to be laying out the structure of works, an analytical approach that inspires more admiration than excitement.

Had she been chosen for the final round, her classical concerto would have been Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 and her post-classical work would have been Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1.


The Honens International Piano Competition, named for its founding donor, held its first competition in Calgary in 1992. It is open to pianists between the ages of 20 and 30 who have no professional representation, and offers the richest prize of any of the world's many such competitions: a $100,000 first prize which comes with a three-year artist development program worth $500,000. The 2015 competition was the eighth.

The main objective of the competition is to discover “the complete pianist”, and here is the procedure: Earlier this year, interested pianists applied online, submitting information on their training and experience in performances and competitions. The Applicant Screening Jury selected 50 to participate in the quarterfinals, which consisted of 40-minute recitals (with audience) filmed in Los Angeles, New York or Berlin. Each pianist also made a taped 10-minute interview. These fifty recordings and the interviews were examined by a jury of four (Canadian pianist Stewart Goodyear, Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan, Japanese pianist Noriko Ogawa, and Mary Sigmond, president of a piano recital series in Minnesota).

Ten of the 50 were selected to come to Calgary for the semifinals (running for five days beginning Sept 3), during which each one performed a 65-minute solo recital (entirely different from the earlier 40-minute recital), and a 65-minute collaborative recital accompanying soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian, violist Hsin-Yun Huang, and clarinetist James Campbell. (Each pianist chose one of three programs for these collaborative recitals.) Each pianist had a two and one-half hour session with the collaborators, plus a dress rehearsal.

After the semifinal round, three pianists were chosen for the two final concerts with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra under Yan Pascal Tortelier. For the first concert they each chose a concerto from a list of classical era works, and for the second concert they played a work of their own choosing from the post-classical era. The jury for the semifinal and final rounds consisted of three pianists (Alessandra Ammara, Janina Fialkowska, and Pedja Muzijevic ) and four arts managers: Paul Hughes (General Manager of the BBC Symphony Orchestra), Jeremy Geffen (Director of Artistic Planning for Carnegie Hall), Charles Hamlen (a founder of IMG Artists), and Costa Pilavachi (Senior Vice President of Classical Artists and Repertoire for Universal Music Group).

The jury assigned scores to each segment of the process, with each of the solo and collaborative recitals worth 30% of the final score, and each of the two concerto performances worth 15%. Ten percent of the final score was based on a 15-minute interview (taped) with an arts journalist.

The next competition will be in 2018.

Complete information on Honens can be found on the website.

Michael Johnson



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