At U-Md., Kapell competition shows the joys and limits of piano rivalry

Mike Morgan/Copyright Owner - Yekwon Sunwoo, winner of the 2012 William Kapell International Piano Competition and Festival.

When Jin Uk Kim, a 28-year-old South Korean pianist, came out on stage at the Clarice Smith Center on Saturday night to play Brahms’s Concerto No. 2 for piano with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, there was a temptation to view it as a kind of Walter Mitty dream. This was no dream, of course: Kim had earned his place by advancing through three rounds of play to the finals of the William Kapell International Piano Competition.

But the Brahms concerto is not a flashy crowd-pleaser: It’s an intense, emotionally charged symphonic work that sprawls across a good part of an hour. Kim was certainly out to win, but one could imagine him saying to himself, “Whatever happens, I will have played the Brahms second concerto with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.” In the end, Kim took second place, but the performance was a victory in itself.

(Mike Morgan/Mike Morgan) - Yekwon Sunwoo won the 2012 William Kapell International Piano Competition and Festival at the University of Maryland.

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Competitions appeal to the popular imagination; indeed, they could be called the most accessible part of music, particularly with the spread of the competition format on reality television. Because of the popularity of such competitions, and the wealth of young talent that continues to emerge from the world’s conservatories every year, they seem to be proliferating. “If you go to the Web site,” said Yue Chu, another 28-year-old competitor who made it to the semifinals, “you can see hundreds, even maybe thousands of competitions in a year.”

Detractors condemn competitions as horse races, turning music into the equivalent of an athletic event. Santiago Rodriguez, the pianist who won the Kapell Competition in 1975 — when it was known as the University of Maryland International Piano Competition and Festival — and now chairs the international jury, begs to differ. “These folks that think this is the wrong thing to do with music, I don’t think so,” he said. “I think it’s the only way. . . . Try calling a manager in New York” if you’re a young, unknown pianist; you won’t get far. Rodriguez points out that many professionals who express disdain for competitions came up through competitions themselves.

But the critics of competitions have a point, too. Part of the fun is seeing the range of talent and approaches to music and following the unfolding narrative as the young pianists play several times under challenging conditions. There’s something reductive about ending up with a single winner, crowned “the best,” after partaking of a smorgasbord of variously compelling performances. Yekwon Sunwoo, a 23-year-old compatriot of Kim’s, took the prize on Saturday night with a performance of the Rachmaninoff Concerto No. 3 that started out in a deceptively unassuming way and then quietly snuck up on greatness: a thoughtful performance of one of the hardest concertos in the repertoire. But his win means the competition’s history will overlook many other first-class players, such as Chu (coming to the Phillips Collection for a recital next March), whose performances enriched earlier rounds for those who followed the whole thing.

How, indeed, can you rank three such different players as the judges heard on Saturday, in three such different pieces? The third work on the program was Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,” which came off rather like a chocolate sundae doused in whipped cream between two works that each represented a full meal. Steven Lin, also 23, an American who spent his childhood in Taiwan, opened it with dazzling brilliance and a lot of personality, but it was hard to compete with heavier works that were played with, in some cases, more subtlety.

“I don’t know what the judges look for,” said Melissa White, who took part in the chamber round of the semifinals, a round that allows the judges to hear the pianists play with other musicians. White, a Curtis-trained violinist, wasn’t being judged herself; she performed sonatas with five different pianists over two days, including three different readings of Brahms’s Sonata No. 3 in D minor. “To keep straight in my head three different versions of the Brahms,” she said, “was harder than premiering Beethoven’s [“Kreutzer” sonata],” which both she and competitor Jeewon Lee, a 30-year-old South Korean pianist, were playing at the competition for the first time. White — along with the cellist William DeRosa, who played with the other four semifinalists — had the unenviable role of performing challenging music without the measure of acclaim or even audience attention she might get at a recital. (White, a member of the Harlem Quartet, will get another chance to show her stuff to D.C. audiences at the Kennedy Center in February.) She also felt partly responsible for the success of her performing partners. “Do [the judges] want us to be together, to see us make long lines together?” White asked. “All I’m thinking about on stage is, I hope I’m not holding them back.”

This chamber-music round was certainly a clue to what the competition is looking for as a whole: that elusive Holy Grail of the well-rounded musician, someone who can make music and collaborate with others rather than merely dazzle as a soloist. “Some of the past winners are more artistic in their play,” said Chu, explaining his thoughts about entering the Kapell. “It tells me that [this competition] looks not just for technically perfect pianists.”

But the counterweight to the specter of robotic perfection, as the technical level of play gets ever higher, is an increasing tendency for young artists to overemote at the keyboard. “You immediately recognize what it is,” Rodriguez says of the most egregious offenders. “It’s an external expression of something that doesn’t exist musically. It’s like someone with a line in ‘Hamlet’ [who] decides this is their only chance at the spotlight, so instead of ‘How art thou?’ they do ‘Howww art THOUUUU.’ ” Rodriguez lifted one elegant hand to his forehead in a time-honored parody of melodrama. “They will take a perfectly wonderful little line and turn it into the greatest ham act in the world.”

Sunwoo certainly walked an assured line between these two extremes, offering technical brilliance set off by artistic sensitivity in a piece that in some hands can run the risk of seeming vulgar.

But even winning the Kapell Competition is no sure ticket to a big career.

“When we vote for this person, we have no knowledge of what kind of person they are,” Rodriguez says. “We are saying this one or that one has the right musical makeup for a career, but there are so many other factors. The reason some of them don’t proceed that way is that they lack other qualities that we can’t judge.

“You’re at least giving those three people the best chance they have at this point in their life to perhaps make another step toward becoming a professional musician.”

Many of the competitors seemed to adopt a healthy attitude toward the competition, using it as a challenge to get them to learn new things, and perform in a new place. “Whether I go [somewhere] for a performance or a competition,” Chu said, “it is just another opportunity for me to share music with the audience there.”

For Tom Huizenga’s review of Anton Kuerti’s recital, the final performance in the Kapell Competition and Festival, visit washingtonpost.com.

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