A Rach Star Is Born: Gulyak Wins Kapell Competition

By Andrew Lindemann Malone
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, July 23, 2007

Sofya Gulyak was nervous but focused when she sat down to play Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra on Saturday night, in the final round of the 2007 William Kapell International Piano Competition. She recalls not taking much note of the crowd in the sold-out Dekelboum Concert Hall at the University of Maryland's Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. The 27-year-old Russian says she didn't even consider the money or the opportunities that might come her way if she won. She just thought about how best to play the concerto -- and her efforts earned her first prize in the prestigious competition and the $25,000 that comes with it.

"I had some problems in the rehearsal," the exhausted but happy pianist said after the concert. "But when I played on the stage, I felt inspiration. When I feel inspiration, I am satisfied. The inspiration gives new breath to the music."

The famously taxing "Rach 3" demands near-constant virtuoso playing through its 40-minute length, but Gulyak had both a feeling and a plan for every note, and her playing stayed fresh and precise throughout.

"For me," said Santiago Rodriguez, chairman of the competition's jury, "she had a way of expressing what she wanted to say in the clearest, most immediate way."

Gulyak executed her plans with the utmost skill, cleanly articulating even the most devilish passages, launching volcanic crescendos that climaxed with blazes of brilliant sound (especially in the riveting first-movement cadenza) and playing lyrical passages with a lovely, limpid tone. Of the three finalists, Gulyak also interacted most naturally with the orchestra, and conductor David Lockington and the BSO supported her with ardent, driven playing.

The crowd agreed with the jury, voting to give Gulyak the $1,000 Audience Award, even though Washington native Sara Daneshpour gave her strong competition, ending up with second prize and $15,000.

Daneshpour, all of 20 years old, seemed determined to reinvent every phrase of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1. Sometimes this effort caused her to lose touch with Lockington and the orchestra, and a few phrases sounded indecisive. But whenever Tchaikovsky gave her a solo, she created transfixing poetry. And she found delightful details in passagework and incidents that other pianists treat as routine.

(Area music lovers can hear her play solo March 27, 2008, at the Mansion at Strathmore.)

American pianist Spencer Myer took third prize and $10,000 with his rendition of Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini." Myer brandished his virtuoso chops only when the music absolutely demanded it, draining a touch of excitement from this old warhorse, and even his biggest chords occasionally got swamped by the orchestra. But Myer's thoughtful approach paid dividends, too; the 29-year-old took care to give each of the rhapsody's variations a distinct profile, with deliberate tempos, acute rhythms and remarkably clear playing.

The famous 18th variation especially benefited from Myer's direct approach: Rather than drowning the big melody in agogic hesitations, he just played it, eloquent and affecting.

While Gulyak was a clear first choice on Saturday, a concert by any of the finalists should be, as Rodriguez said, "a wonderfully stimulating evening of music -- all three have very individual ways of saying things." After two weeks of performances and discussions that explored the myriad ways in which a piano can be made to speak to an audience, the final concerto round thus made an exciting and fitting conclusion to the quadrennial event.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company