At Piano Showdown, Hard Choices

By Patrick Rucker
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Year after year, standards of piano playing seem to improve, subtly yet perceptibly. The latest demonstration was Sunday afternoon in the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater, where a half-dozen spectacularly talented young pianists performed before a distinguished jury and a large, enthusiastic audience. They were the finalists in the Washington International Competition for Piano, sponsored since 1950 by the Friday Morning Music Club. The competition is held every three years, alternating with those for strings and voice. Esther Park, a 23-year-old American, was extraordinarily polished, with deft balances and voice-leading. Yet the sultry perfume of Granados and drama of a Chopin sonata seemed to elude her.

Jakub Tchorzewski, 27, of Poland, displayed imagination in excerpts from Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" and a hell-bent movement from Prokofiev's Sixth Sonata after a rather perfunctory Beethoven sonata.

The Canadian Wayne Weng, 25, valiantly tackled one of the more challenging Beethoven sonatas, followed by some passionately played late Schumann and an atmospheric Debussy piece. His playing of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, arranged by Horowitz, raised the excitement level of the afternoon several notches.

After intermission, American Sean Kennard, 23, began with a heavily pedaled, romantically inclined Scarlatti sonata. The first movement of Beethoven's "Appassionata" Sonata followed, with powerful and involved musicmaking despite some overblown fortissimos. In the slow movement of a Chopin sonata and the Toccata from Ravel's "Le Tombeau de Couperin," sincerity and flair compensated for any deficiencies of nuance.

At age 28, the Russian Sofya Gulyak was the oldest of the finalists. Her Mozart Rondo in A-Minor was the most satisfying classical playing of the afternoon. In her sensational performance of Liszt's evocation of little bells in "La Campanella," fierce technical demands took the back seat to flights of aural imagination and exquisite musicality. Gulyak was last year's first-prize winner in the Kappell International Piano Competition.

The unenviable lot of being the final contestant fell to Grace Eun Hae Kim, 28, of Korea. Three Scriabin preludes were lustrous and a movement of the Schumann "Humoreske" was rich with emotional and dynamic contrasts. Her original conception of the first movement of Schubert's blustery C Minor Sonata was provocative, though perhaps a little too pastel for this turbulent music. Toru Takemitsu's 1992 "Rain Tree Sketch II" ended the competition.

The Takemitsu was the only piece written since World War II, and it seemed almost an anomaly. It is in the romantic (Chopin, Schumann, Liszt) and early modern (Ravel, Prokofiev) repertoires in which these young players are most at home. After an hour's deliberation by the judges, competition chairman Immanuela Gruenberg read the results, including the tally of audience ballots.

First prize: none awarded. Second prize: Gulyak. Third prize: none awarded. Audience prize: Wayne Weng.

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