Christopher Taylor, 20, of Boulder, Colo., and Harvard University, won the William Kapell International Piano Competition Saturday night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, and his victory may have proclaimed a new era in piano competitions. To put it briefly, much of the time he played more like a chamber musician than a traditional solo virtuoso. Summing up the meaning of his victory, Taylor said he thinks it means "the luster of the 1950s competitions is wearing off." He was referring to such events as Van Cliburn's 1958 victory in the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, where speed and power were more important than fresh ideas about the music.
Asked what he planned to do with the $20,000 first prize, he shrugged and said, "I don't know; it wouldn't pay for a whole year at Harvard," where he has just finished his sophomore year. Then he grinned and added, "I don't know what will happen if the financial aid office finds out about it."
Taylor is a National Merit scholar, a composer, a student of mathematics (which he finds only casually related to his interest in music) and not really the kind of musician you expect to see winning competitions. He is an intellectual, a bit cool at the keyboard compared with 32-year-old Soviet pianist Oleg Volkov, who nearly set his instrument on fire with Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 and later was visibly shocked at the announcement that he had finished third, winning a $5,000 prize.
Another Soviet pianist, Ilia Itin, 23, won the $10,000 second prize, playing in a smooth, alert, fluent style midway between Taylor's cool competence and Volkov's all-out romanticism.
The last round of the competition was held in two segments: a solo recital by each of the three finalists Thursday night at the Kennedy Center, and a concerto program Saturday night with Stanislaw Skrowaczewski conducting the National Symphony Orchestra sensitively in support.
Itin had chosen later romantic composers exclusively for his recital program, and his stylistically apt, well-articulated performance of Beethoven's Mozart-like Piano Concerto No. 2 (actually the first and least-regarded of the five Beethoven piano concertos) deepened the impression he made. His playing of the pensive slow movement and the tricky first-movement cadenza was quietly impressive and probably added measurably to his score.
Volkov's performance of the Tchaikovsky concerto was the kind that traditionally has won competitions. Critics often complain that too many prizes go to those who play loudest and fastest. Volkov did that consistently, and he played the last movement with a demonic energy that won him a loud, prolonged, standing ovation. He was a musician as well as a keyboard technician; his quiet playing was good and his muscle power (less spectacular than, for instance, Van Cliburn's) was used with precision.
Still, Volkov represented a style and a philosophy of piano performance -- the old-fashioned virtuoso approach -- that a majority of the judges had evidently decided to downgrade. The message sent to young pianists was that to win the Kapell Competition you have to play with your brain more than with your muscles. This message may have been sent last year with the triumph of Haesun Paik, a Korean woman who placed other values ahead of flash and power, but this year it came across much more clearly.
This is a rather radical decision, and evidently it was not reached with instant unanimity. More than a half-hour elapsed between the final performance (Taylor's lucid, slowly intensifying Rachmaninoff No. 3) and the announcement of the decision. It was a popular decision with the audience, which had given Taylor a long ovation, but many pianists in the audience were surprised.
Taylor's Rachmaninoff, though played for the most part with deliberately lower emotional urgency and non-flashy technique, neatly complemented the rather intellectual program he had played in his recital: Messiaen's "Vingt regards sur l'Enfant Jesus," Bach's Fantasy and Fugue in A Minor, S. 904, and Beethoven's "Diabelli" Variations. After receiving the prize, he admitted backstage that his choice of repertoire had been part of a carefully calculated competition strategy. You might say that he played the recital like a top billiards player, who shoots not only to make his point but to place his cue ball advantageously for the next shot.
"After that recital program, the judges almost had to assign me the Rachmaninoff Concerto, didn't they?" he said. The idea was that the concerto should show a side of the performer that was not covered in the recital, and the judges had to select one concerto out of three offered by the contestant. Of Taylor's other two, Beethoven's Third would be the least likely selection; it would cover much of the same stylistic ground that had been seen Thursday in Beethoven's "Diabelli" Variations. The Brahms First, which he also listed, would also overlap with the recital to some extent, though not quite so much. And, not coincidentally, it is a frequent competition-winner.
But the Rachmaninoff would bring the pianist into a world of music that he had barely touched on Thursday night. This concerto is even more of a competition-winner than the Brahms, though not usually in the poised, controlled, sometimes rather understated style that Taylor brought to it -- a thinking man's Rachmaninoff.
Unlike most serious young musicians, Taylor has not studied at a conservatory, only at Harvard and the Interlochen music camp in Michigan. "One advantage of my training," he says, "is that I had a great deal of theory when I was young." As for style, he says, "I try to be independent-minded. Some young pianists listen to every available recording when they are preparing a piece. I don't research that thoroughly; I find my own approach. Then I may listen to one or two recordings to be sure I am not doing anything terribly wrong."
Choice of repertoire and style for a competition created a "terrible dilemma," he says: "To go with the traditional mid-romantic repertoire -- Chopin Ballades, for example -- or to make a statement. But I thought there might be an advantage in following my own tastes; these judges might be looking for something different."
As for his personal taste, he says, "I'm a great believer in 20th-century music. I certainly love the standard romantic repertoire. But with a piece like Chopin's G Minor Ballade, if you do the standard thing everyone classifies you as boring; then, if you try to do something different, everyone is outraged."
Taylor, who has won a half-dozen smaller competitions in the last five years, has considered music "extracurricular" until now but is reconsidering. Going into his junior year at college, he still has time to make a decision. The pure mathematics that is his major at Harvard is "purely useless stuff," he says, and "I'm not good enough at it for a career." Right now, he seems to be good enough at music. He might even get a job teaching other pianists how to win competitions.