After much deliberation last night, the jury of this year's University of Maryland International Piano Competition ruled that none of the 41 entrants was clearly tops and withheld a first prize.
The jury brought to a conclusion the week-long festival by giving two second prizes -- one to 27-year-old American pianist Michael Lewin and the other to 25-year-old Soviet emigre Dmitry Feofanov. Third prize went to a 23-year-old American, Daniel Lessner.
This was the 12th annual University of Maryland contest and at least once before the contest also ended up without a winner.
The nine jurors reached this conclusion after listening to the three finalists play concertos last night with a free-lance orchestra under National Symphony associate conductor Hugh Wolff.
Last night's programming could have been improved. This listener happens to be quite fond of the Tchaikovsky B-flat piano concerto. But to hear it twice in one evening with the Mozart 23rd sandwiched in between was a little hard to take.
Lessner played the Tchaikovsky first, and his interpretation was barely skin deep. The pulse was unsteady and there was no sense of Tchaikovsky's slowly unfolding drama. He seemed intent on displaying bursts of passion and power at the expense of discipline and coherence. Furthermore, the sonorous detail so essential to this work's majestic effects was blurred. One wondered if this performance was worth even a third place.
Lewin's Tchaikovsky was altogether better. The melodic and harmonic sweep was assured. While the pulse was steady, Tchaikovsky's rhapsodic phrases surged in and out with ease. There was remarkable clarity of detail combined with massive sonorities -- no mean trick in the same piece.
So what was wrong? Most conspicuously, there were two serious memory lapses in the first movement, not just for a note or two but for several measures. Each time Lewin recovered well and regained momentum, but the damage was done. Also, there were some other messy notes, but no more than you used to hear from Rubinstein all the time.
Feofanov's entry was unconventional. Normally you don't fight the panache of Tchaikovsky with the subtlety of Mozart when a prize is at stake. But this time Feofanov almost brought it off.
He showed considerable grasp of the Mozart style, more, for instance, than this listener heard from Horacio Gutierrez at the Kennedy Center only two weeks ago. The music was both lithe and vibrant. The Mozarttean scales and intervals were laid out with exemplary digital ease and evenness. The feel for the directness and simplicity with which Mozart will alter a mood was sure. If anything was missing it was a certain fullness of tone; the sound was a bit monochromatic.
And if neither Lewin nor Feofanov was a clear-cut case for first prize, either would have been at least a reasonable choice. Both must be wondering why, at least, they couldn't have shared a first, instead of a second? Among their prizes are $5,000 each. A first would have brought $10,000.