June 9: Day three of the final round of the Cliburn International Piano Competition: Yuri Favorin, Kenneth Broberg and Yekwon Sunwoo
Beginning on Friday night, three of the six finalists in the 15th International Cliburn Piano Competition performed some of the biggest warhorses in the piano concerto repertoire accompanied by the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Cliburn jury chairman Leonard Slatkin.
The evening started with 30-year-old Yuri Favorin from Russia who performed the Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, op. 16, by Prokofiev. Prokofiev’s second piano concerto stands apart from his first and his third. Unlike Prokofiev’s first, which has more in common with the romantic concertos of the late 19th century, or Prokofiev’s third, which contains some memorable melodies, the second is more modern sounding, with jarring piano and orchestration. In fact, the original second concerto composed by Prokofiev was destroyed in fire as a result of the Russian Revolution and the concerto we now know as his second actually post dates the third, which might explain it’s stark difference from the first and third and its more modern sound. Also, the fact that Prokofiev dedicated the concerto to a friend who had recently committed suicide explains the dark and depressive colors in both the piano and orchestra.
It was a perfect vehicle for Favorin to demonstrate his strength and stamina because the concerto demands such pianistic skills. However, because of the concerto’s paucity of quiet, tender passages the soloist doesn’t get a chance to show the range of his talents. But Favorin gave the concerto a powerful reading and for the most part was in sync with the orchestra. And even though the concerto requires a lot of fortissimo playing, Favorin was able to pull back when necessary.
The second concerto of the night, performed by 23-year-old Kenneth Broberg of the United States, was the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, op. 43, by Rachmaninoff, a piece which, though not technically a concerto, requires as much, if not more, piano playing as any concerto. The piece is a set of 24 variations on the 24th Caprice for solo violin by Paganini, and it is divided into three sections resembling the three movements of a concerto.
Broberg, seeming more relaxed than he was during his quintet performance, walked on stage to cheers from the audience for a hometown boy (Broberg, though born and raised in Minnesota, studies at the University of Houston, not too far down the road from Ft. Worth).
Broberg then gave a sensitive and flawless performance of the Variations. His paying was perfectly interwoven with the orchestra, and his rapport with Slatkin and the Fort Worth Symphony seemed natural. If he was nervous, he channeled it into his best performance of the competition, increasing his chances of a medal. And the audience rewarded him with a huge ovation.
The final concerto of the night was the warhorse of all warhorses, the Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, op. 30, by Rachmaninoff, performed by 28-year-old Yekwon Sunwoo from South Korea. If a soloist can scale the heights of this concerto, it can be a competition-winning performance.
This reviewer had high hopes for Sunwoo based on his previous performances in the competition, but was sadly disappointed with this performance. Sunwoo certainly has the technical skills to tackle the Rach 3, but he let his passion and perhaps his desire to showcase his technical skills to get the best of him. Early on in the first movement, he began playing so loudly that he, almost unbelievably, drowned out the orchestra. During passages when he should have been playing the piano accompaniment to the melody played by the orchestra, one could hear his accompaniment over the orchestral melody. Moreover, at times his playing sped up faster than the orchestra could keep up.
Lucky for him he was playing one of the most beloved piano concertos in the literature and one whose ending always elicits cheers, which it certainly did on this evening. Unfortunately, and depending on the three performances this afternoon (Saturday), however, I think this performance might have taken him out of the running for a medal.
The Final Performances
The final performances of this year’s competition will take place this afternoon when Rachel Cheung, Georgy Tchaidze and Daniel Hsu will perform the Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58; the Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Major, op. 26, by Prokofiev; and the Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, op. 23, by Tchaikovsky, respectively.
The announcement of the medalists and other winners will then be made at 7 p.m. (CDT).
—Henry Schlinger, Culture Spot LA
Culture Spot’s Samuel Jang also weighs in…
Leonard Bernstein once described conducting to be like making love with all 70-plus musicians of an orchestra at the same time. The pianist who least embodied that spirit of partnership and give-and-take in music-making in tonight’s concerto round of the finals was Yekwon Sunwoo of South Korea. From the first note to the last, Sunwoo made no effort to fade into the background and support the orchestra in sections that called for the orchestra or other individual instruments to carry the melody. In moments that called for crescendo or accelerando that lead to a climactic release, Sunwoo showed no interest in coordinating and timing with the orchestra. As such, his climaxes lacked impact.
Sunwoo’s performance of the cadenza in the first movement that builds from a quiet introspection to a tortured emotional outbreak had no sense of reflection and escalation, as his playing was at one volume from beginning to end: loud. In short, Sunwoo’s Rachmaninoff was a one-man show.
Yuri Favorin of Russia gave a performance of Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto that was solid and competent. But performing Prokofiev in one of the most prestigious piano competitions invites comparisons to great pianists that have built their careers out of memorable and legendary performances of Prokofiev. In that regard, Favorin lacked the fire-breathing passion and spontaneity of a young Martha Argerich’s Prokofiev, or the fun, playful and sexy rhythmic impulse of Yuja Wang’s Prokofiev that make you want to pulse your shoulders with each syncopation, as if you’re listening to hip-hop.
If Favorin didn’t give the listeners the brilliant flash of aural pop that makes the difference between a fireworks show at your local high school and the fireworks show at Disneyland, then Leonard Slatkin conducting the Fort Worth Symphony more than made up for it by fully exploiting Prokofiev’s sense of drama and rich palette of orchestral colors to take his listeners on a journey in a fantasy world and tell a story. The fast-paced interplay between the woodwinds, strings and piano in the Scherzo had the quality of running away from goblins. The opening by the lower strings and brass in the intermezzo had the child-like imagination and drama of Prokofiev’s Dance of the Knights from “Peter and the Wolf.” Slaktin and the Fort Worth Orchestra sounded more like a Hollywood pick-up orchestra recording a soundtrack to a Tim Burton animated film than an orchestra performing at an international piano competition.
The pianist who most played in Bernstein’s spirit of communal music-making was Kenneth Broberg of the United States. His playing had a sense of warmth and sincerity that made a more lasting impact than any showman antics of some other competitors, at least to my ears. In the eighth variation that requires the impossible combination of whirlwind-like speed, agility and precision of a hummingbird, Broberg’s timing seemed to have slightly gotten off with the orchestra, making him sound like a man trying to get back on a moving train. But even so, Broberg gave a performance that exuded a sense of openness, generosity and partnership with the composer and the orchestra, especially after the heart-tugging 18th variation.
The Van Cliburn International Piano Competition will come to its climactic conclusion this Saturday when the last of the finalists will perform their concertos, and the winner will be announced. But even in the Lone Star state, where the myth of rugged American individualism is celebrated, and charismatic historic and political figures are memorialized on every street and highway, a Texas two-step dance requires a partner. Care to dance anyone?
—Samuel Jang, Culture Spot LA