Review: Cliburn International Junior Competition Finals

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Where: Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, Dallas Texas
When: Saturday June 8 2019

Sixteen-year-old Australian pianist Shuan Hern Lee won the 2019 Cliburn Junior Competition. Lee won the $15,000 (USD) first Prize with his commanding performance of Rachmaninov’s Concert No. 3 in D minor with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ruth Reinhardt. Canada’s rising star fourteen-year-old J J Jun Li Bui won the special Peer Award of $500, an award voted by his fellow competitors.

This second quadrennial Cliburn Junior Piano Competition, held in tandem with the Cliburn International attracted 230 applicants representing thirty-two countries is targeted at pianists from 13-17 years of age. It was the first Cliburn competition to be held outside of its Fort Worth home and will return to Dallas in 2023.

Lee joined two other competitors for this final round of the competition-fifteen-year-old Russian/Armenian pianist Eva Gevorgyan, and seventeen-year-old Jiwon Yang from South Korea. All three finalists are seasoned if not serial competitors. It appears they are running across the globe at break neck speed, snatching accolades and attention wherever they can. Gevorgyan has amassed more than forty prizes, and Lee has eleven first place titles to his accreting credit list.

With all three finalists completely primed and match ready for the rigors of the four rounds of this junior competition embracing a solo 40-minute recital and a one-movement try out of their chosen concerto, there is a feeling amongst the competitors that entering many competitions is an opportunity to be seen and heard by the large webcast audience, and to practice new repertoire. At the closing ceremony the Chairman of the jury, a former winner of the Leeds International Piano Competition Alessio Bax said the jury was “ honored to hear work with deep musical understanding and caring from the compassionate young people.” Other jury members included Philippe Bianconi (France), Angela Chang (Canada), Valery Kuleshov (Russia), Lowell Liebermann (United States), Aviram Reichert (Israel), and Uta Weyland (Germany).

At this concerto round the competitor must master four fundamental requirements. They must demonstrate an ability to project across a symphony orchestra, be able to sustain the demands of the three movements, understand the stylistic demands of the concerto form and communicate the essence of the composer’s aesthetics. Above these lines, is the point where the winner begins to emerge to the foreground.

Lee’s performance of Rachmaninov’s third concerto was authoritative from the first note. Dressed in a Lang Lang-esque black suit and white open neck shirt with a touch of bling in the form of a shiny brooch, Lee’s unassailable journey through the three movement was distinguished by meticulous attention to detail, a range tonal colors and an ability to offer supple flexibility to Rachmaninov’s lyrical melodies as well as power through the cascading chromatic and double octaves. Further, Lee unflinchingly engaged with the beauty of the emotions. The recognition of his achievement was answered by a spontaneous standing ovation from the Dallas audience.

The second prize was awarded to Eva Gevorgyan who was also gifted with the Press Award of $500. Gevorgyan is gathering recognition in European circles. In her performance of Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, she chose to prioritize the lyricism of the work with a style that erred more towards classicism. This decision and her slightly lethargic tempi choice robbed the work and the performance of its natural propensity to sparkle. Jiwong Yang, the competition’s third prizewinner sailed through Tchaikovsky’s Concerto No. 1 with a robust drive. She proved her strength in being able to compete with the orchestral forces.

The audience award of $500 was given to Avery Gagliano from the United States. Gagliano was one of the six semifinalists.

The Dallas Symphony Orchestra under Ruth Reinhardt had a mixed performance. Reinhardt is a time-keeper and spends most of her attention on the strings, which at times left the wind and brass section without a steady steer– the results unfolded in some unenviable entries and a lack of harmonic balance in the tutti sections.

A competition for pianists aged so young must fundamentally contemplate the questions of what we can expect from Generation Z and what can we hope to achieve through the competition process. Perhaps, the parallel or more interesting question is what might these Generation Z’ers bring to classical music besides sustaining the musical heritage. At this Cliburn competition they certainly proved their sense of resolution. In some illumined cases the competitors demonstrated a maturity and an ability to interpret the composer with an original voice beyond their age. This is certainly the case with Shuan Hern Lee.


About Author

Xenia Hanusiak is a cultural journalist and critic, essayist, poet, writer for stage, and festival curator whose work is published and performed across the globe. Informed by her practice as an opera singer and scholar, Xenia has given the world and country premieres of some of the most influential composers of our time including Kaija Saariaho, John Harbison, Elena Kats-Chernin and Zhang Xiaofu for some of the world’s leading festivals including the Next Wave Festival, (New York), Kennedy Center (Washington), Singapore Arts Festival, Gruppo Aperto Musica Oggi (Florence) and Beijing Music Festival. She holds a PhD in Creative Writing & Literature and, is a visiting scholar at Columbia University (New York), Peking University and Kookmin University (Korea). Her works for the stage include: the play Ward B; Un_labelled (Elena Kats-Chernin, Young Peoples’ Chorus of New York City); the libretto A thousand doors, a thousand windows (Melbourne International Arts Festival, Singapore Arts Festival); Earth Songs (Homart Theatre) and the dramatic monologue, The MsTaken Identity (Adelaide Festival of Arts/Australian String Quartet). Recent journalism publications include contributions on Laurie Anderson, Marina Abramovic, Anri Sala, Philippe Parreno, singers Dawn Upshaw, Kiri Te Kanawa, Leonard Cohen, composers Tan Dun, Nikko Mulhy, Lisa Gerrard and writers Clarice Lispector and Rita Dove.

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