Monday, August 13, 2007

Rocky Mountain Amateur Piano Competition Post Mortem

Some ruminations about the Rocky Mountain Amateur Piano Competition, which Kensuke Ota won last Sunday. (Complete results here.)

For the first time since the competition began in 2001, the winner didn't sweep the three judging panels. Ota won the professional jury award and the audience award; Jelena Vladikovic, who finished second in the professional jury deliberations, won the press jury award. (The partial exception is the 2002 competition, when the professional jury was itself divided. That year, Victor Alexeef and Scot King shared the first prize. However, Alexeef won both the press and audience awards.)

On talent and potential, Ota was an easy choice. Unless the finale of Kapustin's jazzy sonata Op. 39 is a lot easier than it sounds — and I hear this is not the case — Ota had the cleanest and most fluid technique of any finalist. His performance of the finale of Rachmaninoff's Sonata #2 had exceptional structural clarity: Ota mostly avoided the nearly irresistible temptation to get mired in by Rachmaninoff's inner voices. His enchanting performance of Liadov's Barcarolle, Op. 44 caused me to wonder — yet again — why Liadov's music is so rarely performed.

These three performances were the best 18 minutes of the finals.

But two things moved the press jury — consisting of Paul Burke, Sharon Friedman, Eve Tilley and me — to vote for Vladikovic. One was Ota's stiff, pedantic performance of the first movement of Beethoven's "Appassionata" sonata. Vladikovic performed all three movements of the same piece with vastly more passion, color, maturity and musicality. The other was the fact that Ota's finals repertoire represented his entire competition repertoire: He had played parts of it in the first and second rounds. Since his "Appassionata" helped him not at all, and a brief Scarlatti Sonata helped him only a little, Ota basically won the competition with 18 minutes of repertoire. In contrast, Vladikovic brought an hour of repertoire.

But there's another "but," which may have influenced the professional jury. Vladicovic brought her own baggage — namely, that she stretches the definition of "amateur." She's a former professional, working on getting her chops back after a hand injury. In contrast, Ota is a Ph.D student in physics.

("It says something about the profession of music that somebody with that kind of talent and ability is choosing a different field," said Thomas Wilson, conductor of the Chamber Orchestra of the Springs and a member of the professional jury.)

It added up to an appropriately ambiguous climax to the always enjoyable competition. Aside from the awards ceremony, which started late and dragged on forever, the proceedings were smoothly run. The Saturday recital by Russian virtuoso Yakov Kasman was as astonishing as expected, though for the first time I found myself disagreeing vehemently with an interpretation: Schumann's Sonata #1 wasn't merely fast, but too fast, and the near absence of dynamics in between very soft and very loud gave the piece a theatricality verging on insincerity. However, Kasman more than redeemed himself with his luminous interpretation of Scriabin's Sonata #3 and his energetic Prokofiev Sonata #2, in which his amazing virtuosity was completely in service to the piece's playfulness.

The greatest testament to the mood that founder and president Chuck Cabell has created was the number of former contestants who returned simply to hang out or volunteer. Not counting locals such as John Saxon or myself, I saw at least three who had come from out of state: Brad Arington, Michie Akin and Carolyn Luskin, all of whom have been finalists in previous years.


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