NYACOP Semifinals at Cleveland Museum of Art (May 25)
by Timothy Robson
Every two years the American Guild of Organists holds a National Young Artists Competition in Organ Performance (NYACOP). For 2012 the competitors were born between July 1, 1979 and July 1, 1989, and were required to submit an initial application. The initial applications were screened and narrowed to a field of twenty-five preliminary competitors who then submitted recorded performances of required repertoire. The recorded entries were then reviewed by a panel of judges and further narrowed to a group of seven semifinalists, who performed in live competition at the Gartner Auditorium of the Cleveland Museum of Art on Friday, May 25. The contestants were allowed a maximum of four hours of practice on the 1971 Holtkamp organ at the museum, but also were allowed other practice at other local churches on the two days preceding the competition. Three finalists will advance to the Final Round of NYACOP at the AGO’s national convention in Nashville, TN, on July 1.
Each of the performance rounds has specified repertoire to be played by all contestants. The semi-finals required the Praeludium in C by the mid-Baroque German composer Georg Böhm; two chorale preludes from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Clavierübung III; César Franck’s late Romantic Choral No. 2 in B minor; and Anton Heiller’s mid-20th century Tanz-Toccata. The repertoire provided a clear survey of the performers’ musicianship and technical mastery, in a program that lasted about forty minutes. The judging was anonymous, with the judges secluded behind a screen in the balcony of the auditorium, and the competitors, who drew lots to determine performance order, were announced only by number. The competition was open to the public, and, although people came and went during the course of the day, there was a consistent audience of between 40 and 50 at any given time. ClevelandClassical was present for the entire event. National AGO NYACOP officials who were in attendance repeatedly stated their pleasure at such a large turn-out for the competition, which was locally sponsored and funded by the Cleveland Chapter of the AGO, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the Musart Society. (Full disclosure: this listener is a member of the AGO, but was not involved in the organization of the semifinal competition.)
The competitors were (in order of their performance): Ann Lam (Rochester, NY); HyeHyun Sung (Houston, TX); Paul Meier (Glendale, CA); Thatcher Lyman (Rochester, NY); Adam Pajan (Norman, OK); Daryl Robinson (Houston, TX); and Malcolm Matthews (Rochester, NY).
As with all competitions at the national and international level, competitors have already achieved a high level of mastery the organ by the time they reach the semifinals. Most of the performers hold advanced degrees from major universities and music conservatories, including the Eastman School of Music, Yale University, University of Houston, and University of Southern California. All have ongoing performance careers and some have won other significant competitions. Thus, the judges and listeners listened for subtleties of performance, overall musicianship and the ability to project their performance to the audience. At the breaks between contestants audience members would trade comments and guesses about who would be the chosen finalists and the various contestants’ strengths and weaknesses.
It must be said that the best performances were not necessarily completely perfect. Indeed, Thatcher Lyman, who emerged as a finalist, played a glaring wrong note on full organ at a significant entrance in the Franck Choral. Yet his overall performance led the judges to select him. His performance of the Heiller work was among the best of the day.
Daryl Robinson, the second finalist, played a very stylish Böhm prelude and fugue, with well-considered ornamentation and a tempo that sparkled, but was not so fast that the counterpoint was muddy. His performance of the Bach chorale prelude Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr, BWV 676, was a model of musical playing, brisk tempo and an excellent sense of pulse. His version of Heiller’s Tanz-Toccata enabled clarity in hearing the many meter changes and repeated notes. His was top-notch, mature playing.
The third finalist, Malcom Matthews, gave what was to this listener the best performance of the day of the Bach Allein Gott prelude, with fluent ornamentation and articulation that was appropriate but not fussy. He showed a flexibility of rhythmic pulse in all of his playing. He chose a brisk tempo for the Franck Choral. (It's marked Maestoso—“majestic”—in the score, but several of the contestants had a much quicker interpretation of that marking than do some performers.) Mr. Matthews flubbed a significant registration change at a crucial point in the Choral, but he covered nicely and got right back into his performance. The ability to make a mistake, and continue as if nothing had happened is the mark of a mature performer. Mr. Matthews gave a ferocious performance of the Heiler Tanz-Toccata. He was one of only a couple of the competitors who managed to articulate clearly some fiendish repeated pedal notes midway through the piece.
Although only three competitors were chosen as finalists, on another day, any of the other performers might have qualified. It is the nature of performance that one has good days and bad days. The eventual winner of NYACOP in Nashville will win a cash prize, as well as the opportunity to record a commercial CD, and, perhaps most significantly, receive career development assistance from Karen McFarlane Artists, Inc., a Cleveland-based concert organist management firm.
The Cleveland AGO Chapter and the Cleveland Museum of Art are to be congratulated for taking on sponsorship of this competition. Many audience members were not organists themselves. A mother with two young children listened to two of the competitors; others from the community came for one performance, then left, but had a taste of what it means to be a classical music organist and the opportunity to hear seven fine young performers.
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Published on ClevelandClassical.com May 29, 2012
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