by Daniel Hathaway & Neil McCalmont
Ten young pianists, ages 13-17, advanced to the Concerto Round of the Thomas and Evon Cooper International Piano Competition at Oberlin’s Warner Concert Hall on Tuesday, July 19. In afternoon and evening sessions, the jury and audience heard performances of concertos by Sergei Prokofiev (No. 3, three times), Edvard Grieg (twice), Sergei Rachmaninoff (No. 2, twice), Ludwig van Beethoven (Nos. 1 and 4) and Frédéric Chopin (No. 1).
Before the evening session, competition director Robert Shannon gave a bow to Texas pianists Alena Zyl and Colette Valentine, who brilliantly sat in for the orchestra for nine of the performances. (Zyl played the Prokofiev three times during the afternoon!)
Allison To (15, Yorba Linda, CA) was up first with a strong, rhythmically brilliant reading of Prokofiev No. 3. She made fine color contrasts in the slow section of the finale and her stamina held up nicely right up to the triumphant final bars.
Tommy Jing Yu Leo (16, Singapore) followed with the only Chopin concerto of the evening — No. 1 in e minor. His interpretation was technically proficient and well-paced, with a nice sense of color. His runs flourished in the final movement.
Evren Ozel (17, Minneapolis, Minnesota) played Beethoven’s fourth with a stark sense of heroism. Collaborating closely with Alena Zyl, he displayed a confident grasp of the music, though his overview was more episodic than wide-ranging and his touch sometimes more aggressive than poetic.
Clayton Stephenson (17, New York, NY) delivered a cool-headed but thoroughly exciting performance of Prokofiev 3. Brilliant, well-paced, and respective of small nuances, his reading reflected a thorough understanding of the piece. He paid close attention to his “orchestral” colleague.
Zixi Chen (13, Beijing, China) was the youngest of Tuesday’s ten performers. His strong performance of Beethoven No. 1 flew by at breakneck speed, accurately, but with little time for nuances or changes of color (the end of the first movement cadenza was a blur of notes). Hats off to Colette Valentine, who kept up with Chen in the finale (which Beethoven marked “Allegro,” not “Presto”).
Chaewon Kim (15, Suwon City, South Korea) performed the third and final rendition of Prokofiev No. 3, showcasing her flawless technical skills. Her steady reading erred on the side of directness rather than poetics, with nary a hair out of place.
The evening session began and ended with Grieg.
William Yang (15, Winchester, MA) began with an explosive but flawless opening flourish — two adjectives that could be applied to most of his performance. The nuances of the second movement sometimes eluded him, but he proved to be in full command of the forceful and quickly-paced finale.
Ryota Yamazaki (17, Koriyama, Japan), small but mighty, brought a huge sound and concept to Rachmaninoff No. 2. Though his tempos were sometimes at odds with the music, and his rubatos resulted in a unique sense of flow, he delivered a dramatic reading of this eventful piece.
Nathan Lee (14, Sammamish, WA) started his Rachmaninoff 2 with delicately rolled chords — a nice touch the composer uses on his own recording of this piece. His pacing was intelligent and his climaxes strategically planned, providing a refreshingly broad overview of the piece with a spiritual sense about it.
Andrew Li (16, Lexington, MA) closed the day with an assertive reading of the Grieg concerto — a concept that worked well for its more dramatic passages, but less well in its more lyrical moments. His supercharged reading of the finale belied its folk dance roots.
Following the evening session, the jury announced that these six pianists would advance to the Recital Round on Wednesday, July 20 at 7:00 pm. The performances will be broadcast live over WCLV, 104.9 FM and wclv.com, and streamed by the Oberlin Conservatory.
Published on ClevelandClassical.com July 20, 2016.
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