by Daniel Hathaway
A large audience gathered in Warner Concert Hall at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music on Wednesday evening, July 20, to hear sixty busy fingers — attached to six talented young musicians — play half-hour recitals. Wednesday’s round would determine which three contestants in the Thomas & Evon Cooper International Piano Competition would advance to the stage of Severance Hall to play full concertos with Jahja Ling and The Cleveland Orchestra on Friday, July 22. Repertoire was selected from individual playlists by the jury. Emceed by Robert Conrad, the event was broadcast over WCLV, 104.9 FM and wclv.org, and streamed live by the Conservatory.
Evren Ozel (17, from Minneapolis) led off with a crisply ornamented C-major Haydn sonata, followed by Debussy’s Bruyères, darkly hued but played with a light, colorful touch. The standout in Ozel’s set was Bartók’s Piano Sonata. Playing incisively but laid-back in the first movement, the pianist moved his accents to the front of the beat for the third-movement toccata, producing an impressive accelerando in its octave passage and a wild, exciting coda. In between, he treated the repeated-note motive of the slow movement lyrically, and achieved a lovely sotto voce tone.
Clayton Stephenson (17, New York City) began with the first movement of Beethoven’s “Waldstein” sonata, playing its opening gesture more as a murmur than as repeated chords. His touch in Chopin’s c-minor Nocturne was lovely and subdued at the beginning, but Stephenson went on to build two impressive climaxes. His clear-textured reading of Liszt’s “Dante” sonata gave the piece an unusually coherent structure, though his concept seemed more intellectual than emotional in spirit.
Chaewon Kim (15, Suwon City, South Korea) started with the opening movement of Beethoven’s “Appassionata” sonata in which the passion waxed and waned amid some blurry textures. She produced a handsome tone in Chopin’s F-sharp-major Nocturne and achieved some sense of flair in his “Heroic” Polonaise in A-flat. Then she showed her true pianistic colors with an inspired reading of Nikolai Kapustin’s jazz-inspired Variations that knocked your socks off.
Ryota Yamazaki (17, Koriyama, Japan) was assigned the first movement of Mozart’s K. 311 sonata and Chopin’s c-minor nocturne, playing a nicely-inflected reading of the Mozart and a rather noisy version of the Chopin with abundant bass. He ended with an thrilling performance of Liszt’s Dante sonata that captured both the composer’s bombastic side and his sentimental spirituality.
Nathan Lee (14, Sammamish, WA) continued to reveal his engaging personality with a brilliant performance of the first movement of Beethoven’s “Waldstein” sonata, a gale-force reading of Chopin’s “Winter Wind” Étude, and a dashing trip through Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso. Lee capped off a thrilling set with Adolf Schulz-Evler’s Arabesques on the Blue Danube Waltz. He seemed delighted to be playing perhaps the most shameless piece of kitsch in the repertory, and he had the audience in the palms of his very busy hands.
Andrew Li (16, Lexington, MA) ended the evening with a strong and vibrant reading of Beethoven’s Op. 7 sonata, a lovely, dark-toned performance of Chopin’s E-major Nocturne, a brilliant, aggressive interpretation of Prokofiev’s Sarcasms, and an extravagant reading of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6 featuring flying octaves and stentorian sound levels.
After a pause for deliberations, the jury returned to award sixth place to Clayton Stephens, fifth place to Andrew Li, and fourth place to Chaewon Kim. The audience prize went to Nathan Lee.
Photos by Yevhen Gulenko.
Published on ClevelandClassical.com July 22, 2016.
Click here for a printable copy of this article