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Russian pianist plays way to top prize

THE BALTIMORE SUN

FORT WORTH -- Every four years, optimists, realists and skeptics alike gather here to witness an intense rite not entirely unlike the great cattle drives that once rolled through this friendly city.

A strong stock of eager, tightly focused musicians parade past a seasoned jury, an enthusiastic public and a sizable contingent of the domestic and foreign press as they take their best shot at fame and fortune in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, probably the best known and most closely watched event of its kind in the world.

The stakes are high -- not just $20,000 for each of the three top laureates, but management, a solo recording and three years' worth of concert engagements with a combined value estimated at $1 million. For the 17-day 12th Cliburn Competition, 270 pianists applied for admission; 147 from 34 countries received auditions; 35 were invited to compete.

Last night, as the conclave of jurors wrapped up deliberations, about 2,000 keyboard fans with their own list of favorites awaited the results in the recently built Bass Performance Hall (a cream-colored charmer with a signature pair of Texas-sized, trumpet-blowing angels carved into the outside wall and wing motifs adorning a painted domed ceiling inside).

Two hours after the last notes of the final round were heard, and following a lofty-ideal-laden keynote speech delivered in the slow drawl of a refined preacher, Van Cliburn announced the winners: Alexander Kobrin, 25, from Russia (gold medal); Joyce Yang, 19, South Korea (silver); Sa Chen, 25, China (crystal).

The 70-year-old Cliburn, whose seismic victory at the 1958 Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow galvanized a Cold War-weary America, predicted that all 35 contestants would leave their musical "fingerprints" on the world.

Kobrin, with a prodigious technique, rich tone and somewhat constrained, super-serious personality, had "winner" stamped on him throughout the finals. His rock-solid Rachmaninoff -- the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and the Sonata No. 2 -- heated up the hall considerably, even as he maintained a perfect poker face.

By contrast, Yang took top honors for oh-so-emotive physicality while playing. As she reached the end of the Brahms Sonata No. 1, she leaned way back on the piano bench, arms and legs thrust out.

I don't know if she reached a transcendental state, but she very nearly achieved a horizontal one. The crowd exploded.

She generated the same reaction after taking full advantage of the pugilistic elements in Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 2. She's got star quality.

Of the also-rans, finalist Davide Cabassi, 28, from Italy, seems the most likely to be heard from again. This bear-sized pianist's exquisitely beautiful playing of Schoenberg's Six Little Piano Pieces, Op. 19, was a highpoint of the finals. (Cabassi carried Kobrin piggyback from the lobby into the theater to hear the jury's decision, an unexpected touch of whimsy -- and, perhaps, prescience.)

The 2005 Cliburn Competition included several notable firsts: for the first time in the competition's history, more women than men participated (19, vs. 16 men, compared with 8 women out of 30 contestants in 2001); with eight pianists, China had the most entries for the first time; the finalists included three Asian women, another first; Internet users worldwide could access live video and audio stream of the competition for the first time and then vote on a favorite finalist, yet another first. Two full-time bloggers also got in the act, adding to the cyber picture of the event.

Whether the initial rush and attention from yesterday's triumph will result in real, lasting stardom for the winners is uncertain, just as it was after the previous Cliburns.

Since the competition's founding in 1962, few medalists have established high name recognition or universal critical approval.

Grumblings about mediocre, play-it-safe talents invariably rising to the top, while more distinctive and daring pianists get eliminated in early rounds, are common here (especially in the press room). This year was no exception.

"Everybody's second or third choice may accumulate more votes, because another pianist alienates part of the jury," says James Conlon, the top-drawer conductor who has led the competition's concerto performances since 1997.

He admits to "a very ambivalent relationship with the idea of artists competing against each other. A competition like this may not be the best way, but there seemingly isn't another forum that is better."

Cliburn Competition president Richard Rodzinski says the goal of the event is "not to find the next Van Cliburn or superstar. We are a feeder into the industry," he says, "helping to discover pianists who are making the transition from apprentice to journeyman and who, after 20 or 30 years, may become master."

That hasn't stopped people from expecting the miraculous arrival of The Pianist of the Century every time the Cliburn Competition comes around. Nor has it lessened the music world's appetite for musical contests. And no one satisfies that appetite better than this one.

Part of the fun is watching the audience. People quickly form strong bonds with the players, cheering their every appearance onstage, hanging on every note, discussing strengths and weaknesses of technique or interpretation afterward in the lobby.

My favorite example came Saturday afternoon, when Joyce Yang finished tearing through John Corigliano's finger-busting Etude Fantasy at the start of her recital program. An elderly gentleman, sporting a snazzy bolo tie and lifting himself up with the help of a cane, didn't just yell out "Bravo" in a hall-filling bass-baritone. More tellingly, he also offered repeated cries of "Thank you."

During the final rounds -- each performer was heard in a 50-minute solo program and two concertos -- the crowd inside Bass Hall set a standard of quiet attentiveness that would shame many a community.

Second-guessing the jury is a favorite sport here, as you might expect. Just the makeup of the panel invites questions. The 2005 lineup is mostly white, male and on the elderly side.

The contestants feel "it is extremely important to be judged by their seniors, not their peers," Rodzinski says. Besides, "several renowned, younger pianists declined what we call jury duty. They don't have the time."

Whatever reservations may remain about the competition results, it would be hard to dispute Conlon's contribution on the podium during the finals.

In addition to getting the most of the hard-working Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, the conductor demonstrated remarkable attentiveness to the individuality of each player and an ability to hold things together, concerto after concerto.

Conlon deserves his own gold medal.

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