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e-Competition II - The Contestants

It was a great week for pianists and piano-lovers in NYC - at Rockefeller University, contestants hoping to compete in the Van Cliburn Competition were presenting free live recitals for a screening jury and a live audience, and at the Yamaha showroom at 54th and 5th Ave, the e-Competition was holding its screening auditions in a more technologically advanced way, through the use of the Disklavier. Whereas the Van Cliburn Competition is sending its jurors across the world to hear live auditions, we members of the e-Competition jury were happily ensconced in NYC, armchair travelers listening to auditions recorded in NY, LA, Paris, Moscow and Beijing. I noticed that there were a number of contestants who were present in the rosters of both competitions. I would have loved to hear them play both live and on Disklavier! Reflecting the state of piano today, the contestants came from all over the world. China - 12 US - 10 Russia - 10 South Korea - 5 Ukraine - 3 Canada - 3 Others - 19 We weren't given information about where these people are based, or where they studied. Taking the audition site as the only piece of information, it is clear there is much cross-pollination happening on a musical level. (I admit, I'm US biased!!) Chinese based outside China - 7 Chinese based in the US - 7 Russians based outside Russia - 6 Russians based in the US - 1 S. Koreans based outside of S. Korea - 5 S. Koreans based in the US - 5 Americans based outside the US - 0 (come on, fellow Americans, we need more outside input!) So one question that comes to mind is: Does piano-playing still reflect a difference of traditions from one culture to another? My impression is that there are two recognizable styles of playing that could be called national "schools", even though they may reflect as much a culturally-grounded approach to music or labor-based activities as they do reflect any national traditions of playing or teaching. These are the Russian "school" and the South Korean "school". The first is distinct on a musical level, which could be described as "robust" and "overt". The traditional emphasis on rigorous technical training is also evident in the precision of the playing, which also contributes to the robust and overt character of the playing. This is a major generalization, of course, which overlooks the presence of at least 2 Russian candidates who can best be described as "ghostly", although ghostly with precision! The South Korean school is recognizable in its seriousness, both in the sense of a deeply disciplined and studied approach to the music and to the playing. This very often translates into a rather dour musical character as well. Here again, one exception seemed to prove the rule. What we see in the Chinese and American contestants is also a definite national tendency, but characterized more by a lack of unity than any one particular element. In the Chinese contestants, there is an attention to accuracy and brilliance, but this comes across either as a very conservative, careful approach or a wild, raw approach. Perhaps the difference depends on the amount of influence coming from outside of China - my experience in China has been, up until very recently, that the younger the student, the more impressive and original the musical personality. The continued and currently explosive opening up of China to the European, Russian and American traditions of playing and teaching will continue to make huge marks on its enormous pool of talent. China is far from having mapped out its trajectory in the piano world. For the Americans, it has always been a hodge-podge, and this competition offered nothing to contradict that idea. In a way, the lack of any major support of Classical music in the US means that those who do end up pursuing it as a career are doing it out a greater sense of personal motivation, and hence are more dedicated, and offer playing that is more emotionally driven. The lack of a cultural base in the US, however, means that the playing is often imitative, or extreme in its ideological pursuit of individual musical goals. The Americans also would benefit from opening up to Europe and Russia, more than just opening up the country to Europeans and Russians! The repertoire that candidates choose to present is a telling factor. In this particular competition, the screening audition required a movement of a Classical-era Sonata and an Etude. In the context of a 25 minute program, this left somewhere between 12-20 minutes of free choice taken from their first round repertoire. For those lucky pianists whose streng