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June 24, 2002
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Status quo stands tall at Cliburn competition

Prizes honor predictability over originality


By SCOTT CANTRELL / The Dallas Morning News

One hour into the final round of the International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs, I was ready to award two first prizes and go home. In that one hour, between finalists Debra Saylor and Michael Hawley, we'd heard more compellingly individual music-making than you'd get in any two dozen recitals by pianists on the commercial circuit.

Sure enough, the Fort Worth competition, sponsored by the Van Cliburn Foundation, ended June 8 by awarding two first prizes. One went to Dr. Hawley, a professor of media technology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dr. Hawley also won the press jury award, in which this writer was one of eight voters, and the prize for most creative programming. But all Ms. Saylor got was, in effect, a consolation prize – a $250 jury discretionary award. And that was a disgrace.

The other first prize, and the audience prize, went to Victoria Bragin, a chemistry professor from West Virginia. Ms. Bragin's preliminary-round performance of a Haydn sonata, deft and witty, was one of the most memorable in the competition. She was never less than a sure-fingered, tasteful pianist.

But her final-round performance of the Chopin B minor Sonata (No. 3), tasteful as it was, had far less personality, and it lost steam as it went on. The finale sounded downright tired.

Ms. Saylor, by contrast, had personality to burn. She offered a delightfully playful Dvorák Humoresque and a Chopin A major Polonaise (Op. 40, No. 1) that took off the satin shoes, changed into clodhoppers, and took us back to the dance's earthy origins.

Finally, she made Beethoven's "Pathétique" Sonata no thrice-told tale, but something apparently made up on the spot, from the heart, at once unsettling and thrilling. Ms. Saylor's best performances in the Cliburn's 2000 amateur competition were unforgettable – that out-of-body Debussy Clair de lune, especially – but this time there was even greater assurance and polish.

It's understandable that Ms. Saylor's interpretations might have turned off the piano professors who dominated the main jury. After all, they're the guardians of what seems to be an ever-narrowing range of musical interpretation. The best-schooled pianists these days sound as if they've internalized the last 10 recordings they've heard and settled on the lowest common denominator.

But even some of the music journalists, whom you might expect to be more open to alternate views, were huffing about Ms. Saylor's diversions from the straight and narrow. One complained that he'd never heard the polonaise played so slowly, and another sneered at her snatched phrase endings.

The slow tempo startled me at first, too. But there was something so arresting about its earthiness, and about Ms. Saylor's daring rhythmic dislocations, that I was on the edge of my seat. This was playing of a kind virtually extinct today but preserved on scratchy old recordings of early 20th-century pianists like Ignacy Jan Paderewski and Alfred Cortot.

The difference between a great performance and a merely so-so one, someone observed, is the illusion of spontaneity. To which I'd add that great performances also have a quality of ecstasy. Ms. Saylor had both, in spades.

Yes, the polonaise is marked "Allegro con brio." And, yes, most people – even most early 20th-century pianists – play it pretty briskly. But Paderewski made two recordings of the piece, an acoustical recording in 1911 and an Aeolian piano roll in 1919, and both are just barely faster than Ms. Saylor's. And both have the same kinds of rhythmic play – and the same snatched phrase endings.

I doubt Ms. Saylor knows those recordings. She says she hasn't listened to many piano recordings. But somehow, almost miraculously, she seems to be channeling the way the big personalities of the piano played 100 years ago.

Paderewski was born in 1866, only 17 years after Chopin died. He was a product of the same homeland and in 1919 became the first prime minister of the newly created state of Poland.

In the early years of the 20th century he was probably the world's most famous performer of any kind, idolized as rock stars are today. And he would have known that the polonaise – the Polish dance – was originally a stately affair in three beats per measure. If that tempo was good enough for Paderewski, it's good enough for us – at least as a thoroughly valid alternative.

In Chopin's day, and at least early in Paderewski's, audiences for what we call classical music clamored for novelty. They rushed out to hear the latest compositions. They valued surprise in performances of pieces they already knew.

By contrast, our classical-music life seems more and more modeled on McDonald's hamburgers: portion controlled, infinitely repeatable, the same worldwide. Classical music has become an escape into safety and predictability.

Dr. Hawley had a gimmick – a bunch of rarely heard Liszt and Leopold Godowsky transcriptions and his own quite exciting arrangement of a suite from Bernstein's West Side Story. He got the novelty award and deserved it. Some of his playing was a little heavy-handed, but there was plenty of skill and power and prodigious intelligence. And the Bernstein was riveting.

In the end, Ms. Bragin represented the status quo, and both jury and audience rewarded her for towing the party line. Paul Romero, who was awarded second prize, had the most brilliant and assured technique of the competition, but a hard, machined tone. And his expressive gestures seemed stuck on like decals, not springing from within the music. But power and precision – those most modern of virtues – carried him to victory.

Ms. Saylor's expressivity did spring from within the music. It expanded beyond modern norms, but never was there anything foreign. It was as compelling as any music-making this listener has ever heard.

But it got only a consolation prize. And that was a disgrace.

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