And anyway, for those involved, Kaplinsky explains, losing isn't really losing. All the competitors receive a $1,000 award and loads of media attention. The audience is entertained, and the performer is essentially "paid" and given an opportunity to showcase their talent in front of a large international audience.

Huangci made it into the semifinals, but was eliminated before the final round. "What were they thinking?" some in the audience asked. Possessed of our own biases and prejudices and moods, we whine about the judges' ineptitude. And then we head back in for more because we can't take our eyes off the human drama unfolding before us.

On one page of the score for Igor Stravinsky's 37-page long Trois mouvements de Pétrouchka, there are some 498 individual notes a pianist must strike, accurately, in the span of just a few quick moments. This particular piece — a clashing, dancing monster of modern music — was performed seven times during this year's Cliburn competition. It is a technically demanding showpiece characterized by eccentric rhythmic patterns and bizarre harmonies. It is also, not incidentally, a piano rendition of one of the composer's most famous ballet scores. It is music that, in the right hands at the right time, dances.

Champion Vadym Kholodenko.
Ralph Lauer/The Cliburn
Champion Vadym Kholodenko.

Vadym Kholodenko, this year's gold medalist, performed Stravinsky's Pétrouchka at the end of his second preliminary-round recital. For many in the audience, Kholodenko's recital came at the end of a long afternoon of listening. His was the last of nine recitals that day. He didn't even take the stage until 9:25 p.m. For weary ears, the thought of sitting through yet another banging, clanging Pétrouchka rendition, even for the most dedicated fan or critical judge, had to be tough to swallow. Kholodenko shook out his wrists and arms and then launched into the sea of notes. Fingers flew as they had all week, but as he played, the audience grew more attentive. They woke up from a collective daze and sat forward in their seats.

In Kholodenko's hands, the music danced. It lilted and twirled and zipped and jolted with dizzying speed and accuracy. After so many examples of sheer technical skill, this was a virtuosic display not of piano playing, but of thrilling music-making. It was mesmerizing not because it was impressive (although it was), but because it took you to the edge of exhilaration and then jumped back, leaving you breathlessly waiting for the next sonic rise to whip your ears around the psychedelic dance floor of your imagination.

Kholodenko was not the only musician who turned notes into spellbinding musical moments during this year's Cliburn competition. He deserved to win, but he also was not the only pianist who did. Others, like Huangci, were less lucky this time. And that, well, to adapt some words of wisdom from Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington, that's the way piano competitions go.

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