For nearly two weeks now, Fort Worth's Bass Hall has played host to some of the world's most elite competitive pianists between the ages of 18 and 30. I haven't seen any blood, but buckets of sweat and I'm sure more than a few tears have been shed during the fiercely competitive first two rounds of the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.
Eighteen of the 30 pianists who began the competition were eliminated after the first round of the Cliburn last week. Last night, around midnight, the 12 remaining semi-finalists were whittled down to a final group of six.
To some extent, this competition is a test of endurance. At this point each finalist has performed three solo recitals (a total of 2.5 hours of insanely difficult, completely memorized music). During the semifinals, they were given only an hour and a half to rehearse with the Brentano string quartet before performing a chamber work with the group.
This weekend, each of the final six will again have limited rehearsal time to prepare for performances of two piano concerti with the Fort Worth Symphony and Maestro Leonard Slatkin. Medalists will be chosen and announced this Sunday.
Here's a look at the 2013 Van Cliburn finalists (in alphabetical order):
Sean Chen Age: 24 Country: Good ol' U.S. of A. Special Talent: Great fluffy piano hair = maximum dramatic bang flips. Chen is the only American contestant to make it into the finals. In fact, the Florida native who spent most of his childhood in southern California is the first American Cliburn contestant to make it to the finals since 1997.
It's clear when he plays that he has virtuosic skills and brains for days. His bio is nauseatingly impressive, with lots of words like "Juilliard" and "Yale" scattered through. The highlight of his Cliburn experience so far was his second solo recital of the prelims. He took a big risk during that recital by performing what some consider to be Beethoven's most demanding piano composition, the 45-minute-long Hammerklavier Sonata. In his free time, Chen enjoys computer programming. This weekend he will play Beethoven's fifth piano concerto and Rachmaninov's iconic Piano Concerto No. 3.
Fei-Fei Dong Age: 22 Country: China Special Talent: Her piano teacher might be a lucky charm. Like Chen, Fei-Fei Dong (pronounced Fee-Fee) is also a product of Juilliard, where she has studied with famed teacher Veda Kaplinsky. There's been much discussion in the piano blogosphere -- yes, there is such a thing -- surrounding Kaplinsky, a member of this year's Cliburn judges. Seven of Kaplinsky's students made it into the Cliburn this year, but Dong is the only one to advance to the finals and there is no doubt she got there on her own merit. (Note: jurors are not allowed to vote on their own students. The piano world is smallish and these kind of overlaps are typical).
Like Chen, Dong will be performing Rachmaninov's 3rd piano concerto as well as Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4.
Vakym Kholodenko Age: 26 Country: Russia Special Talent: Maturity. Kholodenko is the oldest finalist and his playing throughout the competition, while fast and furious at all the right times, has also exhibited moments of musical maturity. He chose to play programs that varied a bit from the standard competition choices (his first recital featured American composer John Adams alongside a Rachmaninov sonata). And while a great number of performers (maybe too many) played Stravinsky's Petrushka during the prelims, Kholodenko's version was memorable for its musicality. Kholodenko is the only father in the finals. His little girl, Nika (age 2), is back home in Russia with his family. He will play concerti by Mozart and Prokofiev during the final round.
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Nikits Mndoyants Age: 24 Country: Russia Special Talent: Legacy. Nikita Mndoyants is another performer who plays with real maturity, not just virtuosic skill. More often than not, he is able to rise above mere technical achievement and make music out of even the most difficult passages. He also has a unique story.
His father, Alexander Mndoyants, was also a Van Cliburn finalist (he placed fifth in the 1977 competition). During Nikita's second preliminary recital, he chose to play Taneyev's Prelude and Fugue in G-sharp Minor Op. 29, the same piece pianist Van Cliburn, the competition's namesake, played during the first Tchaikovsky competition in 1958. Like Kholodenko, Mndoyants has chosen to play concerti by Mozart and Prokofiev during the finals.
Beatrice Rana Age: 20 Country: Italy Special Talent: She makes it look easy. Rana is the only one of this year's six Italian competitors that hasn't been eliminated. She and Fei-Fei Dong are also the only two remaining women out of the original five that entered the competition. From her very first recital on the first day of the competition, Rana has been a front-runner in my opinion. She isn't necessarily as showy as some of the other contestants, but she is consistently flawless in her execution and she has an uncanny ability to make everything she does look effortless. The focus of her playing rises above technique to the level of artistry, and at only 20, her style is remarkably personalized. She will play Beethoven's 3rd piano concerto as well as the 3rd Prokofiev concerto in the final round.
Tomoki Sakata Age: 19 Country: Japan Special Talent: Youth and enthusiasm. Sakata has gotten plenty of attention for being the youngest competitor in this year's Cliburn. He's also adorable, charming and a potential media darling. At 19, his resume is as impressive as any of the other competitors (he currently studies at Italy's International Piano Academy in Lake Como). When he was interviewed by Cliburn's web-host Jade Simmons last week, he was as enthusiastic about the fajitas he had just tried at Joe T. Garcia's as he was about Liszt. He's a fun performer to watch, if not a bit on the bangy/bombastic side at times. In the finals, he will play a Mozart concerto and Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1.