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The Cliburn: here’s who should have won… and how

Many music professionals and devoted pianophiles were shouting Viva Italia! last night.

When Beatrice Rana failed to win the judges’ vote, they wondered why. Many feel the Competition needs to open up and change its rules. Here’s a reasoned assessment by Nina Tichman, pianist and professor at the Hochschule für Musik und Tanz in Cologne

Beatrice Rana and the Competition Question

One doesn´t have to be a gifted prophet to predict that Beatrice Rana will be – in fact, already is – one of the most significant artists of her generation. The last wonderful weeks of (addictive) live-streaming from the Cliburn Competition have shown her in every performance to be an artist with charisma, seriousness, depth, phenomenal technique, subtlety, tremendous individuality, passion and an infallible sense of style. Music lovers all over the world can look forward to many many years (Beatrice is only 20 years old) of wonderful performances from this exceptional person.

RanaBeatrice 160x160

Beatrice is not the only young artist I heard in the last weeks who deserves an audience. In my conversations with former competition winners, concert pianists, colleagues, students and enthusiastic fans of different participants in the Cliburn, it has become ever more apparent that each individual listener hopes for a different kind of experience when listening to a performance. And we were treated to the gamut: innovative programming (albeit not very much of that!), fire-breathing virtuosos, reflective intellectuals and much more that cannot be labelled.
Which brings us to the “problem” – or shall we call it the “challenge” – of competitions. Although I personally will be disappointed if Beatrice does not win the First Prize unanimously, I have heard other pianists of the highest quality (actually, everyone who was admitted to the Preliminaries) whom I would love to hear again and who will certainly delight many audiences.

Hats off to the city of Fort Worth and all of the organizers, volunteers, hosts and others responsible for this event. They have again shown that Texans have not only the largest state, but also possibly the largest hearts in the country. The resources they have managed to access for this event are impressive.
But might there not be a better way to use these resources?

Some artists are good at marketing themselves, others not, so I am certainly not against the idea of an attractive forum that makes a larger audience aware of promising talent. After all, with all of the blogs, twitters, live-streaming it seems as if it could be possible to get worldwide interest in, for example, a showcase format. I imagine that, instead of a jury of illustrious teachers, who may or may not have a vested interest in seeing a certain current or former student win, why not invite or include a large pool of conductors, concert presenters, managers, record producers and have a festival in which the artists chosen to participate present themselves in recital and with orchestra in the course of a week or two and are chosen by the above panel members to appear in their series, with their orchestras, on their labels.

Maybe even write-in votes from individual concert series around the country! No first, second or third prizes, EVERYONE interested in the arts knows that there is no such thing as artistic competition, there are only artists, each with something individual to offer.
As a colleague noted in her blog, the competition at the end sometimes seems to be a huge marketing and sales proposition which will make it easier to “sell” artists, because they may have the label “Prizewinner”. Managers like to talk about “USP” = unique selling point. Well, Beatrice´s USP is that she is unique, period. She doesn´t wear outlandish clothes, she has normal hair, there are no facial histrionics when she plays, she has no unusual pets that I know of – but she plays from the depths of her being, and her performances stay with and nourish me for days afterward.
I am writing this hours before the final results are announced. My personal thanks to all 24 contestants for the enormous pleasure you have given me over the last weeks (I forgive you all my sleep-deprivation!), also to Leonard Slatkin for loving, supportive and impassioned support in the final round. I hope to hear many of you live in the years to come.

Nina Tichman is a pianist, professor at the Hochschule für Musik und Tanz in Cologne.

(c) Nina Tichman/Slipped Disc. All rights reserved.

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  1. Malcolm James says:

    Never mind. She may well join the long list of musicians who failed to win the top prize in a competition, but whose subsequent careers have outshone those of the winners (e.g. Mitsuko Uchida and Andras Schiff compared to Dmitri Alexeev in Leeds 1975).

  2. I agree Malcolm. Competitions are funny beasts. Usually the voting is rigged in some way due to judges voting for other judges students etc. More often than not and I assume in this case the best performers usually take the 2nd, 3rd prizes. Good luck to her.

    • “More often than not and I assume in this case the best performers usually take the 2nd, 3rd prizes.”

      …unless they are eliminated in the preliminaries, which also happens.

  3. always a question of taste, politics and money?

    ’2nd’ Prize in such a media-promoted circus is not bad.Hope Signora BR is content…..

    let each who l i s t e n s enjoy what he/she enjoys.

    Hope a l l the lab rabbits who participated are not discouraged! Had they seen the films”Madame S’ with Shirley McClaine or ” the Competition”? enough to make anyone take these hype scenes with a grain of salt.

    do you go to Pierre Volondat, El Bacha or Frank Braley recitals, al ’1st’ Prizw”winners” ( sic)…?

    the caprices of these affairs that have little to do with creativity or deep musical values are long forgotten by the manipulated public anyway..Aplace for wheeling/and dealing among the jurors for other competitions and the muzak buzness….

  4. Daniel Farber says:

    Had there been competitions years ago, poor Schnabel would never have gotten out of the preliminaries, and the judges most likely would not have allowed Cortot inside the building.

  5. In the end, it is how all of these young talents soul search, study repertoire, present themselves and learn new works. How they network with their colleagues and also composers is imperative in this market, especially in our time. They are all winners, in the sense that they have visibility now, and many people throughout the music industry know who they are. There are plenty of concert series, conductors, managements etc worldwide for them to approach. They can seize the moment as being one of the finalists regardless of their placement.

  6. richardcarlisle says:

    Harp smoothness, raindrop soft transformation of the piano all with great depth of soul… many thanks to the Cliburn for giving her a public introduction– winning a meaningless technicality.

  7. she is right to some extent. In many other ways, Vadim Kholodenko has also proved himself as a mature artist ( often enough, more mature and more sophisticated than Rana) during the competition and in whole, his performances were those of a ‘complete’ artist. Beatrice Rana is a talented young girl and she will surely develop in the future. I dislike this article because it makes the 1st prizewinner look like he did not even deserve to be in the finals and this is quite far away from the truth.

    Competitions will always be competitions and we all know what they are like. Horrible. So, why do all this young people participate? Because, somewhere deep down, they believe that in their case it will be different.

    you don’t like competitions? Boycott or don’t follow . You see no other way than to participate? Then do and hope for the best. But, don’t humiliate the others because your preference didn’t win. With her letter, Mrs Tichman behaves and affirms exactly the same thing the jury does 8just with lesser impact), and that is : my favourite must win, everyone else is a zero.

    The problem is – the other ones are good too. Honor them.

  8. That Bea is going to go places anyways. Any pianist who knows what they are doing can create that concerto “wall of sound’ with an orchestra. However, what is most telling is how Beatrice treated the exposed notes in the Prokofiev and the Clementi concertos to keep the momentum going and to make those notes sing. Truly an extraordinary technique. Hats off also to Maestro Slatkin, one of the most supportive conductors I have ever seen. Definitely a man to have in your corner as a musician!

  9. Bob Burns says:

    All other things being equal (right!) how in the world can judges distinguish between first, second or third, and be objective? Obviously, they can’t. Sure, it’s great to be a winner, but what about the..well…non-winners? The implication is that they are losers?

    These artists are heaven sent. Why should we classify them? Maybe select out the top 6 or 8 and let it go at that. Competitions, at this level of talent, is simply wrong, in my opinion. There should be no “best” because there isn’t one. This isn’t a sporting event, for criminy sakes.

  10. We also fell off our seats watching the award ceremony when the Chairman of the Jury announced “From Italy…” a tad too early after the Crystal award. The question was then if not her, who?
    There are stronger affinities with some composers and one could argue about details here or there, especially at 20 and when she set the bar already so high that her “less” is more than most. Then there were these moments where she was miles above the other contestants and many grand prize winners past or present. She offered a deep, intense reading and performance of Prokofiev’s second that put to shame the bigger names in the business.
    The reason Rana’s music making is so special is that, to quote Stanislavski by analogy to theater acting, she is in the Art of Transformation as opposed to the Art of Representation.
    Her pianistic will is total.
    The apothecaries can claim success with their crafty Gold who will receive a world of attention and promotion by arguments of authority.
    Meanwhile, the Silver shade will allow Beatrice to grow a healthy career and yet preserve what’s dearer to her. A blessing in disguise…

  11. not again says:

    In the context of this competition, Rana stood out as a musical pianist. In the larger context, she still sounds like a well-trained student. One hopes she will continue to mature into a thoughtful and independent musician.
    But I don’t see the problem here in the jury’s decision. They went for the flashier, bangier player. Is anyone surprised? I am curious to see if Kholodenko can make a career out of this…

  12. Must agree with those who find Rana “a well-trained student”. A grey dove of caution hovers over her playing.
    Kholodenko is, I think a giant, nothing less, from what I heard so far. A big surprise actually. I didn’t think they made ‘em anymore. His Transcendental Etudes are definitive, already.

  13. Very impressive Ondine, but it’s definitely not “lent” as Ravel marked. Ever since Argerich showed that she could play it fast and smooth, everyone has tried to out Argerich the master! To the detriment of the actual music.

    Who dares play it actually “lent”, say quarter note = 44? or even slower?! That I would love to hear by someone.

    • geistervariationen says:

      Many years ago (25-30?), Angela Hewitt performed Ondine at close to your ideal tempo. Not only was this a revelatory performance, it was very, very beautiful. (I’m not aware if she currently performs Gaspard, or what her current tempi might be.)

      Teaching moment: your reference to Ms. Argerich could be a valuable argument for discouraging young musicians learning new repertoire from attending, or listening to, performances by very strong musical personalities. This is how simple textual guidance such as tempo markings tend to drop through the cracks.

      Of course, playing Ondine at the slower, correct tempo introduces new kinds of technical challenges vis-a-vis pedaling, glissandi, etc. Ms. Rana’s glissandi were almost a model of differentiated tonal shimmer; attempting these at an even slower tempo would take quite a lot of practice.

  14. Beautiful playing.

    Getting OT here, but can anyone tell me why she (as with so many others, Argerich and Michelangeli included) pedals the climax (b. 67: Un peu plus lent – 3:50 in this vid) at the quarter note, not the eighth note as the harmony dictates? Why does everyone blur this amazing harmonic movement just because the lowest bass notes come a quarter note apart? I worship at the feet of these pianists, but can’t they analyze harmony – and play it?

    (Nerd alert: same chord sequence as Giant Steps).

    • Did you try it out? I did, and it sounds quite dry and dreadful when pedalled that way IMHO. The harmony actually does change at the quarter (crochet for some people). As with most impressionistic music, harmony is never straightforward and points towards jazz where added 9ths, 11ths and 13ths are commonplace.

      My analysis of that particular bar would be (each beat): B minor (w/ added 9th and 11th); G minor; D# minor; F# Major, then he goes back into B minor in the next bar. Each harmony is augmented with added notes similar to the 9th/11th in the first beat. The right-hand melody supplies a suspension of a major 9th which resolves at the next eighth note except for the E# on the third beat which doesn’t resolve to D# until the 4th beat. That’s why you can have the C# (suspension) and the C natural (minor ninth0 in the harmony at the same time … it’s fantastic!

      • The last harmony in that bar is actually the dominant 7/9 chord resolving to the tonic B minor in the next bar.

        • Not quite.

          Quaver (8th-note) by quaver, and using sort of jazz terminology, it goes:
          Bm9 – D13/9 – Gm9 – Bflat13/9 – D#m9 – (ditto) – F#13 – F#7(flat9).
          Ditto the next bar.

          The bass notes are a dead giveaway. I don’t think it sounds drier, but much more powerful because you can hear the pace of the harmonic movement halving and bursting apart. Just my opinion, and sorry to Norman for taking this way off-topic!

          • The point is that the C# and C natural in the first crotchet beat form parts of completely different chords.

            While we expect the melodic dissonance of that first C# to resolve to a consonance on the B, that fact that the bass has changed to a D (delayed!) pulls the rug out from under out feet and makes the B a further dissonance – a 13th. The chord does a V-I and resolves to Gm, while the B has nowhere to go but to an A – another dissonance (9th). And so the chain continues. Meanwhile, in the implied tenor, we have a chain of consonances/dissonances going D-C-Bflat-Aflat-F#(resolution) in parallel major 14ths with the melody! This is composing of exquisite and rarified genius. For the sake of taste, it’d be against the grain to shove it down people’s throats, but pedalling over it doesn’t help either.

            Sorry I’m coming over all dry here, but it’s odd to me that the giants of pianism I mentioned didn’t spot this. Or is there something I’m missing…?

          • I think the tempo is also a factor in how fast the ear can discern individual harmonies here. Maybe Glenn Gould, if he had played this piece, would play it much slower (“lent”) and then pedalling on each quaver would have worked!

            But at the speed it is usually played, I think one tends to hear a single harmony on each crochet with lots of added notes. Just IMHO.

  15. Sorry, last post:

    For fun, try playing the bass patterns on the 2nd & 4th quavers of these bars backwards! That should make the harmony more obvious.

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