American awarded top prize in Kapell piano competition

July 25, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

The finals of the William Kapell Competition continued its history of not-always-popular decisions Saturday night at the Kennedy Center.

The announcement of the jury at the Kapell, which is sponsored by the University of Maryland at College Park, that the first prize of $20,000 and an engagement at New York's Alice Tully Hall would go to Mark Anderson was greeted by cries of "No Way!" from members of the audience. A moment earlier, awards of third prize ($5,000) to Armenia's Armen Babakhanian, 26, and second prize ($10,000) to Uzbekistan's Stanislav Judenich, 22, had stunned part of the audience and caused dozens to head for the exits in disgust.

"I loved it," said the happy, 30-year-old Anderson, a Californian who lives in London, about the way part of the audience reacted at a reception afterward. "I'd much rather have blatant disagreements than to see people behave like sheep. It means the audience is participating and -- as long as they don't throw tomatoes -- it's wonderful."

Part of the unhappiness with the decision may have been the concertos that the three young pianists played with the National Symphony and its associate conductor, Randall Craig Fleischer. Anderson performed Brahms' dark and severe Concerto No. 1, while his rivals chose flashy works more likely to please an audience -- Saint-Saens' Concerto No. 2 (Judenich) and Gershwin's Concerto in F (Babakhanian). But some of the disbelief was more legitimate -- a sense that Anderson was the least pianistically talented of the three pianists. Anderson's sound was a little too small to avoid being covered by the orchestra, and his equipment, while up to the demands of the Brahms, was not remarkable. On the other hand, Judenich's nimble fingers did justice to the Saint-Saens' coruscating brilliance, and Babakhanian showed an unsuspected depth of poetic feeling in the Gershwin, wide dynamic range and a subtle tonal palette.

"Throughout the competition, most of us thought that Babakhanian was the best artist and that Judenich was the best entertainer," said a young pianist who was eliminated in the preliminary round. "Anderson is a fine pianist, but I think the jury made a mistake."

In at least one respect, however, the jury chose wisely. Anderson may not be as talented as either Judenich or Babakhanian, but he gave what was musically the soundest of the three performances. He sustained the tension of the Brahms concerto and illuminated its craggy depths. Judenich missed some of the Saint-Saens concerto's elegance and wit, and Babakhanian -- perhaps the most impressive of the three -- gave a performance of the Gershwin that either missed or eschewed the jazzy insouciance and pop-filled exuberance that American pianists typically bring to this piece. Compared with the strutting way that juror Susan Starr plays it, Babakhanian almost made the Gershwin concerto sound like one by Chopin.

But the seven-member jury's decision was not unanimous. It took more than 40 minutes -- a good deal more than usual -- to name a winner. And while the jury has the option of awarding an extra $10,000 to the first-prize winner who "has demonstrated extraordinary performance capabilities in the tradition" of William Kapell himself, it did not do so. While individual jurors declined to talk about how the decision was made, several sources confirmed that it was contested. One of the judges -- Susan Starr, according to most accounts -- was enthusiastic about Anderson, particularly because of his semifinal round performances. She was able to persuade the United States' Thomas Schumacher and Canada's Robert Silverman and at least one other juror -- all of whom agreed that Anderson was the most talented -- to vote first prize to the American.

Anderson clearly cared little or nothing about how the decision was made.

"This will launch your career," said one person who congratulated the pianist.

"I don't know about that, but it will help," said Anderson.

The pianist is a nine-year veteran of piano competitions, with some impressive finishes in contests as important as Great Britain's Leeds (third prize) and Italy's Busoni (also third). At 30, he is at or soon to pass the age limit for such competitions. First prize in the Kapell, in which he failed to make the finals two years ago, is his most impressive win yet.

"Before this thing started, I made a promise to God that this was it," Anderson said. "There are some things that I will always look back on with pleasure, but it's a huge relief to be through."

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