It's something of a cliche that young musicians keep getting better and better technically, that they attain virtuosity at an earlier and higher level than ever before. A truer cliche was never spoken. Fresh evidence emerged Saturday night during the finals of the 2007 William Kapell International Piano Competition.
Russian-born Sofya Gulyak, the 27-year- old winner of the $25,000 first prize, demonstrated fearless technique in Rachmaninoff's Concerto No. 3, tearing through the finger-busting-est passages as if they were exercises for beginners.
Sara Daneshpour, a 20-year-old American who took the $15,000 second prize, delivered a powerhouse account of Tchaikovsky's Concerto No. 1, producing enough tone for two pianists in the process.
And another American, Spencer Myer, 29, winner of the $10,000 third prize, offered exceptionally crystalline articulation - at any speed - in Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.
It's also commonly said that today's young generation of keyboard artists often falls short on the harder-to-define, harder-to--attain qualities of musical individuality and interpretive depth. To some extent, that viewpoint could find support as the final round unfolded in a packed Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center (producer of the Kapell Competition) at the University of Maryland, College Park.
But, even allowing for the occasional moments when the performers seemed more intently focused on dexterity and velocity than on the music's deepest expressive possibilities, the efforts were impressive. All three prize-winners certainly seemed ready for prime time, as poised and no-nonsense in their stage demeanor as in their playing (nary a trace of grand, arms-flying motions or pained facial contortions).
The competition, which drew more than two dozen pianists from about a dozen countries, began with solo repertoire on July 10. Semifinalists also were evaluated playing chamber music.
The finalists, who performed with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Lockington, had an opportunity to be judged by the audience, as well as the official jury headed by pianist Santiago Rodriguez.
For the first time, the competition presented an audience award ($1,000), determined by ballot. It was also won by Gulyak Saturday night, and it was easy to hear why.
Her supremely confident account of Rachmaninoff's daunting score was propulsive and sweeping. I would have preferred more variety and warmth of tone coloring, though, particularly when the right hand outlined the most lyrical of the melodic lines. There was a brittleness, a metallic glint to much of the sound that reduced the music's inner glow.
Daneshpour had the Tchaikovsky war horse trotting boldly along. She avoided excess in those spots where many a young pianist, eager to make a mark with this piece, turns ruminatively sticky. And she poured on the steam in the finale without losing sight of the music's folksy flavor. She also could have added still more in the way of dynamic contrasts to give the music extra flavor, but this was nonetheless admirably colorful playing.
Myer was at something of a disadvantage, at least in terms of crowd appeal, given that Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody isn't nearly as long or showy as the other works (competitors got to choose most of what they played in this competition). But the pianist made every note count in a performance that, in terms of character and elegance, was in a class by itself.
His touch was sometimes magical in its tonal gradations - he performed on a Hamburg Steinway; the others preferred New York Steinways - and his phrasing was always full of nuance. He also knew how to make the most of silence, as in his extended pause near the end of Rhapsody's famous 18th Variation.
With few exceptions, coordination between soloists and podium remained smooth all evening, and Lockington drew generally sturdy, vibrant playing from the BSO.