Rosalyn Tureck International Bach Competition for Young Pianists in Review

3rd Rosalyn Tureck International Bach Competition for Young Pianists: Gala Winners Concert
New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Bruno Walter Auditorium, New York, N.Y.
June 9, 2013

Music competitions, amid all the flak they receive, offer some undeniable boosts to young performers needing experience and exposure; beyond that, though, they expand musical audiences to include listeners drawn by the more sporting aspects of musical performance. There may be no better example than the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, which has just concluded amid passionate Tweeting and arguing over favorites. On the heels of this spectacular event is a specialized contest in New York for the junior circuit (up to age nineteen) that may be a similar launching pad (albeit on a smaller scale) for some future stars. The Rosalyn Tureck International Bach Competition for Young Pianists honors the late great Bach interpreter by encouraging talented young pianists to explore the many different categories of Bach’s works (from the contest’s Category One’s Short Preludes and Fugues through Category Eight’s Goldberg Variations), and also those of contemporary composers, as Rosalyn Tureck was known to promote. Interestingly enough, this time it counted on its illustrious jury two prior Van Cliburn First Prize winners, Alexander Kobrin and André-Michel Schub – as well as Jeffrey Swann, Michael Charry, Sharon Isbin, John McCarthy, Zelma Bodzin, Max Wilcox, and Golda Vainberg-Tatz (the competition’s Director and Founder). Enjoying in addition the patronage of one of the world’s finest pianists, Evgeny Kissin, the Tureck International Bach Competition seems destined to gain prestige and continue drawing superb talents from far and wide.

Performers with the highest honors received “The Rosalyn Tureck Award” for their category, but there were also many Honorable Mention recipients who performed. One of the youngest winners, Neng Leong (age seven), kicked off the recital with Bach’s Fantasy in C minor, BWV 906 (all works in this review henceforth assumed to be by J. S. Bach unless otherwise specified). Young Ms. Leong’s mature and self-assured rendition was in stark contrast with her small stature and the sight of small feet dangling, unable to reach the floor.  Similarly Mingzi Yan (age eight) played the Fugue in C minor, BWV 961 with remarkable solidity and polish; she will undoubtedly find increased tonal variety with time. Connor Ki-Hyun Sung (another seven-year-old) contributed a commendable performance of the Invention in G minor, No. 11, BWV 782, followed by Liam Kaplan (age fifteen) playing the Invention in A Major, No. 12, BWV 783, with musical fluency and ease. The complexity of works generally increased, and the Prelude and Fugue in F minor, WTC I, BWV 857, was programmed next, played by Li Mengyuan (age thirteen). It was well polished, with thorough attention to imitative entries. One was reminded at this point how much good teaching undoubtedly went into each performance.

Movements from the suites brought more elements of Baroque dance into the mix, starting with Yali Levy Schwartz (age nine) playing the Allemande, Gavotte, and Gigue from the French Suite No. 6 in E Major, BWV 817. She showed extraordinary poise and control for one so young.  Next, Fiona Wu (age nineteen) brought complete mastery of contrapuntal detail to movements from the Partita No. 6 in E minor, BWV 830. Her unassuming, almost self-effacing entry onto the stage belied her intense immersion in its Toccata, Sarabande, and Gigue. Another lively Toccata, the D Major, BWV 912, came to life in the hands of Victoria Young (age thirteen). Refreshingly dancelike in feeling, it swept up both listener and performer (with only tiny glitches, which were masterfully overcome). Huan Li (age fifteen) was impressive in the Sinfonia, Allemande, Rondeau, and Capriccio from the Partita No. 2 in C minor, BWV 826. Here were subtleties of articulation and dynamics, accomplished with fleet-fingered precision even in the Capriccio’s notorious leaps.

Moving on to the Italian Concerto in F Major, BWV 971, Anson Hui (age fourteen) acquitted himself well, especially in the livelier movements. The gem of a central movement was sensitively played and with continued development will be sure to gain in sustained intensity through its long-breathed phrases. Derek Wang (also fourteen) was declamatory and bold in his Toccata in C minor, BWV 911. One might argue that he tended to overplay in the forte passages, but it certainly was good to hear a robust interpretation (without any kid gloves in the name of historic fidelity); thankfully, he reveled in all the extremes, so his softer passages were equally engaging.

All contests have their big surprises, and Allison To (age twelve) was one. She proved to be one of the most refined and artistic for her age (or perhaps any age) in her performance of the Aria Variatta alla maniera Italiana, BWV 989. Not only did she win the Rosalyn Tureck Prize in her category (“various works”) but she was also the winner of the Evgeny Kissin Grand Prize Award, in recognition of the performer deemed most promising. This is a young player to watch!

Also outstanding was Athena Georgia Tsianos (age sixteen). While closing the evening with Bach’s English Suite No. 6 in D minor, BWV 811 (Prelude, Sarabande, and Gigue), she also played David McIntyre’s “Butterflies and Bobcats” for which she had won the Prize for the Best Performance of a Contemporary Work. She offered arguably the most exciting performance of the evening in this vibrant composition, and one will eagerly await many further performances from her.

There was no Category 8 winner (for the Goldberg Variations), and the Category 7 winners (Concerti) did not perform. What was programmed, though, was more than enough. Congratulations to all these young artists!