PIANO COMPETITION IS TRULY INTERNATIONAL
South Korea leads a CMIM field that includes only one Canadian this year
North Korea is in the news. South Korea is in the contest: the Concours musical international de Montréal, which brings two dozen pianists to town from Tuesday to May 12.
Of the 304 hopefuls who applied, South Koreans, at 76, were by far the most abundant. America, first in so many ways, settled for second, with 36.
Russia sent 35 applications, China 33 and Canada 22. From France there were 15; from the U.K., five. And down it goes through 41 nations, with all continents represented except Antarctica.
To apply is one thing, to be accepted by the preliminary jury another. Twenty-four starters are booked. The first round begins Tuesday in Bourgie Hall. No points for guessing which country is in the lead with seven contestants. France and Italy comported themselves well enough, getting three apiece.
Not a single American made the cut, and only one Canadian: Teo Gheorghiu, a native of Switzerland who made his public debut at the Zurich Tonhalle and has a film credit. Described in his Wikipedia entry as a “SwissCanadian pianist and actor,” Gheorghiu played the title role in Vitus, a movie made in 2004 about a piano prodigy with overprotective parents.
I played the ruthless critic. Kidding.
Anyway, Gheorghiu, 24, is studying with Gary Graffman, 88, at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Swiss-Canadian? We’ll take him. Last year there were no Canadians at the CMIM starting gate, with or without hyphens.
Which is simply to say that the CMIM is truly international. Certainly the potential rewards are attractive: the first prize of $30,000 supplied by the city of Montreal is abetted by the $50,000 Joseph Rouleau Career Development Grant, funded by the Azrieli Foundation.
According to my calculator, $80,000 in Canadian funds exceeds the US$50,000 offered by the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition (coincidentally taking place in May and June) for its coveted gold medal. And keep in mind that the CMIM happens every year, rotating piano, voice and violin. Cliburn is a onceevery-four-years expenditure.
On the surface, it might be surprising that these competitions have only two candidates in common. The CMIM ends on May 12 with a gala in the Maison symphonique. Cliburn starts on May 25. No problem, right? Take a shower and get on the plane.
The difficulty (apart from sheer pressure) resides in the added Cliburn requirement to play a Mozart concerto and a full-blast piano quintet. Not to mention an “imposed” piece by Marc-André Hamelin (who is also one of the Cliburn judges) that will probably not be a piece of cake.
The “imposed” piece is a fixture of the competition circuit. All candidates must play it, or at least (in Montreal) all those who advance to the second round.
Usually such works are newly composed, but the CMIM has opted this year for Laurentienne No. 2, a charmer in Rachmaninoff mode by André Mathieu (1929-68), the Quebec prodigy whose career was cut short by alcoholism.
There is an excellent performance of Laurentienne No. 2 on YouTube drawn from a CD by young Quebec City pianist Jean-Michel Dubé. Uploaded this month, it stood at 95 views this week. Something tells me that number will rise dramatically. Take note that one of the Montreal jurors is Alain Lefèvre, a great advocate of Mathieu. As, of course, are we all.
Other repertoire selections are pretty standard. Helene Heejun Han of South Korea, who turns 27 on May 7, will try on Samuel Barber’s Sonata in the first round. This was considered a difficult piece back when pieces were considered difficult.
The redoubtable Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 is the most popular choice for the final round in the Maison symphonique with the OSM under Claus Peter Flor. A few pianists are opting for poetry rather than bravura by choosing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4.
Sélim Mazari of France deserves a nod for selecting Saint-Saëns’s Piano Concerto No. 5 (nicknamed The Egyptian). Of course, we cannot assume that Mazari will be among the six who advance to the final round.
We cannot even take for granted that any of the South Koreans will make the finals, although it seems unlikely that none of the seven will succeed. South Koreans have won the Montreal first prize in 2005, 2006 and 2015. Keonwoo Kim, the victorious tenor in 2015, shared first prize last year in Plácido Domingo’s Operalia competition. Soprano Hyesang Park, in second place in 2015, has her Metropolitan Opera debut (albeit in a supporting role) behind her.
Bomsori Kim, the South Korean second-place finisher in last year’s contest devoted to the violin, tied for second prize in the 2016 Henryk Wieniawski Competition in Poland. Not bad. The Montreal first-prize violinist last year, Ayana Tsuji of Japan, was only 18. She can be forgiven for returning to her studies.
In case you were wondering, the Cliburn starting field of 30 includes five South Koreans, the most from any country. There are four Americans, one born in South Korea.
It would be folly to speculate on the laureates of either competition, but you can bet the ranch on Gheorghiu, if he makes the semifinals, as the CMIM winner of the $5,000 award for best Canadian artist, offered by the Bourbeau Foundation (André Bourbeau being the non-voting president of the jury). Unless one of those South Koreans applies for Canadian citizenship, and fast.
If the CMIM merely whets your appetite, the Orford Music Festival offers quite a bit of piano this summer. André Laplante gives a recital of Liszt, Schubert and Chopin on July 8, followed the next day by the Orford Six Pianos ensemble playing Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Smetana’s The Moldau and Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet. Hamelin performs two concerts (as he does for the Lanaudière Festival) on July 14 and 15. The latter includes Brahms’s Piano Quintet with the Kuss Quartet of Germany. Jan Lisiecki offers Bach, Schumann, Chopin and
Beethoven on July 23.
Harpist Valérie Milot opens the Orford programming on July 7 with a son-et-lumière recital. There is a joint concert by cellist Stéphane Tétreault and violinist Paul Huang on Aug. 5. The Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal under Andrew McAnerney performs music of New France at the Abbey of St-Benoît-du-Lac on July 15.
As usual, there is some jazz, including Lorraine Desmarais and her big band on July 22. Jean-Marie Zeitouni and I Musici de Montréal give the closing concert on Aug. 12, but the most remarkable visit is by the Orchestre symphonique de Québec under Fabien Gabel on July 21. The beefy coupling is of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto (with Paris-trained Cameron Crozman) and Brahms’s Symphony No. 2. Amplification will probably not be necessary in the 500seat Salle Gilles-Lefebvre, where all major concerts will be held.
Artistic director Wonny Song promises public access to artists. The pastoral Eastern Townships are a given. For more information, visit orford.mu. There is a new contest from Queen’s University in Kingston. The Isabel Overton Bader Canadian Violin Competition concludes on Saturday, with its final round (concerto with piano accompaniment) in the modish waterfront Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts.
It is an appealingly compact affair: eight candidates and three finalists heard over four days, with one day devoted to concerto rehearsal. The $20,000 first prize is not too shabby, and the jury includes four concertmasters. For details, visit theisabel.ca.
To apply is one thing, to be accepted by the preliminary jury another. Twenty-four starters are booked.