The Oregonian: Newest Van Cliburn winner will dazzle audiences at Portland Piano International
Author: David Stabler
Posted: January 29, 2014

Read the original article in The Oregonian here.

How long have we been debating the value of musical competitions? For as long as we've had them, which is approaching 100 years. But even if competitions don't always produce the most arrresting, creative winners, they do much to promote young careers.

If you watched live streaming of the most recent Van Cliburn International Piano Competition last June, you'll remember Vadym Kholodenko, the Ukranian pianist who eventually won. He played commandingly, poetically and musically and deserves a robust career.

Kholodenko plays two programs on the Portland Piano International series. Sunday's is sold out. On Monday, he plays Nicolai Medtner's, "Forgotten Melodies" and  Rachmaninoff transcriptions of Bach, Schubert, Mendelssohn and more.

Since its beginning in 1978, the Portland Piano International concert series has faithfully presented each new winner of the Cliburn. Here's the list:

1981    Andre-Michel Schub  USA

1985    José Feghali             Brazil

1989    Alexei  Sultanov       Russia         

1993    Simone Pedroni        Italy              

1997    Jon Nakamatsu         USA              

2001    Stanislav Ioudenitch Uzbekistan       

2001    Olga Kern                Russia               

2005    Alexander Kobrin      Russia           

2009    Haochen Zhang        China             

2013   Vadym Kholodenko    Ukraine            

I vividly remember Sultanov's battering of Sergei Prokofiev's Seventh Sonata in 1989. I wrote: "Sultanov played with such force in the Prokofiev, he snapped an upper piano string -- and he still had the Liszt to go. His sole encore, a Chopin waltz, had him playing peek-a-boo with the offending note. By that time, he also had pushed many notes out of tune.

I found Nakamatsu immaculate but conventional: "Nakamatsu made no mistakes. Throughout two hours of bewitching playing, he retained an unnerving sense of focus. He remained calm and poised. Unlike Alexei Sultanov, the 1989 Cliburn winner who broke a piano string here while playing a tempest of notes, Nakamatsu harnessed his virtuosity to the needs of the music. Sultanov was a circus act, but Nakamatsu is much more than a superbly trained pianist.

"And yet, he is not yet as probing as Andras Schiff or Murray Perahia. Despite his poise and subtlety, his bravura and fascinating control, he remained a conventional, if thoughtful, pianist. I wanted more, but maybe that's not the kind of artist Nakamatsu is. Still, I couldn't help wishing he'd let his hair down just a little."

Ioudenitch did not impress: "Whatever qualities earned him the top prize in Fort Worth, Texas, were invisible here. He showed little grasp of the tragic grandeur of the (Mozart) A Minor Sonata (K. 310), preferring small-scale phrasing and an opaque tone in the middle part of the keyboard. In fact, his control of texture, color and overall design bordered on the amateurish. He might have been sight-reading the second movement, a fine aria in slow motion, for all its interpretive subtlety."

Kern was electrifying in a good way and performed a rare feat, both books of Brahms' difficult Paganini Variations: "Kern's pianistic arsenal is based on speed, a transparent touch and a musical compass that keeps listeners oriented even in the thorniest passages. Few pianists Kern's age play the Paganini Variations so swiftly and surely. She earned a standing ovation before intermission."

We often think of Cliburn winners as big, bravura players, but Zhang surprised us with his poise and understatement in 2009. "Maurice Ravel's perilous 'Gaspard de la Nuit' depicts a water sprite, a corpse swinging on the gallows and an evil dwarf in one of the piano's most difficult and shape-shifting works. Zhang flashed through the drama coolly, shimmering in liquid sound and building to enormous, pointed climaxes. He played not with boring brightness, but with wonderful shadows."

Arnaldo Cohen, artistic director of Portland Piano International, says there are now over 1,000 piano competitions around the world. Many winners go on to successful careers, others do not. What's the difference? He paraphrases Guiomar Novaes, the late Brazilian pianist: "The difficulty in life is not to receive the crown and scepter, but to wear them."

Vadym Kholodenko will perform at PSU's Lincoln Performance Hall at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 3. Tickets are $45 to $54 through Portland Piano International, 503-228-1388, The Sunday, Feb. 2, concert is sold out.

Photo top: Vadym Kholodenko, 26, plays with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra during final rounds of the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, June 7, 2013. (Ralph Lauer).