- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 29, 2003

The grueling but always exciting 25th anniversary edition of the William Kapell International Piano Competition and Festival came to a climax last Friday evening as three talented young artists competed in the final concerto round at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center on the campus of the University of Maryland. Ably accompanied by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under the baton of David Lockington, pianists Ning An and Ying Feng of China and Won Kim of South Korea — the sole survivors of a field that originally numbered more than 40 — each played one of classical music’s greatest warhorse concertos before a packed house of music students, families, and piano teachers and aficionados in the Dekelboum Concert Hall.

Ning An led off the evening with an otherworldly performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s beloved Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18. The 2nd is the stuff of legends. Rachmaninoff was depressed and mentally blocked during its composition. He eventually sought help from a hypnotherapist, who planted the suggestion in his mind that the rest of the concerto’s composition would flow with ease, as indeed it did far beyond the composer’s original expectations. It soon became a great popular hit. (Tin Pan Alley happily plundered the work years later for the hit song, “Full Moon and Empty Arms.”)

From its unusual chordal opening for the piano alone, the 2nd unfolds gradually as a very Russian work of surpassing Romantic beauty filled with great virtuosic writing for the piano. It alternates moments of brooding introspection with challenging solo work, making it a favorite showoff piece of barnstorming pianists.

However, Mr. An took an entirely different, almost self-effacing approach to the work. Rightly comprehending Rachmaninoff’s intention to weave the piano in and out of the orchestral texture along with the ebb and flow of the music, Mr. An was happy to thunder away when the situation warranted. Yet he was also perfectly delighted to melt into the background and accompany the orchestra when it was musically appropriate. His hands fluttered about the Steinway’s keyboard like shimmering butterflies, a visually evocative technique that enabled him to coax unusually subtle, heart-rendingly emotional effects out of this powerful instrument. His was a brilliantly planned, highly individualistic interpretation of a work so well-known that it shows up nearly every summer in pop concerts nationwide.

Next up was Ying Feng, who performed Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Opus 23 with dash and panache. There was a day not all that long ago when women pianists would frequently confine themselves to the more elegant corners of the classical period repertoire, but no more. Miss Feng has a prodigious technique and was more than a match for this strenuous audience favorite.

Tchaikovsky’s 1st has always been an odd beast. Its huge, shapeless first movement is more of a rhapsody than it is the opening of a concerto, and its famous, booming introduction is never repeated as the work moves on to other material. But the 1st is so viscerally exciting that it, too, like the Rachmaninoff 2nd, is permanently planted in the popular repertoire.

Miss Feng attacked the work with an almost savage vigor and was most impressive in the first movement’s highly treacherous octave passages. Hers was a headlong, bravura performance, a throwback in some ways to such Romantic pianists of the post-World War II era as Arthur Rubenstein, Vladimir Horowitz, and the young Van Cliburn, but an occasional odd lapse plus an overpowering desire to blow the roof off the concert hall made her interpretation, at times, less than satisfactory from an artistic standpoint.

After a brief intermission, Won Kim gamely attacked Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30. Longer, more complex, and technically one of the most daunting works in the piano repertoire, this is the concerto that was the focal point of the film “Shine,” a critical sensation some years back. More modernist than the 2nd, the 3rd is clearly a Romantic concerto, but it weaves an intellectually complex musical tapestry that is not always easy to follow for those in search of good tunes and great entertainment. Nonetheless, there is plenty here to please, and the pianist who can bring off the work without a hitch creates great excitement in the hall.

Unfazed by the work’s devilish complexities, Mr. Kim negotiated the concerto’s cliffs and valleys with aplomb in a virtually flawless and thrilling performance. He was particularly effective in the work’s massive third movement buildup and matched, decibel for decibel, the battery of percussion that thundered against him. However, his choice of the Kawai concert grand (each pianist is allowed to choose his or her instrument) was a bit puzzling to this critic. The Kawai is a bright instrument, which has its pluses in a work that emphasizes the lower strings in the accompaniment, but it also lacks the booming, Germanic bass of a Steinway or a Bosendorfer, and that was missed here in crucial moments where such grounding would have built massiveness into the climaxes.

The competition adjourned about 11 p.m. as the judges huddled to render their collective verdict. Inside and outside the hall, the audience excitedly buzzed and argued the relative merits of each pianist, sometimes heatedly, as they awaited the outcome. In past competitions, the deliberations have, at times, been painfully slow. But this weekend, the judges’ choices took only about 15 minutes.

Third prize and $5,000 was awarded to Won Kim. The second prize and $10,000 was awarded to Ying Feng. And the first-prize winner was Ning An, who went home with $20,000 and a big boost to his budding concert career.

This critic would have swapped the second and third prizes. Miss Feng needs to settle down a bit at the keyboard, and Mr. Kim should consider changing pianos unless he wishes to specialize in earlier keyboard works by Beethoven, Haydn, and Mozart.

But Ning An was truly and justly the winner of this competition. Any time a pianist, particularly one so young (Mr. An is 26), takes a timeworn concerto in hand and succeeds in brilliantly knocking all preconceived notions out of listener’s heads, one must take notice. Further, Mr. An’s gracious interplay with the orchestra in a competitive situation, where the temptation is to go for the brilliant effect, marks him as a classy, sensitive musician of great maturity and poise. We look for great things from this remarkable young man as he continues to expand his repertoire in the future.

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