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You can show up at a music competition with the sole goal of winning—or, you can arrive with the idea of making good music. All the finalists at this year's Cliburn focused on making good music.

Why Russian Nikita Mndoyants Has the Inside Track on Winning the Cliburn International Piano Competition

You can show up at a music competition with the sole goal of winning—or, you can arrive with the idea of making good music. As of Wednesday morning, it appears that young artists who focused on making good music are going to trump pianists who focused on strategizing a win at the 2013 Cliburn Competition, which enters its final phase on Thursday evening.

During the semi-final round, the thirteen-member jury spent an occasionally grueling but often awe-inspiring four days in which twelve semifinalists each performed a major chamber work with the Brentano String Quartet as well as a fifty-minute solo recital. As the dust settles, Russian Nikita Mndoyants, son of 1977 Cliburn finalist Alexander Mndoyants,  appears to have the inside track on the gold medal. He selected a problematic semi-final repertoire and pulled through beautifully, proving that it really is possible to pace and structure Mussorgsky’s Pictures an Exhibition in order to actually have volume and energy to spare at the end—and, more impressively, to hold the piece together emotionally.  Mndoyants further buoyed his chances with the most convincing performance of the required commissioned work, Christopher Theofanidis’ Birichino.

Incidentally, Birichino (which means “Prankster,” and which the composer regards as referring particularly to a mischievous child) unfolds a brilliantly resonant study in piano timbre, including a few passages in which it is just about impossible to get all the notes right—except, of course, for a pianist like Mndoyants.

Other impressive moments in the semi-final round arrived with the impassioned reading of Cesar Franck’s Quintet by Ukrainian Vadym Kholodenko, who will also advance to the final round. Kholodenko took on a daunting solo recital challenge of presenting eleven of Liszt’s twelve Transcendental Etudes, and proved himself well up to the incredible technical demands of these pieces.

The sole American in the final round, Juilliard graduate and current Yale student Sean Chen won his slot largely through a perfectly constructed performance of Brahms’ Quintet for piano and strings. In spite of an occasionally heavy foot on the damper pedal, Chen also presented for his solo recital a sophisticated and impassioned rendition of Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales.

The other Juilliard product to advance to the final round, Chinese-born Fei-Fei Dong, took the unusual but admirable strategy of backing away from virtuosic monuments for the semi-final round. She presented a breathtakingly clean and lucid performance of Mozart’s “Hunt” Sonata in D followed by a complete performance of Chopin’s Twenty-four Preludes in which she wove these short, succinct sketches into an impressively unified cycle.

Italian Beatrice Rana likewise bet on a complete performance of Chopin Preludes. Although her highly individual take on those pieces often verged on eccentricity, she likewise won a spot in the final round. A broadly varied and consistently executed solo recital including the complete first book of Debussy’s Etudes, Liszt’s paraphrase of sections of Verdi’s Aïda, and Rachmaninoff’s mammoth Sonata No. 2, pulled Tomoki Sakata, Japan’s sole representative at the 2013 Cliburn, into the finals as well.

Among those left behind from the semi-final round, the failure of American Claire Huangci to advance was my biggest disappointment. I’d gladly hear more of the radiant sense of drama she displayed in her performance of Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes and Beethoven’s “Les Adieux” Sonata. The weakest moment of the semi-finals arrived during Italian Alessandro Deljavan’s inappropriately aggressive renditions of Soler and Mendelssohn. Deljavan is a fine example of an extraordinarily gifted musician who is allowing self-absorption (clearly evidenced by his tendency to hum along loudly as he plays) to stand in the way of communicating as an artist.

Interestingly, fifty years later, the fourteenth Van Cliburn Competition is looking a lot like the first in that Juilliard and the Moscow Conservatory are once again asserting themselves as the principal centers for the training of performing pianists. In 1962, Juilliard-trained Ralph Votapektook the top prize while two Russians from Moscow took the two other medals. This time around, Juilliard and Moscow pianists are filling four of the six slots in the final round, and they will all definitely be in contention for the top three awards.

On the whole, although there has been a lot of great playing, Cliburn contestants this time around have proven depressingly predictable in terms of repertoire. This will continue during the final concerto round, in which each finalist will perform two concertos with the Fort Worth Symphony and competition conductor Leonard Slatkin. The final four days will feature two performances of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No.3, two of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2, and two of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20, along with one performance each of Prokofiev’s Third, Tchaikovsky’s First, Mozart’s No. 21, and Beethoven’s Third, Fourth, and Fifth Concertos.