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Surprise in Texas: The Thirteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition

by Peter Rosen
Altre Media/Peter Rosen Productions, Inc./Van Cliburn Foundation, 2010
DVD, 95 mins., color
Sales:  N/A
Distributor’s website:  http://www.cliburn.org.

Reviewed by Richard Kade
Sunnyvale, CA, USA


This documentary chronicles how the so-called "Nobu fever" that began in Japan went viral throughout the world of classical music after Nobuyuki Tsujii won gold at the 13th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2009. The film also shows how the human spirit surmounts adversity.

The final part of the competition was the performance of a concerto with orchestra. When conductor James Conlon met with Tsujii (and his translator as he speaks little to no English) in advance of rehearsal with the orchestra, a seeming impasse arose in the last movement of the Rachmaninoff Second: the matter of how to convey to Nobu, born without eyesight, the preparatory upbeat (following the ascending piano run) and subsequent downbeat to the orchestra so everyone would be in synch for the final statement of theme. What initially seemed impossible was quickly and easily resolved once the two realized that if Conlon inhaled (while giving the upbeat) and exhaled (on the subsequent downbeat) audibly enough to be heard a few feet away, the effect was as accurate as if the soloist could see the conductor's hands and body in motion.

Sold in Japan under the title Nobuyuki Tsujii in 13th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition [1], this DVD comes bundled with his "recital CD" (recorded on 23 May 2009) that included the first six Chopin Études from Op. 10.

To say that audiences were blown away by his performances would be a gross understatement. The playing of this 20-year-old is impeccably clean, the interpretations (from Beethoven to John Musto) amazingly sensitive, and, most astounding, reflects a maturity usually heard only in people decades older. That very "maturity", however, forces one to confront the issues of what, exactly, is "soul" (spirit, inspiration or whatever one calls it) and that never-ending battle between head and heart, intellect and instinct. (My own personal take is, not unlike sciences and arts, that there's far more overlap than most would recognize at first glance.)

One of the most memorable recent attempts at dealing with comparing people's "soul size" was sketched out a few years ago based on a comment by James Huneker in the Schirmer edition of the Chopin Études which serves as the basis of assigning so-called "Hunekers". [2]

If Bach's oft-quoted line to the effect, "Get the right note at the right pitch and time and the instrument plays itself!" has merit in so far as "technique" goes, what about the old "Vorsetzer" (Sony Superscope) performances in the "Keyboard Immortals Play Again" series where turn-of-the-previous-century (~1900) keyboard greats are re-created thanks to that super-sophisticated (for its day) player-piano coupled w/ the best possible digital re-mastering? How do recordings by Nobuyuki Tsujii (in terms "Hunekers") stack up against those by artists from that bygone era? (Or against those by Jacques Loussier or Hiromi Uehara?) After all, Nobu seems almost too young to have developed such a "big" soul. Perhaps the answer is as simple as "feeling" (in music and other non-verbal aesthetic forms) being as much in the "eye of the beholder" ("ear of the auditor")

If nothing else, maybe this line of thought underscores the well-deserved skepticism of Longfellow's silly assessment of music [3] as the "universal language of the arts" (Why omit sculpture, painting, dance and other forms of expression independent of words?).

Another of the Van Cliburn competitors opines as to how the name of the game is the alignment of the intentions of the composer (presumably from all that is on the printed page plus the contextual stuff) with the instrument, her hands, fingers, feelings and the ability to convey the most perfect synthesis possible to the audience, especially the judges. This seems, almost, a revamping of Bach's getting the instrument to "play itself".

A cautionary note on "composer's intentions" is probably in order. Commenting on that topic in 1971, the late Howard Hanson told how, all too frequently, the composer is possibly the worst one to have perform or record as the "echo" of what inspired the composition in the first place might "drown out" the reality of what is happening. (Think of the recording of Gershwin playing the Rhapsody in Blue with Paul Whiteman as opposed to the performance by Michael Tilson Thomas with the New World Symphony Orchestra.

Whatever that indefinable thing about the creativity of the human spirit is that moves people, an all-too-often irresistible temptation seems to be the assumption that profound insight stems from adversity. Such potentially specious speculation requires the obligatory warning over the ambiguities of reading far greater meaning into a work or its performance than anything that might have motivated its creation or the shape it took later. Consider Berlioz at the famous performance of his Rêverie et Caprice pour Violin et Orchestre. Upon completion, the composer gushed to a friend in the audience, "Never have I heard an artist who has so completely caught my meaning and has so wonderfully interpreted it!" At virtually the same time the soloist, Henri Wieniawski, was unloading backstage to Mendelssohn, "I am glad I got through it. I never had such a task in my life. I have not the remotest idea of what I have been playing or what the piece can be about!" [4].


[1] http://www.avexnet.or.jp/classics/artist/tsujii/disc.html.

[2] Hofstadter, Douglas R., I Am a Strange Loop (New York, NY, Basic Books, 1999); p. 17. Hofstadter writes: "Huneker asserts of the eleventh etude in Opus 25, A minor (a titanic outburst often called the 'Winter Wind', though that was certainly neither Chopin's title nor his image for it), the following striking thought: 'Small-souled men, no matter how agile their fingers, should not attempt it.'" In that connection, please also see: leonardo.info/reviews/sept2007/i_kade.html  [Search for the word "visceral" as well as the word "hunger"].

[3] http://www.leonardo.info/reviews/sept2003/Virtual_Kade.html.

[4] Beach, Scott Musicdotes (Berkeley, CA, Ten Speed Press, 1977); p. 34.

Last Updated 1 June, 2010

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