Hilbert Circle Theater, Indianapolis, IN; April 7 & 8, 2017—The 2017 American Pianists Awards Gala Finals took place over two evenings, where each of the five finalists performed a concerto with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra led by Gerard Schwarz, and aired via live webcasts hosted by soprano Sylvia McNair and pianist Eric Zuber, a 2013 APA finalist. While the concerto performances unquestionably factor into choosing the winner, the decision actually arises from a cumulative process for which several juries observe the finalists in a wide variety of concert situations over a seven-month period.
Of the five concerto performances that transpired over the two evenings, three were world-class in every way. Although Ravel’s G major concerto presents a minefield of first-desk solo and ensemble traps, the orchestra members impeccably responded to Gerard Schwarz’s incisive conducting. As for Henry Kramer’s artistry, I’ve rarely heard such a sensitive, cultivated, and ravishingly colorful Ravel G major from a young pianist. The first movement’s long chains of trills, for example, readily evoked images of an ethereal musical saw, very much in the tradition of Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli’s benchmark 1957 recording.
Prokofiev’s ceaselessly inventive Second Concerto rarely turns up on major competition finals, probably because its elaborate orchestration is hard to balance, and the tunes are not so memorable as those in the composer’s relatively straightforward and far more popular Third Concerto. What is more, the piano writing is far more challenging, and not just for the lengthy, extremely gnarly first-movement cadenza. Drew Peterson took something of a risk in choosing this concerto, and his secure, multi-leveled, ardently projected pianism riveted my attention. Indeed, at intermission a venerable and not so easily impressed piano professor claimed that one will never hear the piano part played better than we had just heard.
For all the intelligence, technical polish, and sensible tempos that Sam Hong brought to Rachmaninov’s Second Concerto, he lacked scintillation, and his sound never really cut through the orchestra in loud moments. Yet I also suspect that Hong’s heart is not really into this music; he’s essentially a classicist of the Murray Perahia and András Schiff persuasion, judging from some exemplary Beethoven I’ve heard from him in the past.
Before launching in to Rachmaninov’s Paganini Rhapsody, Steven Lin adjusted the piano bench and sat silently for what seemed to be a longer minute than 60 seconds. For all of his capabilities and extreme preparedness for the task at hand, he seemed impervious to his surroundings, never truly playing off of the music’s concertante, chamber-like character. Musically he fared best in unaccompanied sections.
By contrast, Alex Beyer’s painstakingly-worked-out conception of the Prokofiev Third Concerto’s solo part never failed to mesh instantly with whatever went on in the orchestra. Even in the busiest writing, Beyer always delineated foreground and background, connecting all of the right melodic dots, while assiduously navigating the composer’s tricky tempo changes, abetted by Schwarz’s superbly dovetailed and detailed orchestral framework. For me, this Prokofiev Third proved the most successfully integrated and fully realized concerto collaboration in the course of the two nights. However, the audacious edge of Drew Peterson’s “Prok Two” may have tipped the scales toward his emerging as the competition’s winner.