To paraphrase the Olympic motto (if I can do so without incurring the IOC's wrath), "faster, louder, more demanding" could have been the theme for this year's Gina Bachauer young artists competition.
The competition, which ended a week ago, was for pianists between the ages of 14 and 18, and they put on quite a show. Several times during the semifinal and final rounds, I had to remind myself that these were just teenagers playing Liszt, Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff with such aplomb.
When I was 14, I was still trying to figure out "Chopsticks." These kids can apparently play anything.
Paul Pollei, the founder and artistic director of the Bachauer Foundation, said 14- to 18-year-olds are an exciting age group to see and hear. And he's right. These young pianists bring a lot of energy and enthusiasm to their playing. They're thrilling to watch and amazing with their determination and spirit.
Time and again I was impressed by the technical skills and mastery of the piano these youngsters exhibited. Just when you thought no one could top the performance that you just had heard, another competitor came onstage and outdid the last one. It was edge-of-your-seat excitement in every sense.
The one drawback, however, to many of the performances by the 32 pianists in this year's competition, was that it was, in effect, all technique, without enough expression.
These young musicians can dazzle with brilliant displays of fiery pyrotechnics, but they don't yet have the range of emotions and expressions needed to turn the notes they play into music. Their performances, therefore, were often one-dimensional and superficial and consequently tedious.
There were some notable exceptions to this, of course. All six finalists displayed a remarkable balance between virtuosity and expressiveness, and each deserved to be in the final round. I've said this before, but the task of selecting six finalists from 32 wonderful performers and then ranking them at the end of the final round, must have been daunting for the eight-member jury, all of whom were former Bachauer gold medalists.
I think the judges did an admirable job in placing the final six, and the first-prize winner, Kyu-Yeon Kim from Korea, rightly deserved her gold medal. She had to beat out some strong competition to win, and she succeeded easily.
Kim, who is 15 — not 17, as was erroneously printed in the program — towered above most of the other pianists. She has a lot of power, and she put passion and fire into her performances. Kim balanced that with some fine-sculpted lyricism that gave her playing definition and depth, and which gave her a distinct edge over the other competitors.
Kim seemed to be at her best in robust, challenging pieces such as Bartok's Three Etudes, Op. 18, and Rachmaninoff's Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 36, both of which she played in the semifinal round. And at the same time, she showed remarkable maturity and intelligence in her interpretation of the first movement of Tchaikovsky's B flat minor concerto, which she performed in the finals. She never overplayed it; it was finely tuned and sensitive.
I received an e-mail a few days ago from a piano teacher in American Fork who's been following the Bachauer competition for the past 20 years, and she had what I thought were some illuminating remarks on Kim's overall performance. She noted that Kim played much the same way that Bachauer did — power tempered with lyricism — and that Bachauer probably would have awarded her first prize had she been present.
I never had the opportunity to see Bachauer perform in person, so these comments were especially enlightening for me.
One of the great accomplishments of the Bachauer young artists competition is that these teenage pianists have become positive role models and inspiration for their peers. And, heaven knows, today's kids need that more than ever.
These youthful performers have shown more clearly than words can express that teenagers today still can have lofty goals and dreams — and through hard work and perseverance, achieve them. That's an encouraging sign.