Beginning with the summer of 2010, Oberlin Conservatory of Music has joined with the Cleveland Orchestra to present the finals round of the annual Thomas and Evon Cooper International Competition, the preliminary rounds being held at Oberlin. This is a very important and prestigious competition for young musicians who have achieved incredible success with their chosen instrument while still in their teens. The competition alternates yearly between violin and piano, and this year it was piano.
There are four rounds in the competition, the first three of which whittled down the entrants from 24 (ages 13 to 18) to the final 3. These are not watered-down performances, either. In fact, I’ve heard professional concerts that were not as well-performed as these three young men provided for us. It is an incredible experience to perform with one of the world’s greatest orchestras in the gorgeous home of that orchestra, Severance Hall, a home that is noted around the world for its superb acoustics as well as its awesome beauty. An additional bonus was the inclusion of this concert as part of the Cleveland Orchestra’s popular Summers@Severance series.
The Cleveland Orchestra treats each concert as it should, from a totally professional aspect, and with former staff conductor Jahja Ling on the podium, the performances were all anyone could wish to hear. Mr. Ling is a careful and terrific collaborator on the podium, alert to every note, pause or accelerando. Magnificent on every level. As sometimes happens, two of the young performers chose the same concerto: Rachmaninoff Concerto No. 2 in C minor. They were the opening and closing segments. Sandwiched in the middle was Beethoven’s Concerto No. 4 in G Major.
The first performer was Nathan Lee of Sammamish, Washington, with the first of the two Rachmaninoff concertos. There was a notable gasp from the audience as the diminutive young man of 14 years strode confidently onto the stage and bowed to one and all before seating himself at the piano. Throughout his performance, his attitude was totally poised as he provided a very emotional, nuanced reading of the concerto. There was one very brief moment towards the end of the first movement that was not quite together, but a masterful (mind-meld?) collaboration between Mr. Lee and Mr. Ling put everyone back together again.
The orchestra’s wind section was ineffably delicate in the chorale of the second movement, and the horn solo by Michael Mayhew was fabulous — not once, but twice, yet! Serious and well-deserved applause exploded from the audience even before the last notes had faded away.
Following a brief pause for a change of pianos, 17-year-old Evren Ozel of Minneapolis, Minnesota appeared for an emotional and lyrical performance of the Beethoven Concerto. There was no flash in this performance, but it was mature and definitely heartfelt. Again, it drew a loud and long ovation from the audience.
After intermission, 17 year-old Ryota Yamazaki took the stage for the second performance of the Rachmaninoff second concerto. It is always amazing (at least to me) how different each pianist is in his demeanor on stage, but also in how they approach the same concerto, giving it their own personal interpretation. In very subtle small ways, this performance was vastly different from that of Mr. Lee, even playing all the same notes. The only similarity between the three performances was the immediate ovation given by the audience, almost before all the notes had died, all three times. These were very polished young men, giving performances beyond their years.
After the orchestra left the stage, the adjudicators retired for their brief collaboration, and emerged very shortly (15 minutes?) with their decision. As happened in the 2014 competition, the prizes were awarded in reverse order to the performances.
Mr. Yamazaki, who performed last, was awarded the first prize of $20,000. Mr. Ozel the second of $10,000, while Mr. Lee earned third prize of $5000. In addition, each of them qualified for a full four-year scholarship at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. The 2016 Cooper Competition field featured performers hailing from eight countries and 14 U.S. states as well as the District of Columbia.
[Written by Kelly Ferjutz]