The nerves were palpable. From our seats, you could see the sweat on the brow of the pianists. We were close enough that we heard what the performers heard. And what we heard was amazing.
The stakes were high. The winner would walk away with $20,000 cash, one of the largest awards offered to pianists ages 13-18. The Cooper International Competition alternates annually between piano and violin. Thirty-one young pianists from six states and seven countries were battling it out at Oberlin Conservatory all week.
The three 2018 piano finalists, Kai-Min Chang (age 17) of Changhua County, Taiwan; Tony Yun (17) of Toronto, Canada; and Yunchan Lim (14) of Siheung-si, Gyeonggi-do, South Korea, had played their best through the stages of the Thomas and Evon Cooper International Competition taking place all week at Oberlin Conservatory, only to end up here, in Severance Hall, with the best orchestra in the world backing them up.
The similarities between competitors was striking. To deal with the sweat on the brow, each competitor had brought along a small cloth, either blue or black, which they used to dab their cheek, their fingertips, even the ivory keys of the Steinway.
Each competitor took a few extra moments to adjust the bench, to take a long, final breath, before nodding to The conductor their readiness.
But when the music began, the similarities faded away.
Veteran conductor Jahja Ling carefully cued and followed the pianists, The Cleveland Orchestra rising and falling with his every move.
First up, Kai-Min Chang, his face inscrutable as a secret agent, revealed his charisma in his fingertips. Flowing with Chopin’s Piano Concerto #1, he gained confidence throughout his performance, integrating his piano to blend with the Orchestra seamlessly. He came in second place and earned $10K and a full tuition scholarship to Oberlin Conservatory.
Following with Chopin’s Piano Concerto #2 was 14-year-old Yunchan Lim, offering even more confidence and a better balance with the Orchestra. No matter how mellow you like your Chopin, Lim’s articulate performance, offering substantial give-and-take with The Cleveland Orchestra, stimulated the space and invigorated Severance Hall with its energy. He earned $5K and a full scholarship to Oberlin as 3rd place winner.
After intermission, 17-year-old Tony Siqi Yun of Toronto, on his second visit to the Cooper Competition, strode on stage and took command of the keyboard. Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto #1 is a virtuosic showpiece, and Yun was not holding back.
The little girl who had been napping in her mother’s lap in front of us snapped to attention. Yun’s firm control of dynamics and flawless technique captivated the room. It’s safe to say no one took a breath during his scintillating cadenzas. His Andantino simplice proved that he’s not all flash as he reached down to the depths of his emotional well, bringing the Orchestra and the room with him. The fireworks in the Allegro con fuoco spelled lights out and game over. He took home 1st place, $20K, a full tuition scholarship to Oberlin Conservatory, and even more opportunities for career growth. Everyone in the place witnessed a huge door swinging wide open.
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Photos by Roger Mastroianni and Thomas Mulready