Anna Geniushene, Yunchan Lim, Dmytro Choni
Silver medal-winner Anna Geniushene, 31, of Russia; gold medal-winner Yunchan Lim, 18, of South Korea; and bronze medal-winner Dmytro Choni, 28, of Ukraine | Credit: Ben Torres/Van Cliburn International Piano Competition

Some 9 million people from 170 countries watched the brilliant and free video streams of the 16th quadrennial Van Cliburn Piano Competition in Fort Worth, TX, which concluded on Saturday.

As it has been since 2001, the entire competition (June 2–18) was streamed live online. The Cliburn has become the first music competition in the world to broadcast in 4K, with a higher level of quality of sound and picture, and it provides an immersive program around the performances that gives viewers behind-the-scenes access, commentary, and even the ability to vote for favorites.

The winner: Yunchan Lim, an 18-year-old Korean well beyond “preternaturally talented.” Lim, to me, won early with an amazing performance of the devilishly hard Liszt 12 Transcendental Études, which he played with ease and elegance, the like of which few pianists of any age or prominence can achieve, from the stormy “Preludio” to the closing “Chasse-neige” (impetuous wind which raises whirls of snow).

Yunchan Lim performs
Yunchan Lim performs in the final round | Courtesy of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition

Then in concertos by Mozart, Beethoven, and Rachmaninoff, Lim maintained superior technical performances and affecting musicality.

Through more than two weeks of fierce but cordial competition, Lim and 71 contestants, selected from 388 applicants, reached the preliminary round of 30 pianists, reduced to 18 in the quarterfinal round, then 12 for the semifinals and a Mozart concerto, with the Fort Worth Symphony, conducted by Nicholas McGegan. Last week, six finalists played concertos, conducted by Marin Alsop, who also headed the jury.

Besides the $100,000 first-place award, complimentary career management, and international concert tours, Lim also won $5,000 for Best Performance of a New Work (Stephen Hough’s commissioned Fanfare Toccata) and the $2,500 Audience Award, determined by the majority of 13,400 votes from 84 countries.

The silver medalist is Anna Geniushene, 31, from Russia, receiving $50,000, career management, and U.S. concert tours. Dmytro Choni, 28, from Ukraine, won the bronze medal, $25,000, career management, and U.S. tours.

The remaining three finalists — Uladzislau Khandohi, 20, from Belarus; Ilya Shmukler, 27, from Russia; Clayton Stephenson, 23, from the U.S. — received $10,000 each. The $5,000 Award for the Best Performance of a Mozart Concerto went to Shmukler as well.

Additional awards were the $4,000 Jury Chairman Discretionary Award to Marcel Tadokoro, 28, France/Japan; and other discretionary awards of $4,000 to Andrew Li, 28, U.S., and Changyong Shin, 28, South Korea.

Semifinalists received cash awards of $5,000 each, quarterfinalists $2,500 each, and preliminary round competitors $1,000 each.

30 pianists
The 30 pianists who competed in the preliminary round | Courtesy of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition

The presence of two Russians (Geniushene and Shmukler), a Ukrainian (Choni), and a Belarusian (Khandohi) in the finals inevitably raises the issue of participation from Russia and Belarus, the two countries that have been attacking Ukraine for four months now, prompting many music organizations to exclude performers from Russia.

Only Geniushene, who left Russia for Lithuania with her husband and young son after the Feb. 24 invasion, was willing to speak about the war at a competition press conference. According to The Dallas Morning News, she said the move “was our clear statement ... our actions told more than words that I can speak right now.”

As part of the Cliburn’s solidarity with the Ukrainian people, Ukraine’s national anthem was performed at the awards ceremony by Kyiv-born 2013 Cliburn Gold Medalist Vadym Kholodenko.

Before the competition began, a clear statement came from the Cliburn administration:

Anna Geniushene after the final round
Anna Geniushene after the final round | Courtesy of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition

The invasion of Ukraine by Russia is reprehensible and heartbreaking. The Cliburn stands firmly against and condemns this tyranny. The Russian-born pianists who have applied for the Sixteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition are not officials of their government, nor is their participation in the Cliburn state-sponsored. Therefore, in the vision of our namesake and inspiration, Van Cliburn, and our mandate to support young artists — which is the very core of our mission — the Russian-born pianists will be allowed to audition for the Cliburn Competition.

The story of Van Cliburn and his Cold War victory at the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow inspired the world as a testament to the transcendence of art, even at the most tense of times between two superpowers. As he himself said: ‘Since we know that classical music is timeless and everlasting, it is precisely the eternal verities inherent in classical music that remain a spiritual beacon for people all over the world.’

Of the 72 pianists invited to take part in next week’s screening auditions for the 2022 Cliburn Competition, 15 are Russian born; eight of those currently reside in Moscow. These young, brilliant artists have worked their way through an intense and complicated situation to ensure they would be able to come to Fort Worth for their chance to compete on one of classical music’s biggest stages — for their chance to live their dreams.

They have spent the better part of their lives preparing for this opportunity. The stakes are high. One of our current applicants sent us this note this week: ‘I hope that the great positive impact Maestro Van Cliburn had on the course of the Cold War should be an excellent example for all the artists.’ And another: ‘I pray we give music a chance to be the ambassador of peace and love it has always been.’ We look forward to hearing each of our participants do just that.”

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