NPR logo Cliburn Competition Awards Two Gold Medals

Cliburn Competition Awards Two Gold Medals

2009 Cliburn Finalists

Hear the six Cliburn Competition finalists in performances from the semifinal rounds.

Evgeni Bozhanov (Bulgaria, age 24)

Beethoven: Sonata in E-flat, Op. 31, No. 1

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Mason Bates: White Lies for Lomax

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Yeol Eum Son (Korea, age 23)

Debussy: Preludes Book 1 (excerpts)

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Samuel Barber: Sonata for Piano, Op. 26

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Nobuyuki Tsujii (Japan, age 20)

Beethoven: Sonata in B-flat, Op. 106, "Hammerklavier"

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Mariangela Vacatello (Italy, age 27)

Scriabin: Nocturne for the Left Hand, Op. 9, No. 2

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Liszt: Sonata in B minor

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Di Wu (China, age 24)

Schumann: Davidsbundlertanze, op. 6

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Medtner: Fairy Tales, Op. 20

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Haochen Zhang (China, age 19)

Chopin: 24 Preludes, op. 28

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Mason Bates: White Lies for Lomax

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Final Round Competition

Chopin: Piano Concero No. 1

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Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 2

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James Conlon Conducts the Fort Worth Symphony

Gold Medal performances

Haochen Zhang and Nobuyuki Tsujii both won the gold medal at the 2009 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Hear their final round performances.

Haochen Zhang: Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 20

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Chopin: Piano Concero No. 1

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Van Cliburn stands with four of the six finalists in the 2009 Van Cliburn International Piano Compet

Nobuyuki Tsujii, 20 (left) from Japan and 19-year-old Haochen Zhang from China both took first prizes at the 2009 Van Clibnurn International Piano Competition in Fort Worthm, Texas. Van Cliburn Foundation hide caption

toggle caption Van Cliburn Foundation

Two pianists have been awarded gold medals at the 2009 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas. In a surprise ending to the 17-day contest, 19-year-old Haochen Zhang from China and 20-year-old Nobuyuki Tsujii from Japan shared the top prize. Yeol Eum Son, 23, from South Korea, won the second place silver medal. The third place crystal trophy was not awarded.

Tsujii, blind at birth, had been a clear audience favorite, and for critics covering the event, he had clearly moved well beyond the inevitable label “the blind competitor” after strong performances of Schumann’s Piano Quintet in the semi-finals and Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in the final round.

Hoachen Zhang, the youngest of the finalists, celebrated his 19th birthday in June 3. Cliburn video web hosts Jade Simmons and Buddy Bray, awed by Zhang’s performances, called his preliminary round Petrushka suite (Stravinsky) “perfect” and judged his final round performance of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2, as having “a special feeling that can’t be taught.”

Three runner up awards went to 27-year-old Mariangela Vacatello from Italy, 25-year-old Evgeni Bozhanov from Bulgaria, and Di Wu, 24, from China.

This was the second time that the competition ended in a tie for first place. In 2001, both Olga Kern and Stanislav Ioudenitch shared gold.

About the Cliburn Competition

Every four years, eager young pianists from around the world make the trek to Fort Worth, Texas, seeking fame at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition — arguably the highest-profile piano competition in the world.

This year's contest began with 157 pianists, auditioning from various points on the globe. By May 22nd, 30 were chosen and ready for preliminary rounds as the competition officially opened.

The path to the top is steep for the six finalists, chosen May 31st. Each pianist was required to play two concertos with the Fort Worth Symphony, plus a 50-minute solo recital of music they hadn't yet played in the competition. The performances ran through late in the afternoon on June 7; then, a jury huddles for a few minutes and returns with a verdict.

The finalists this year were the 24-year-old Bulgarian Evgeni Bozhanov; Yeol Eum Son, 23, from South Korea; the 20-year-old Nobuyuki Tsujii from Japan; Mariangela Vacatello, a 27-year-old from Italy; and two from China, 24-year-old Di Wu and 19 year-old Haochen Zhang. Hear their semifinal and final round performances on the left-hand side of this page.

Every Cliburn Competition has appealing contestants with unusual backstories, and this year is no exception. Tsujii happens to be blind, but at age 7, he took home the top prize at the All Japan Blind Students Music Competition. After hearing Tsujii play Beethoven's punishing Hammerklavier Sonata, Greg Allen, blogging for the classical radio program Performance Today, wrote, "Whether you respond positively to his artistic intention, the fact remains that this young man has phenomenal abilities that the rest of us can only dimly comprehend."

And then there's the youngest competitor, Haochen Zhang, who just turned 19 on June 3. He gave his debut recital at age 5, playing all of Bach's two-part inventions, plus sonatas by Haydn and Mozart. He's already performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and reportedly swings a mean ping-pong paddle in his spare time. After hearing Zhang play Schumann's Piano Quintet with the Takacs Quartet (a semifinal-round chamber music requirement), Allen wrote: "Here, the question was, how much chamber music experience could he have, being so young? Well, my guess would be, quite enough to put across a sharply defined, freshly conceived interpretation that made the quartet come alive and play with more precision than they usually do."

As for Bozhanov, Vacatello, Son and Wu, they all appear to be extremely well schooled, with a variety of awards and competition prizes to their credit.

Competition Blues

For as glorified as the Cliburn appears, it's still a piano competition, and for some musicians and critics, that in itself is a dirty word. Skeptics routinely point to an array of past competition winners whose careers have flopped or faded prematurely, after being hailed as the next great thing. And there's a steady stream of complaints about timid jurists who reward only the "safe" performers, while the individualists eventually get weeded out.

Still, winning the Cliburn — or even placing second or third –- can launch a healthy, if not lasting career. Past gold medalists, from Radu Lupu in 1966 to Jon Nakamatsu in 1997 and Olga Kern in 2001, have carved out secure places for themselves in the piano pantheon.

This year's gold, silver and crystal award winners will each win $20,000 in prize money, plus three seasons of concert management, touring opportunities and the chance to record a CD. The jury also awards the best performance of a new work and the best chamber music performance.

New to the competition this year are some welcome technological advances, which help bring the music and the competitors up close and personal. For the first time, the Cliburn Foundation (which sponsors the event) is providing live webcasts of the entire competition at cliburn.tv, including all performances, plus backstage interviews with the musicians.

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