by Stephen Cera


L. to R.:  Tony Siqi Yun (1st Prize), Yunchan Lim (3rd Prize), Kai-Min Chang (2nd Prize)

photo:  Roger Mastroianni


OBERLIN, OHIO — My colleague, Joseph Horowitz, once termed international piano competitions “The Ivory Trade.”  Ivory trade or not, there was no sign of poaching last week at the Thomas & Evon Cooper International Competition for pianists age 13 to 18 … just a herd of Romantic war-horses in the concerto rounds.

The technical virtuosity of the competitors was astonishing.  For these players the most formidable digital challenges held no terrors.

Of the ten pianists who survived the semifinal round, no fewer than nine were Asian.  All happened to be male, which was perplexing given the quality of some female entrants (…notably Yerin Yang from Seoul.)

On July 20, the jury bestowed First Prize on Tony Siqi Yun, from Toronto.  He now studies in New York with Matti Raekallio at the Juilliard School.  In the final round, Tony delivered a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Concerto No. 1 with the Cleveland Orchestra (conducted by Jahja Ling) that sounded both meticulously planned and visceral, with every detail recreated freshly.  It was as if this beautiful “war-horse” were being injected with new life.

Tony, who is 17, has the rare capacity to hold a listener intent on each note.  While immersing himself in Tchaikovsky’s aching poetry, musical passion reigned supreme — but it was passion kept under disciplined control.

Sporting a mop of black hair atop a tall torso, he exudes energy.    Robert Shannon — Competition Director, Founder, and Jury Chair — noted that Tony became “an especially outstanding character onstage.”  His well-earned achievement entitled him to the top prize of $20,000 USD.

Second prize ($10,000) went to Kai-Min Chang of Taiwan, and third prize ($5,000) to 14-year-old Yunchan Lim of South Korea.

Music competitions inevitably generate questions as well as answers.  It was jarring not to see Ryan Zhu, 14, of Vancouver, advance into the Finals.  Yangrui Cai, 17, from Guangzhou, impressed with his coruscating brilliance.  Though it was almost heartbreaking to see these and other crestfallen competitors after they had been eliminated from contention, while they may not yet realize it, their careers are just beginning.

The Cooper Competition, founded in 2010, also offered a series of master classes with Competition jury members, including two Van Cliburn International gold medalists who no doubt harbor special insight into these marathons.

During the week at Oberlin (a most attractive college town,) I was moved by the communal immersion in the art of classical piano.  One didn’t have to endorse the “ivory trade” to be inspired by these teenage Olympians of the keyboard.