19-year-old captures top prize at National Chopin Competition

March 01, 2010
By David Fleshler
Claire Huangci

Claire Huangci

The competition was grueling, certainly for the audience, which heard five performances of Chopin’s Piano Concerto in E Minor over the course of two days.

In the end, the jury of the Eighth National Chopin Piano Competition on Sunday awarded first prize to Claire Huangci, 19, of Lansdale, Pa., a graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music and student at the Hannover Hochschule Für Musik in Germany. The prize carries with it $20,000, a concert tour of more than 20 cities in the U.S. and abroad and automatic admission to the highly prestigious International Frédéric Chopin Competition in Warsaw.

“She had tremendous rounds through the whole competition,” said Agustin Anievas, the New York concert pianist who served as chair of the competition jury, in an interview, as the competitors, organizers and VIPs enjoyed a buffet after the competition. “Everything she did was so polished, so beautifully done. It was a unanimous decision.”

Huangci was chosen over five other finalists who performed the Chopin concerto of their choice Saturday and Sunday at the Miami-Dade County Auditorium with the Frost Symphony Orchestra, the University of Miami’s student orchestra. The award announcement was timed to coincide roughly with the arrival of midnight in Warsaw, bringing the 200th anniversary of the composer’s birth on March 1, 1810.

One by one the competitors seated themselves before the piano, facing the red-and-white flag of Poland and a bust of Chopin. All played well, with none lacking a feeling for Chopin’s music. There were no sloppy performers or icy technicians in this group, winnowed from 19 in the preliminary rounds.

Styles varied widely. Eric Zuber, of Durham, NC, who tied for third, chose thundering virtuosity, with a rapid, aggressive performance of the E Minor concerto. Naomi Kudo, who won second prize and the prize for best concerto performance, gave a dramatic, sweeping account of the E Minor concerto, while still taking the time to luxuriate in Chopin’s melodies.

Huangci’s performance stood out on all counts. She brought a special gift for Chopin’s long romantic lines of melody, particularly in the first movement, with a natural rubato that brought a vocal element to the music without allowing it to lose shape. She brought out the drama of the work, with powerful, grandiose arpeggios in the last movement. Her technique was fluent and easy, never giving the impression that the concerto caused her much difficulty or using technical fireworks as the focus of the drama.

“It was very polished,” Anievas said. “It was poetic. It was well conceived. She had enormous technique, yet she kept it in reserve and put it to the service of the music.”

The Frost Symphony Orchestra played without some of its customary precision, with intonation problems in the strings and wrong notes in the brass. But to its credit, under conductor Thomas Sleeper it followed the six pianists through some rubato-heavy playing, matching their styles well.

After the competition, Huangci stood holding a bouquet of flowers and posing for pictures. “I’m really, really happy,” she said. But she will have little time to relax. She planned to board an early flight to New York Monday, where she is playing an all-Chopin program in honor of his anniversary.

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