Cliburn winner offers mixed rewards at Kravis Center

By Lawrence Budmen

Haochen Zhang

Haochen Zhang performed Monday night at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach.

Haochen Zhang was the top prize winner of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2009. At age 18, he was the youngest recipient of that prestigious award. Previously he had been a student of Gary Graffman at the Curtis Institute.

On Monday night  Zhang concluded the season of the Regional Arts Concert Series at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach with a recital that demonstrated his prize-winning technical aplomb but yielded mixed musical rewards.

The music of Chopin does not appear to be Zhang’s métier. He has a lovely touch and his tone can glow at soft volume. Still, his slow tempos and matter-of-fact phrasing in four mazurkas robbed the music of momentum and romantic ardor. Conversely, he charged through the Mazurka No. 38 in F-sharp minor at such a clip that some passages were blurred. Missing the pathos beyond the dance rhythms, his tone became hard and edgy.

Despite firm technical control, the opening movement of Chopin’s Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor was not well coordinated. The opening theme was frenzied while the second subject was taken so slow as to be affected. Although the middle section was exquisitely shaped, the Scherzo mainly played to Zhang’s tendency to adopt extremes of speed and volume. The famous funeral march emerged rather chilly and superficial while the “wind over the graves” Presto rumbled impressively at a fierce clip, capping a wildly uneven performance.

Schubert seemed a better fit for Zhang’s talents. Except for an overly percussive rendering of the Impromptu No. 2 in A-flat Major, Zhang’s reading of Four Impromptus finely balanced deep gravitas and dance-like verve. The famous Impromptu No. 3 in B-flat Major flowed in one long paragraph with the variations deftly articulated. There was a nice mix of heft and sensitivity in the initial F minor Impromptu and Zhang maintained a crisp, incisive pulse in the final vignette.

Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 7 in B-flat Major proved the pianist’s best offering. In the second of Prokofiev’s three wartime sonatas, Zhang demonstrated the kind of top-notch execution that wows competition audiences and juries. He assayed the mechanistic rhythms of the opening Allegro inquisito with pinpoint accuracy and brought nicely shaded color to the more lyrical moments.

Zhang captured the balletic spirit of the Andante coloroso in sonorous, rhapsodic fashion. He kept an unrelenting pace in the unhinged finale, pounding fistfuls of notes while maintaining the thematic threads. Zhang drew every ounce of power and brutal force from Prokofiev’s volcanic eruption.

Arcadi Volodos’ jazzed-up arrangement of the Turkish Rondo from Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 11 was an entertaining encore, played with fleet dexterity.

The 2016-2017 season of the Regional Arts Concert Series at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach opens December 3 with the Mozarteum Orchestra of Salzburg conducted by Matthew Halis with horn soloist Radovan Viatkovic.

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Tue Apr 5, 2016
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