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Blind Pianist And Teen Tie For Cliburn Gold

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By Bill Zeeble, KERA News

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Dallas, TX – A young, blind pianist from Japan and a newly-turned 19 year-old from China both claimed gold medals in the 13th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. A South Korean woman took the silver medal in the prestigious competition that ended Sunday night. KERA's Bill Zeeble has more on the competition, held every 4 years in Fort Worth.

It was a grueling 3 weeks of competitive music making many likened to both a marathon, and a festival. It ended in lasting applause after winners were named. The announcement held great tension, especially because - for the 2nd time this decade, judges broke from the expected routine. 23 year old South Korean Yeol Eum Son was named the 2nd place silver medalist. Then Haochen Zhang, who turned 19 last Wednesday, was named the gold winner. A few seconds later, 20 year old Nobuyuki Tsujii was named co-gold medalist. Veda Kaplinsky, one of the judges, praised the Japanese pianist.

Yoheved Kaplinsky, Cliburn Competition Judge: He did not win because he's blind. He won based on his playing. We were instructed to judge him exactly the way we judge everyone else. He himself requested he be judged the way everybody else did.

Kaplinsky said she and others were impressed by anyone who could sit down and play the Chopin etudes the way he did.

Kaplinsky called the other gold medalist, Haochen Zhang, a pure, honest pianist who's all about the music.

Kaplinsky: Everything flows naturally, good taste, amazing facility and the ability at the age of 19 to withstand the grueling aspects of this competition and to play his best at the very end.

Zhang's last piece was Prokofiev's challenging 2nd concerto.

Zhang says this competition was so tough that little from here on out will seem tougher. He's looking forward to returning to a normal life, but he knows it will not be the same, because of this award.

Haoachen Zhang: Even though I'll get a lot of attention, I hope I can be myself. And hope 317 this would not do anything to change me negatively. I want to have a good attitude to music. Be always humble before music, before the great masters.

Zhang says only if you are humble can you improve yourself and continue to learn. Tsujii and Son made similar comments. All are looking forward to the next 3 years of concerts, the biggest part of their prize. But many critics, some of whom didn't want to be named, aren't so eager to hear these winners. Gil French, concert editor for the American Record Guide, disagreed with the judges. He says they picked the "safe" players who were note perfect but lacked that special something.

Gil French: Something that sweeps me away, that changes my pulse and by breathing, hits my heart, and when it's over I realize I can't talk, causae I'm choked up.

French says Zhang did that for him, but only once. That's one critics assessment. The public can decide on their own. The gold medalists will play a concert in Germany later this month, and go on to Aspen, Colorado, Poland and Beijing as they begin their 3 year long series of performances.

Email Bill Zeeble