The Winners of the Ibla Grand Prize International Music Competition


Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, April 5, 2011


In an age when the music world is seemingly being overrun by American Idol-style performance and Disney-style music production, it must count as a small miracle that the Ibla Grand Prize International Music Competition has maintained such a high level of performance and faithfulness to the classic and timeless ideals of music.


The Competition is one of the world’s cultural treasures. Held each year in early Summer in the magnificent quarters of the beautiful Sicilian Baroque city of Ragusa-Ibla, this competition is a world-class showcase for musical talent of the highest order – and this year’s New York showcase, on April 5 at Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, again confirmed this fact.


The competition’s founder, Dr. Salvatore Moltisanti, himself one of the great pianists of our time, has created a place open to any and all forms of music. Over the years, this has included several types of jazz ensembles, a cimbalom virtuoso, accordion duos, a saxophone quartet, a creator of electronic music, an Armenian folk singer, a virtuoso whistler of opera arias and many others from outside the musical mainstream, as well as classical instrumental and vocal performers of standard and contemporary repertoire. He does this in an atmosphere of international respect, where the competition is not really against other musicians, but against the highest possible professional standard.


This year’s Carnegie concert opened with the Italian piano duo of Sabrina De Carlo and Michela Chiara Borghese. They presented music of Samuel Barber with great style and very nice use of dynamics. The Hesitation Tango was lovely and sensual, with a delicate ending. The Galop was also quite fine – motoric and driven. They played with a rich, full sound and admirable teamwork throughout their presentation.


Next up was violinist Sarkis Nazarov and pianist Alexander Panfilov, both from Russia. Sarkis is a good, young fiddler. He had occasional intonation issues in the Glazunov, but this was balanced by his nice sense of line and form. The performance was greatly enhanced by the fine, sensitive accompaniment of Mr. Panfilov.


Then came Venezuela’s Anna Karina Alamo D’Allesandro with Kreisleriana. This beautiful young lady in a blue dress presented solid, strong Schumann, with a real sense of shape, direction and purpose. She is a strong player with a big sound. I always count someone exceptional who can successfully sell me Schumann – and this fine young artist did so easily.


Following this was the Swiss cellist Christoph Croise. This good looking 17-year old presented two very showy, not very interesting, “look-at-me” pieces by D. Popper, one faster than the other.

The Hungarian Rhapsodie op. 68 and the Dance of the Elves op.39. However, he made them work.

He has a fairly light touch and sound, but has real skill, is musical and projects a thoroughly engaging personality. He looks like he’s having fun. I remember his performances at the competition last summer, and am convinced that there is a very fine musician here, who, with better repertoire, could develop into a very fine artist. Good support from accompanist Alexander Panfilov.


This was followed by the Zuzana Simurdova from the Czech Republic. She was the winner of the Competition’s 2010 Chopin prize. She has an interesting take on the Polish master – a more considered approach in which she lets the music breathe and resonate. This is not Chopin in a hurry and Zuzana is a musician following her won path, which I generally consider a good thing. She showed a fine sense of dynamics and a strong and flexible approach to the keyboard. Good work in this Ballade in Sol minor.


Uruguayan soprano Luz de Alba has a big voice and sound. Her Verdi selection was well done, with easy voice production that could use a bit more consideration for dynamics. She is a good actress who seems to understand her material and projects a good physicality and sense of movement that enhanced her performance.


Next was Poland’s Maciej Granat performing new Polish piano music, A. Malawski’s Mountaineers' Triptych. New music is frequently risky, but Mr. Granat presented a fine

performance of this work, with strong, dynamic, rhythmic playing. He shaped the music well and maintained good control of this difficult score. I’m convinced that more young

musicians should present music like this, as it is good for their overall musicianship and expands their performance and career possibilities. I was glad to see this young man use

this music to such good effect.


Then came the extraordinary Maria Manikko, a beautiful Finnish woman who is lovely to hear as well as to see. She has lots of flair and style, with a lovely touch and clarity to her playing - fine dynamics, great lyricism and very fine artistry in her Granados Allegro de Concierto presentation. I believe that as her playing deepens and matures even more, she will have a great future in the music world.


Next up was accordion virtuoso Rafal Luc, another Polish musician performing contemporary music, G. Hermosa’s Fragilissimo. He used lots of extended techniques that he seems to have mastered. This piece was a good choice for showcasing his remarkable command of the instrument and his first-rate musicianship.


Taiwan’s Ivan Lin followed with a Liszt Totentanz. He is a good player who takes some liberties with the Hungarian master. To his credit, he makes most of them work with strong technique and good fingerwork, however, I would wish for more clarity of texture from him. He has rather an intense stage presence, which would seem to make Liszt the correct repertoire for his temperament.


American composer/pianist David Cieri was next with Variations on the Italian National Anthem. He is a good pianist who goes his own way and doesn’t always take the audience with him. This is the price that sometimes comes with performing your own improvisational music, even if the core idea is from an existing source. He even threw in a reference to John Lennon’s Imagine. In general, I found his presentation a little heavy-handed. David has something to say, but it didn’t quite reach me this evening. However, others seemed to like it just fine and he got a terrific reaction from the audience.


This was followed by Japanese pianist Umi Garrett. She had performed the Japanese National Anthem earlier in the program as prelude to a tribute to Japan and its people by Ibla Founding Chairwoman Lady Dewi Sukarno. Umi is a cute little lady who began by knocking off a fast bit of Liszt. She is a gifted child with maturity well beyond her years. She knows how the music should sound (many players miss this important element) and enjoys playing it. She also presented Bach, again with a high octane motor attached, with youthful exuberance and a high level of skill and understanding.


To cap the evening, Russian pianist Alexander Panfilov performed Prokofiev writ large. He has technique and musical understanding of someone much, much older and farther along life’s musical path. He also has the strength of imagination and stage presence to make for a powerful, dynamic and always fascinating performance. Having seen him perform several times now, I am convinced that Alexander has the potential for a major performing career. He’s that good.


Finally, to end things, American whistler extraordinaire Michael Barrimo and the wonderful American jazz pianist Alan Storeygard, accompanied by bassist Brian Wolverton and percussionist Dave Rogers presented two takes on the American National Anthem. Barrimo and Storeygard are old friends of the Ibla Grand Prize, and, like the competition, they are remarkable for the continued freshness of their presentations, always finding some new nuance or idea to keep the audience engaged. They are, for me, symbols of the wonderful variety and very, very high quality of people and music that have been part of Ibla for these many years. A great way to end a great event.


As usual, Dr. Moltisanti and The Ibla Grand Prize organization can take much pride in its accomplishment, as seen in this wonderful concert. This was, as it has been for many years, a showcase for this competition where the talents of superbly gifted people from around the globe can be brought to the capital of the world, New York City, for all to see and enjoy.


Jeffrey James

Editor, International Composer