The Van Cliburn Competition - A View from the Inside
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From: Peter Langston <psl>
Date: Mon, 12 Jun 100 00:02:45 -0700
Subject: The Van Cliburn Competition - A View from the Inside
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From: Michael Hawley
The Cliburn amateur competition is one of the most interesting and inspiring
gatherings of any I know. It is impossible not to be smitten by the
remarkable array of wonderful people from around the world, all of whom
share the quaint passion for playing piano music. Just to be a part of it
is a joy, whether you listen or perform (and since most people won't play
for more than 12 minutes, everyone is a listener by definition most of the
time). And it is utterly captivating to see people who have such full
lives yet who somehow manage to snatch a little time to learn some music
-- and then go the extra step to struggle to bring it to life on stage,
each with their own personality, perspective, and unique affection.
Everyone's self esteem gets a lift in the process. Mom had a ball.
Talent levels and personalities range all over the map, from "Miss
America"-style contest playing (note: one performer, Lauren Green, actually
*was* a former runner-up to Miss America in her previous life, before
becoming a Fox anchorwoman, but she certainly did not play in that
pejorative way: her Rachmaninoff etude was ravishing. I loved her playing),
to weekend warriors, to super-polished conservatory stars who should and
could be professionals but who wound up in other careers to make a living.
That's a perfectly understandable fate in the so-called "business" of music.
Many are no less talented than professionals, but they play for the pure
love of it.
Behind the colorful performers is the music they choose to play. The piano
literature is wonderfully rich and diverse. It covers hundreds of years
of ingenious, expressive creations by people who weren't emotionally
different from us, and the repertoire chosen by the 75-odd performers was
fantastically varied. There are a few too many Chopin "harp" etudes, and
usually four or five Ravel "Ondine"'s (last year, the Chopin g minor ballade
was played 17 times, and at the final dinner party, one of the performers
raised his glass to toast the memory of that piece). But this year, most
of the music, like the performers, was intense and all over the map. What
a fantastic antidote to the kind of cookie-cutter commodity playing that
tends to dominate the classical music scene. Igor Stravinsky wasn't the
most quotable guy in the world, but I think it was he who said, the trouble
with music schools is that they only teach people to play music. What they
really need to do is help people to love it. Well, all the right kinds of
warmth and enthusiasm overflow at this event.
I was asked (somewhat embarrassingly) to say a word or two just after the
semifinal round and just prior to the announcement of the finalists. To
get out of that jam I dredged up a saying from a handy little list I keep
("things I wish I'd said"): the difference between science and art is that
science is a discipline you practice with passion, and art is a passion
you practice with discipline. (Brain surgeon Keith Black used this line
at the TED conference last February). The two aren't really very different
at all, though the way they are segregated and appreciated in our society
and in our lives can be problematic. There is a kind of harmony when they
coexist in balance. Personally, at least, my most creative phases have
always had a bit of music making snatched at odd times. I had stopped
playing for about four years and didn't quite realize how much was missing
from my life until I was prodded to attend this competition. Then I
mentioned a few points from my other list -- Franz Liszt, who got the
pianistic ball rolling in so many ways. One of his greatest contributions
was inventing the master class, and with it came the affectionate and
lifelong relationships he had with his many students. It was so nice to
be back in touch with some of my teachers (Ward Davenny at Yale, David
Deveau at MIT, Jon Quinn in New York) who have all been such dedicated,
dear friends. I noted that, when Liszt retired from his staggering career
as not just the world's most famous piano virtuoso but probably the most
famous celebrity on earth, having been everywhere, met everyone, he had
played his last concert in Kiev, and had just reached the ripe old age of
35. At which point he would have been old enough to qualify to enter the
Van Cliburn Amateur Competition. I wrapped up quickly by saying that it
was impossible to really regard this as a competition, because by any
measure it really is a celebration of some of the best feelings in life,
by people whose lives could not be more different, but who all come together
for wonderful musical reasons.
Now, you can't really plunge into a contest like this and expect to play
for more than 12 minutes. Statistically speaking, odds aren't very good
that you'll move beyond the first round. Judging tends to be peculiar,
and the audience award generally goes to the person who plays fastest and
loudest. So I was overjoyed simply to be able to play in the semifinals
at all and doubly so in the finals. As far as I'm concerned, sort of like
Woody Allen said, half the battle is just showing up, and even playing in
the first round is a winning experience. Making it into the semifinal
round is golden; and having the chance to play in the finals, to travel
through a sumptuous piece of music like Liszt's sonata, and really share
my feelings about it, on the best Steinway that is pampered by the top
Steinway technician, in a wonderful hall, and for a big, warm audience who
know the music and who hang on every note, is a true joy. I don't know
another experience that quite compares with moments like those. There's
nothing with this sort of creativity and soul in the computer business,
that's for sure. Ranking the contestants is sort of pointless, of course,
but having said that ...
OK. How did the finalists play? I'll give you my unvarnished rundown.
I had the mixed blessing of performing first, so I got to hear the other
five (that was the blessing). In the final round, each person has a half
an hour to play as they wish, so long as they do not repeat works from the
Me: I was very happy with the Liszt sonata. Modulo a few "uninvited guests"
(Liszt's pet phrase for wrong notes), I felt really good about the music.
It's a blockbuster and, like a lot of his music, difficult to tug up from
the level that borders on pianistic kitsch and into a zone where an intense
emotional adventure begins. I had run through it at MIT a week prior (not
a very good performance) but this time it seemed to work on many levels.
The mystery and richness of it came through, or so I felt. I think it did,
and it was fulfilling to have a chance to play it. I remember distinctly
being about 5 pages into it and thinking to myself "Damn! This is going
really well!" And at that instant I hit a real clam (doh! so there went
my no-hitter). That snapped my mind back where it should have been. It's
possible to overpractice, but anyone who knows me knows that is not exactly
one of my problems, especially during end of term at MIT, the season when
theses pile up like snowdrifts on my desk, all crying for overnight
attention. When it comes to putting off practicing, I never waste a moment
to jump at the chance to procrastinate. So my playing tends to be fresh.
I played my heart out.
Christopher Basso played Prokofiev's 8th sonata and did an absolutely
stunning job. It is a riveting piece and his performance was steely and
electrifying. Basso has degrees from the San Francisco conservatory,
Manhattan School of Music, and studies with a revered Russian demigoddess
(Svetlanova--sp?) in New York. He plays like a pro and has a captivating
stage presence. Here's hoping he'll get a promotion from his job at
Starbuck's. Piano is clearly the love and focus of his life, something
you can hear in every note. He has a beautiful touch (and it's
extraordinary how, in a note or two, one hears it) and a captivating
presence. His earlier performances included gorgeous renditions of Ravel
(Ondine), Debussy (L'Isle Joyeuse), Bach (B-flat partita, exquisitely
refined), and a Scarlatti sonata. It was faultless playing, all of it
intelligent and commanding, though I felt it a bit cool at times.
Amazingly, Chris followed me in every round of the competition. What are
the odds of that? By the finals it was starting to bug me to be his warm
Next was Debra Saylor, a blind voice instructor and church musician from
Iowa. She played a Chopin nocturne in f minor, the Ravel pavane, and the
Beethoven moonlight sonata. It was heartwarming, and impossible not to
root for her. But musically, the playing was oddly distorted, like
something out of the last century. She was not in the same pianistic league
as players like Bosso, but nonetheless, she played in her own way, simply
and from the heart. Her "Claire de Lune" in the first round was
spellbinding and the audience and jury supported her every step of the way.
This experience may be the highlight of her life. It is a great reflection
on this "competition" that her kind of story was brought forth by the judges
in every round.
Michael Moore, a court reporter, played Siloti's transcription of a Bach
g minor organ prelude, a sonata by Haydn (one of the last three, in C
major), and Liszt's paraphrase on waltzes from "Faust." His playing was
assured: the Bach flowed calmly and patiently and the Haydn was very
graceful. I did not care for the Faust performance -- that piece is
outstanding party music, and absolutely over the top, but his playing seemed
dispassionate and a bit bankerly, not in the right spirit for me. His
semifinal round curiously consisted of Gottschalk's "The Last Hope" (Opus
16!) and Griffes' sonata (a pretty thorny piece). I did not have a chance
to hear his first round (Copland's variations). I found it difficult to
be drawn into his final performance, somehow.
Steven Ryan, a computer consultant, gave a faultless performance: Bach E
major french suite, Liszt consolation in D-flat, Ravel Ondine, and some
Brahms intermezzi. I thought it was a somewhat disjointed program, but he
did not play a single wrong note and was absolutely faithful to every nuance
in the scores. It is hard for a juror to complain about perfect renderings.
On the other hand, I found his performance very calculated, especially in
the Bach which felt fussy to me, and somehow I got little sense of his own
personality or affection in the playing. That seemed odd, particularly
when one has such a magnificent command of the instrument and the music,
but perhaps it was his conscious choice to be a faithful, transparent
interpreter. His "Ondine" was the best of the event, with a wonderful
dynamic range, but I was most impressed with his Brahms, though it was
weird to hear it after Ravel. All in all it was perfectly professional.
No jury could fault that.
Charles Chien, a flight attendant, played "my" piece, the Liszt b minor
sonata. He unfortunately suffered from pretty bad glitches and memory
slips throughout. It was heartbreaking to hear such a great piece of music
fly apart at every seam, particularly since I had lavished attention on
every facet of the piece. But behind the glitches, it was difficult for
me to detect a deeper grasp of the piece. Hard not to sympathize with his
struggles. The audience gave him a standing O, which I hope helped lift
Prize-wise, Basso deserved top honors, and got them. He was superb. I
loved his playing. An acquaintance of mine, Michael Kimmelman, is the
chief art critic for the Times (Michael was a finalist last year, and we
have a teacher, Ward Davenny, in common), and he wondered how on earth
someone like Basso could remain unknown in New York. That sort of talent
is hard to hide, and it was exciting to hear it. Ryan was second, and
Saylor was given the third prize. I received the award for Creative
Programming (how's that for a double entendre?) The prizes are small ($2000
and a recital for the "winner"). That's appropriate. More than that and
we wouldn't be amateurs, would we? But personally I wouldn't mind seeing
Steinway give away a few pianos, and I would love to see awards that include
much wider public exposure and recognition. Recordings issued on a major
label, for instance, in celebration of great amateur performances.
Some folks had me pegged second or third, for whatever that's worth. But
looking at the rest of the field, I think one could pretty much draw straws.
It's like being at a dog show and choosing a dachsund versus a schnauzer
or a poodle. Which one is "best"? It is a silly question. Afterwards,
Richard Dyer (music critic for the Boston Globe) joked wryly to me that
there really should be a prize for best performance by a nonprofessional.
But by its nature, a competition with rankings per se tends to attract
people with very polished, very winning repertoire.
Sometimes players calculate to win. Last year, there were a group of three
Frenchmen in the finals who had all previously won major competitions, and
who all seemed to regard the preliminary rounds as an annoyance: they were
going for the gold. Not good karma. Breadth and diversity and the huge
range of amateur expressions are what make this so exciting and intriguing
and that kind of breadth is not in happy harmony with a gold/silver/bronze
ranking, especially not in playing of this caliber. Indeed, a few of the
jurors expressed to me that rankings should be eliminated. I understand
the Cliburn Foundation board is mulling seriously on that, maybe for their
professional competition, too.
A revealing footnote on the peculiarity of juried events like this. Last
year, I played a Bolcom rag and was booted out of the preliminaries for
programming such a thing. This year I played the same piece -- in fact,
I pushed it more -- and received the award for most creative program.
As far as I was concerned, the prize was to have been awarded more than 12
minutes of air time to play for such a warm audience. In fact, I got a
When I made it into the semifinal round, I remember feeling overjoyed to
be able to share some music that is very special to me and deserves to be
better known. Faure's last nocturne, in b minor is a masterpiece but very
rarely heard. And it was not heard at all by Faure himself: he was
profoundly deaf when he wrote it. If you took his requiem, pulled it
forward through his dark, late chamber music with its even more unique
harmonic moves, and tried to sum up a life in one piece, you would find
this one. It was his very last piano composition. Last year, one of the
semifinalists was Paul Doerrfeld, who played Faure's ballade (which I
adore). Paul and I spoke about the nocturne, and I sent him a copy of the
music. It was wonderful to have him in the hall for my performance of it,
and he could not have been more complimentary. Another fellow grabbed me
and hugged me (!), saying this was one of his favorite pieces, and my
playing had moved him beyond words. I'm not the hugging type, but gosh.
After two Bolcom rags (quite a contrast), I finished the round with a little
Art Tatum arrangement, which was definitely an offbeat choice. In its own
way, it's as much of a gem as the Faure. Horowitz, Rachmaninoff, Godowsky,
Gershwin, all of those sorts of folks used to go listen to Tatum in Harlem,
and they'd always leave stunned. Someone once asked Horowitz about a
particularly knotty passage (not sure what piece) and he replied "there
are only two people in the world who can play that: Art Tatum and me."
Tatum was much more modest, and I think he played better. But even though
he was clearly one of the greatest natural keyboard players and one of the
most daunting improvisers who ever lived, if you ever want to hear some of
Tatum's music played live, or even hear his name mentioned in a concert
setting -- don't hold your breath. It's a pity. The announcer, Steve
Cumming, gave me a wonderful introduction in the semifinal round,
characterizing my choices as "a little night music" (from the nocturne, to
a couple of ghost dances, to a nightclub jewel). I was very grateful that
he took the time to describe some of the rationale and specialness behind
my choices. After I finished, he shook my hand and said "Bless you for
the Tatum." The piece was "Sweet Lorraine." Creative programmer is a
perfectly fine handle for me.
Mary Farbood (a student at the Media Lab under Tod Machover, who has been
a duo-piano partner of mine) came along, and we played a special
mini-concert on two pianos one evening, as well as a few duets at a very
elegant soiree hosted by John Nakamitsu and Frederic Chiu (former Cliburn
gold medalists). She got to schmooze with everyone, finally met Van
Cliburn, and had a great time. As did all, including my Mom, my Aunt Gaye,
my friend Bob Hinman, Mort Meyerson, and many other friends. Everyone we
met there was incredibly bend-over-backwards nice. Maybe something in the
water. It was so nice to see Richard and Beth Rodzinski again, among so
many other friends old and new.
It is a shame this event is not more widely enjoyed. Amateurs make the
world a better place (as Mort mentioned). Perhaps next time around, two
years from now, the event will be more of a festival with awards, and with
a broader public reach (through internet, TV, etc) that lets many others
connect. And perhaps people in other fields will find ways of their own
to follow this joyful example.
© 2000 Peter Langston