Concert Pianists for a Weekend: The Van Cliburn Amateurs
[This article first appeared on June 16, 1999, when the author posted it to several of the Usenet newsgroups relating to classical music. It is reproduced here in its entirety with the author's kind permission - AC]
The First Van Cliburn International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs ended late Sunday evening, June 13, 1999, much to the regret of its participants.
Disappointment that it was over? Aren't competitions supposed to be vicious, highly-politicized events full of sound, fury and forgettably perfect performances? All too often, yes. But this competition had a completely different feel from any I've played in or heard about. All of us who competed wanted to play miraculously and walk off with one of the prizes, but that's where the similarity with standard music contests ended.
This event had the feel of 92 talented amateur pianists getting together in an exceptionally large living room to play for each other. Every once in a while, we'd go outside and chat for awhile, or sit down to dinner to discuss our passion for music and other, less important, subjects. I've never felt such a lack of "competition" in the usual sense of the word: yes, we knew we'd be narrowed down to successively smaller groups of active performers, and someone would eventually win, but I sensed none of the edgy terror that usually accompanies such rituals. Instead, there was palpable enthusiasm, excitement, and sheer happiness at being included in a large group of people with similarly intense feelings about piano playing, despite our chosen careers in fields other than music.
Round - 92 Pianists
Kay and I were sorry to hear each other's similar bad news: both Charisse and my mother had come down with serious illnesses and neither would be able to hear our performances in person. Kay, in fact, had already performed on Wednesday (I did not hear her, unfortunately, and was not planning to listen to any other contestants before I played). Though she modestly disclaimed possession of a virtuoso technique and had no serious expectation of reaching the semifinals, her performance was warmly received - including a "Bravo," a rarity in the prelims.
My father arrived on Friday from Atlanta, along with my Aunt Marty and Uncle Jack from Abilene. Having a familial support group for this sort of adventure is particularly helpful; there's at least somebody out there rooting for you. By the time my cheering section had arrived, I was already worried about the performance piano: it was a Steinway D with beautiful tone but a slightly uneven action in the mid-range. I was scared that Ravel's Ondine was going to fall apart on the first page and asked the technician to look at one note in particular.
Zero hour arrived. I waited patiently in the hallway I'd seen on all those Cliburn Competition documentaries on PBS. The guy before me was a Frenchman named Joel Holoubek. He was playing Liszt's Funerailles.
Seemed like a strange choice as the sole work on a 10-minute program; could he really show what he had with such a piece? The answer was an unequivocal yes, as virtually everyone in the auditorium was convinced they had just heard the winner of the contest when he finished. Luckily, I didn't know that: Holoubek walked out looking completely unflustered and I walked in.
Steve Cumming, announcer for the competition, said "hello" and asked if I liked bagpipe humor. I said it was fine and Steve introduced me as follows:
"Our next performer is Carl Tait from New York City. Dr. Tait began playing the bagpipes at age 8. At 13, he started studying music."
When Steve finished his intro (and I finished laughing), I walked onto the stage, slightly nervous but cautiously optimistic. After the requisite bench adjustments (Holoubek is very tall), I launched into the first movement of Ginastera's Sonata No. 1. The first half-dozen bars are full of risky leaps that had received much practice and concomitant swearing over the past few weeks; happily, they went just fine in the performance. I relaxed and started to enjoy myself. The audience was quiet and attentive; Ginastera was jumping and singing; I felt more like a conductor than a pianist, making expressive gestures and reveling in the resulting sounds.
In four minutes, it was over. Due to the short program length, the audience wasn't really supposed to clap in between pieces, and I certainly wasn't supposed to grin if they did, but they did and I did.
Then came the rigors of Ondine, which are only hinted at by a glance at the imposing score. (To borrow a memorable phrase from Mike Hawley, "It looks like a coal miner sneezed on some music paper.") I started the piece with considerable worry, but immediately found that the piano technician had indeed worked on the action: the difficult accompaniment figure flowed with relative ease.
Oddly, I remember very little of the performance. I was so lost in hearing and projecting Ravel's glorious sounds that the piece flew by almost unconsciously. I remember missing one of those tricky bass gracenotes and getting a bit dirty at the climax (where even Argerich has been known to drop a few notes!). Other than that, I was riding the Ravelian wave and suddenly found myself on the final chord. It was over. I was sorry. There was thunderous applause and even a bravo. I left the stage in a euphoric daze.
(In fairness, the above paragraph was preceded by a rave for Holoubek, who the reviewer correctly pegged as the likely winner of the contest.)
A surrealistic montage followed.
Kay and Charisse Castagnoli were the first to reach me in the hallway. "Ondine was exquisite!" Charisse? Aren't you sick? Yes, she had been, but she'd made it to Fort Worth in time for the last day of the prelims.
My father, aunt, and uncle were next. I could tell by my dad's grin that it had gone well; he's not a musician, but I trust his ears. Hugs, happiness, laughter. Don't remember the words; don't care. Sorry that my mom wasn't there as well.
Next were two young teenage girls. "Excuse me," one began shyly, "we just had to tell you ... that was really awesome." I smiled and thanked them. Now if only they were a bit older.... (Stop that, you filthy mind.)
Then came a sea of total strangers. "Wonderful!" "Loved it!" "Beautiful!" "I'm sure we'll see you in the next round!"
Then an unknown face with a familiar name: "Hi, I'm Dick Norton, and that was definitely the best performance of the day."
"Why does your name sound familiar?" I mused, staring into midair.
Dick looked surprised. "Uh ... e-mail? Remember?"
Of course. Dick and I had had some interesting talks about piano teachers and the amateur Cliburn, and he'd said he planned to be in Fort Worth for the competition. Somehow he didn't look quite like I'd pictured; in my semi-rational state, I was unable to tie an old name to a new face. Sorry, Dick! (Was that really Charisse or was I just hallucinating? Okay, she's really there. Maybe she'll change her name to Dick Norton to save one memory slot in my overtaxed brain. No, wait a minute, that wouldn't work; you'd just need to resolve the collision in the hash table. Hash table? Why am I thinking about computers? Stop free-associating; it makes you sound deranged.)
By this point, the evening break had arrived, and it was time for a competitor/jury Mexican dinner at Joe T. Garcia's, a Fort Worth institution. After tasty food and good conversation (one of my tablemates was a competitor who lives less than a mile from me in Manhattan), we returned to hallowed Ed Landreth Auditorium for the final session of the preliminary round.
Happily, the standout of the evening session was Mike Hawley, who played an imaginative program of the Bach/Liszt G minor Fantasy (from BWV 542) and William Bolcom's "Graceful Ghost" Rag. There seemed little doubt that he would make the semifinals; my only worry was that the witty sophistication (and decidedly American bent) of the Bolcom might not appeal to all the jurors. Among the other contestants, it was gratifying to see some real musicianship, even if it was occasionally marred by technical problems and nervousness. Plenty of amateurs simply don't have many opportunities to play for knowledgeable listeners; sheer terror at playing for a large audience was responsible for many mishaps in the preliminaries.
The only other evening competitor with a slight chance at the semis was Alexandre Bodak, a French physician who gave a competent but unremarkable performance of Chopin's B-flat minor Scherzo. Given the generally high level of playing, however, it seemed unlikely that he would survive the first cut.
The jury retired to deliberate -- a process made much faster this year through the use of computer-based scoring (apparently with some room left for arguing after seeing the computer's ranking). While the jury pondered its verdict, Van Cliburn himself came out and made a heartfelt speech. Whatever difficulties he may have had in his own career, Cliburn truly understands the musician's sensibilities - both the passions and the frustrations - and he was warmly applauded. Every competitor then had a chance to meet Cliburn, who is a kind and gracious man. More than 40 years after his famous victory in Moscow, he still has that gentle but immediately compelling personality. I told him what an inspiration his sizzling Rachmaninoff Second Sonata had been in my early years of piano study ("If you could do that live, maybe I could at least try to be a performer!"); he seemed, and, I believe, was, pleased to hear it - even though he's surely heard similar comments a million times.
In less than an hour, the jury was ready. "But before we announce the results" (moan of despair from audience) "we'll hear a speech by one of your fellow competitors, Marcus Raskin." So Mr. Raskin gave his speech, which (from the little I was able to follow) might have been fascinating under other circumstances. The timing was rotten, however; this was the only serious miscalculation in the organization of the contest.
The speech finally ended, and John Giordano stepped up to the podium to read the long-awaited list of 18 semifinalists. Name after name went by; finally, at number 17, came "Carl Tait." I was ecstatic. (It turned out that the semifinalists were announced in the order they had played, so I was going to be near the end if I was on the list.) It wasn't until some time later that one disappointment penetrated my brain: the dubious Alexandre Bodak had made it, but Mike Hawley had not. A large cut from 92 to 18 performers was bound to omit some talented pianists, but selecting Mr. Questionable over Mr. Certain wasn't good. Note to self: commiserate with Mike tomorrow and apologize for being too self-absorbed to notice his omission during the announcement.
The semifinalists went backstage for photographs, after which we chose from a handful of sealed envelopes to determine our playing order for the next day. Hoping for a late slot, I instead drew No. 2. At least that meant 2:24 PM instead of 9:24 AM...
After returning to the hotel, I made several phone calls (my father had already called my mother in Atlanta). One was to my sister in California; a second was to Jeremy Cook's answering machine so he could forward the happy announcement to the Internet crowd. Another was to my piano teacher, Phillip Kawin at the Manhattan School of Music, who had said to call him at any hour if the news was good. I had only been studying with Phillip for a couple of weeks before the contest, but he had given me so much good advice - especially on the use of my outer fingers - that it's quite unlikely I would have made the semis without his assistance. Phillip was very pleased with the news, and even called back a few minutes later to offer some last-minute advice on the coda of Chopin's F minor Ballade.
Finally, I went to sleep. More precisely, I laid down and closed my eyes. Sleep eventually penetrated the clouds of excitement.
Round - 18 Pianists
"What's the matter? Audiences generally get quiet and listen when you have their interest. Am I doing something grotesquely wrong?" I listened even more carefully, but could hear nothing execrable - except an alarming thinning of tone as my worries made their way into my arms. I plowed on, forcing my way through an uncharacteristic (but mercifully small) memory lapse in the left hand.
After the Mozart, I paused and tried to regain control. The whispering had finally died down, but as soon as I started Chopin/Godowsky Op. 10/6, it returned. More loudly than before. "Look, Mabel!" I could imagine one woman saying. "He's playing this number with just one hand! Do you think he's ever gonna use the other one?" "I don't know, Wanda; it sure is a strange old world when somebody calls himself a piano player and won't even use both hands."
"Shut up, you gabby morons!" I wanted to scream, but didn't.
One can imagine how well the piece was going at this point.
And then a pager went off. Loudly. Persistently. As ushers raced over to gouge out the malefactor's eyes, I struggled to press down some sequence of keys that would approximate the piece I was supposed to be playing. I ended up cutting a bar or two and jumping into the safety of the coda.
Incredibly, the worst of the whisperers were still chattering away. After all, they had something even more exciting to talk about now that the pager had gone off. Unable to resist, I glared into the audience in the general direction of the offenders and put my finger to my lips. There was laughter and applause, which encouraged me a bit.
I sat still with my eyes closed for a long time, trying to regain composure and waiting for silence. When it came, I gingerly eased into the Chopin F minor Ballade: one of my favorite pieces and one I had hoped would be the centerpiece of my competition performances. It wasn't. What emerged instead was a deeply sad, underpowered reading; not entirely without merit, but clearly unsatisfactory for advancement into the final round. I had withdrawn so deeply into myself that I'd managed to lock up both the large muscles of my pianistic mechanism and my ability to communicate in a voice louder than an unenthusiastic forte. The coda was barely coherent, though it had been roaring with brilliant ferocity an hour earlier in a practice room.
As soon as the performance was over, I could feel my rational mind fall back into place with an almost audible click. By the time I was offstage, I was able to laugh ruefully and say, "Now I don't have to practice any more and can just listen to everyone else!" Steve Cumming interviewed me for a show called "Open Air" that was broadcast on some NPR stations on Sunday. He has graciously agreed to send me a tape; here's one exchange I remember:
Steve: "What went through your mind when that beeping started?"
Carl: "I was thinking, `Hmm, will I be able to keep this piece from falling apart?' The answer, unfortunately, was no."
The biggest surprise was still ahead: many people stopped me throughout the day to say how much they had enjoyed my playing. At first I was incredulous, but they were clearly sincere. One of the ushers was particularly moved, telling my dad that the Ballade was some of the most musically sensitive playing she had heard in 30 years of ushering at Cliburn competitions. Among the pianists who offered their compliments (often along the lines of, "Well, of course there were some technical problems, but ..."), one singled out the great A major passage near the middle of the Ballade. At that point, a moment of exultation dissolves into a twilight version of the work's introductory bars: a muted memory tinged with ineffable sadness that hopeful expectations have not been met. Since the passage perfectly reflected my feelings at the time I was playing it, I hope I did it justice.
So what went wrong, aside from the garrulous audience and their equally vocal pagers? Fundamentally, I think I misjudged the audience, both in composition and in how I should relate to them. Audience members at the prelims of a piano competition are often quite serious about their listening: they wouldn't think of chatting with their neighbors and they listen with rapt attention when a player catches their interest. During a Saturday afternoon semifinal, however, the audience is likely to be full of people who flipped a coin to decide whether they should go bowling or "go hear a little of that big piano contest over at the university." Their chattiness may well have been a reflection of real enthusiasm, not boredom. And even if they were bored out of their minds, it's a pianist's job to be ready to play through their indignities, within reason.
My second error was trying to shut out the audience completely when they didn't live up to expectations. No performer can do that and hope to produce a full-bodied interpretation. It is essential to continue delivering your musical message in a way that convinces you, not some watered-down, please-go-away version.
Would it have made a difference if I could have had my cherished preliminary-round audience back for the semis? Honestly, I don't know. My warm-up had gone well and I wasn't expecting any problems, but I was still in a semi-euphoric state from the semifinalist announcement the previous night and had managed to sleep only four hours. So who knows? And even if I had played really well, would I have been chosen as a finalist? Again unanswerable. I think I probably would have made it, but that's optimistic speculation. All that any musician can do is increase the probability of success by practice, thinking, and psychological preparation; the rest is largely a crap shoot.
So I officially demoted myself to "Audience Member" and sat down to hear the rest of the semifinalists. For a piano competition, they were extraordinary: without exception, every performer had something interesting to say. Sure, there were some technical smudges, and I didn't always agree with the interpretations, but there wasn't a single player of the mindless, mechanical, ultra-boring school. I would cheerfully pay money to hear several of these pianists again.
Without going into excruciating detail, here are some highlights.
Luiz Benedini, Brazilian ambassador now living in Miami, established himself as the early leader with a fully professional performance. I was worried because he'd chosen two pianistically hefty, but musically lightweight, pieces by Liszt (Valse-Impromptu and Mephisto Waltz No. 1). It didn't matter: Benedini played with great style and sparkle, and was a shoo-in for the finals.
Paul Doerrfeld, office manager for a tool and die company in Illinois, gave a beautifully crystalline performance of a movement from Haydn's A-flat Sonata (XVI:46). This was followed by some remarkable playing from Henri-Robert Delbeau, a Long Island physician. Delbeau's great strength was his lyrical playing, with a wide variety of touch and prismatic colors. He conceived of the Chopin A-flat Ballade as essentially one long crescendo! An audacious idea, but it worked for me. Unfortunately, his playing was controversial: some listeners (including musicians with good ears) found his approaches too relaxed, taking too long to get underway. I still wanted him in the finals, but he didn't make it.
Kimmelman, the NY Times art critic, played with confidence and
musicianship - even while using the music (which is a much more
difficult feat than one might imagine). He was one of a dozen or so
competitors to play Chopin's G minor Ballade, a piece whose ubiquitous
nature became a running joke of the competition. Kimmelman handled the
Ballade well, delivering an especially fiery and accurate coda. He
sounded like a sure finalist, and he was.
The evening session began with French biologist Philippe Loilier. I found his playing hard to judge since the central work of his program was the abominable Liszt B minor Ballade, one of the great crimes against music. The piece sounds like a pastiche of Liszt's worst mannerisms; it's pompous and unending. Nonetheless, Loilier was pianistically secure as he tried to breathe some life into the Lisztian corpse, thus earning himself a place in the finals.
Later on came Joel Holoubek, a French numismatist. If it wasn't clear to everybody after his Funerailles in the prelims, it was blatantly obvious after his semifinal round: this guy was going to win. Everything. The only thing he might lose was the Audience Award, if some bozo resorted to unmusical grandstanding in the finals. Holoubek began with my treasured Ondine: an interpretation that was more purely sensual than seductive or malevolent; not quite as I see the piece, but immensely impressive. Holoubek then managed to top himself with an unbelievable reading of the finale from the Dutilleux Sonata. I had never imagined that the piece could be played so well - and in a live performance! Incredible color, textures, layers, technique; in short, everything. Holoubek was unbeatable unless he failed to show up for the finals.
Having been in the unenviable position of following Holoubek in the prelims, I wondered how the shaky Alexandre Bodak would do in the same situation in the semis. The surprising answer: quite well indeed. In fact, this was his strongest playing of the contest, and I began to understand why one or more jury members might have pushed for his inclusion in this round. Bodak began with a fine performance of the Wagner/Liszt Liebestod (replacing his scheduled Chopin G minor Ballade!) and filled out his program with an idiomatically-played assortment of Scriabin Etudes. He still wasn't near the top of my list, but Bodak clearly had a shot at the finals - and he made it.
By this point, the semifinals had run dreadfully overtime, which caused significant problems for the last two contestants. The saddest case was Don Shaw, an interior designer from Manhattan. Shaw had shown his chops in the first round with the big Chopin Etude Op. 10/4; in the semis, he took precisely the opposite approach from Benedini and played musically hefty pieces without a lot of obvious pianistic flash. Shaw's introspective reading of Brahms's Intermezzo Op. 118/2 was excellent; his Mozart Sonata K. 576 was absolutely exquisite and one of the highlights of the contest - until a disastrous memory slip in the last movement knocked him out of contention for the finals. A real shame.
The unfortunate mishaps in the semis were to be repeated again in the finals, leading many to observe that while the level of playing usually goes up as a pro competition progresses, it goes down for amateurs. Though this sounds unfair, it is probably accurate: we amateurs aren't used to dealing with this kind of situation, especially when we have to perform several days in a row under increasingly taxing circumstances.
Before the finalists were announced, Jon Nakamatsu (the current gold medalist of the pro Cliburn Competition and a former high school German teacher) made a humorous and very brief speech. The funniest line: "I remember sitting out there where all of you are, wondering if my name would be called. If I wasn't chosen, I was going to go back to my room and grade a stack of German exams with a vengeance unlike any ever seen." As Jon left the stage, John Giordano joked, "By special request, Jon Nakamatsu will now play Chopin's G minor Ballade."
The finalists were announced: Benedini, Doerrfeld, Kimmelman, Loilier, Holoubek, and Alexandre Bodak as The Beaver. By this point, it was after 12:30 AM, but all the contestants were invited for a late-night party at Van Cliburn's house. Mansion. Country. Small planet. "Gargantuan yet tasteful," as I said to Cliburn while thanking him for his hospitality. The food and setting were wonderful and the company was fascinating, but sometime after 2:30 AM, we reluctantly decided we should leave - especially the finalists, who were to play in about 12 hours.
Round - 6 Pianists
Luiz Benedini gave a polished, vibrant performance of the Liszt Sonata. He was the only contestant to deliver top-level playing in all three rounds. Since Holoubek was a lock for the major prizes, I voted for Benedini to win the Audience Award - he definitely deserved something.
Paul Doerrfeld and Michael Kimmelman, like several of us in the previous round, appeared somewhat uncomfortable - and probably tired as well. Despite some fine playing by both pianists, neither seemed likely to be a contender in the final reckoning.
Philippe Loilier added the Dukas B minor Scherzo and Debussy Toccata to the torture of the Liszt B minor Ballade for his final round. The Dukas was the high point, and showed why so many had responded positively to Loilier's playing. His style remained a bit "objective" for me (think of 1970s Pollini), but this was a matter of taste. Pianistically, he was very good indeed.
Joel Holoubek played well enough to solidify his prizewinning position, but even he faltered a little in the finals. He simply repeated all of his repertoire up to that point (which was allowed under the rules of the contest), and though it was excellent, it wasn't at the level of the previous evening's mind-boggling Dutilleux.
Alexandre Bodak began solidly with a repeat of the Liebestod, but followed it with a set of Rachmaninoff Preludes and Etudes-Tableaux that were full of forced tone. His last piece was simply shocking: a bangy, prestissimo mutilation of the finale of Prokofiev's Seventh Sonata. At least 30% of the notes were missing or wrong; the remaining 70% were so ugly that one wished he'd left them out as well. This was the only flagrantly unmusical playing I heard in the entire competition; it was particularly unfortunate that it was the final performance of the contest.
The audience reaction was predictable: the pianists cleaned their vomit off the floor while the non-pianists gave Bodak a standing ovation. One musician later remarked that Bodak must be a shape-shifting creature impersonating a pianist: as the final round progressed, it became increasingly difficult for him to maintain his counterfeit identity.
To absolutely no one's surprise, Joel Holoubek won both the Jury Award and the Press Jury Award.
To my dismay, but not my surprise, the Audience Award went to Alexandre Bodak. The professional pianists on either side of me reacted strongly, though probably not in a manner that Bodak would have enjoyed.
"WHAT?! That guy? That horrible Prokofiev?" gasped one.
"People," answered the other calmly, "are idiots."
At the farewell dinner after the awards ceremony, the prevailing mood was jubilant camaraderie mixed with nascent nostalgia for an occasion that was about to become a memory.
A contestant raised his wine glass. "To the G minor Ballade!"
A few suggestions for the next competition:
(1) Disallow entrants who have previously won either this contest or its Parisian counterpart (or at least this contest). All three of the French pianists in the finals were previous first-prize winners of the Concours International des Grandes Amateurs de Piano in Paris.
(2) Dump the Jury/Press/Audience awards and use the traditional gold/silver/bronze medals instead. When a contestant is as outstanding as Holoubek, he's going to win both Jury and Press. The Audience Award is a joke, subject to seizure by any contestant tasteless enough to end his final-round program with a piece played as loud and fast as possible.
(3) Disallow repetition of repertoire. An hour of music isn't that much to learn, even for an amateur - especially when music can be used.
(4) Make the contest a little longer, leaving a day in between the prelims and semis, and the semis and finals. Currently, it's Wednesday through Sunday; making it Monday through Sunday isn't that much of a difference. It would also leave more time for the extracurricular events that many of us simply had to ignore.
So was the endless practice and associated emotional turmoil worth it? Certainly. Without a doubt. Or to pay tribute to the competition's country of origin and the nationality of its first winner, one might quote Edith Piaf: "Non, je ne regrette rien!"
[The next Van Cliburn amateur competition is tentatively scheduled for June 2002. See http://www.cliburn.com for more details on current and future Cliburn competitions - AC]
|Article reprinted with the permission of the author|