AOM Logo March 2001

Going Home Again: The Second Cliburn Competition for Amateurs

Carl Tait

Footfalls echo in the memory

Down the passage which we did not take

Towards the door we never opened Into the rose-garden - T. S. Eliot, "Burnt Norton"

For those of us who had once considered careers as classical pianists before reluctantly deciding on a different path, last year's First Van Cliburn International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs (IPCOA) provided a brief but gratifying glimpse into the world we had pushed to one side.

The Second IPCOA was originally scheduled for June 2002, but the thundering success of the inaugural competition led to a decision to repeat the contest right away, in June 2000. I reached the semifinals in the 1999 event and had returned home in a state of such euphoria that I had only one worry about the Second competition: could it live up to the first one? Indeed it could. In virtually every way, the 2000 event was even more satisfying than 1999, refreshing and deepening friendships and memories.

My own playing had taken a substantial leap forwards during the previous year thanks to the remarkable Phillip Kawin, a teacher at the Manhattan School of Music. I'd started studying with Phillip a few weeks before the 1999 contest; in a matter of months, he had worked a number of major and minor miracles that had freed up my hands so much I barely felt like the same pianist. Phillip treated me with the same care as his students who were budding professionals, occasionally (and endearingly) seeming to forget that music wasn't my career. He would recommend a lengthy out-of-town piano festival, then sigh and say, "This would be a great experience for you, but I do realize you have a job."

SUNDAY, JUNE 4: Arrival and Welcome Party

I arrived in Fort Worth in mid-afternoon and briefly considered stopping by the hotel, but decided to drive straight to Texas Christian University, site of the competition. Familiar faces began to pop up right away, both among fellow competitors and the Cliburn staff. I picked up my welcome packet and accompanying goodie sack (thoughtfully packed in a Steinway & Sons tote bag to make us feel like part-time Steinway artists), then sealed myself in a practice room in Waits Hall.

I left the keyboard gymnastics behind for awhile to attend the welcome party at the home of some spectacularly wealthy Fort Worth music fans. Richard Rodzinski, president of the Cliburn Foundation and an avid supporter of the amateur competition, was on hand to meet everyone. His enthusiasm for the event was obvious to all who talked to him. The party was a treat, with happy noises of recognition regularly emerging from the general hum. "I remember you!" ... "Sorry we didn't have a chance to talk more last year." ... "So what are you playing in the prelims?" ... "Nice job with that Scriabin last year!" ... "Your face is so familiar, but I can't remember your name." ... "Loved your write-up on the first competition!" (Okay, that last comment was directed specifically at me).

I checked into the hotel and called my parents, who had arrived a few hours earlier. Luckily, my dad was still awake; he has been known to go to bed around sunset. I filled him in on the day's pleasurable activities, adding a piece of information I'd just noticed in the program book: Michael Kimmelman, the New York Times art critic and finalist in the 1999 amateur competition, was on the jury of this year's contest. (Should we keep an eye open for a New York Times article on what it was like to judge the Amateur Cliburn?)

MONDAY, JUNE 5: Prelims, Day 1

Uncharacteristically, I woke up early. I headed straight for the practice rooms and started plugging away.

Having had to miss last year's contest, my mom was determined to hear every single performance this time around, even though her failing knees left her tottering around with great difficulty. My dad heard almost every note of the competition, missing only one or two pianists when he came by the practice rooms to provide me with an audience of one during the afternoon break. (I was reminded of all the times he'd come into the living room to listen to me practice as a teenager. He made a good audience this time, too; my Schubert has never sounded better.)

Before the evening session, we went out for dinner and conversation. My mom asked me to guess her favorite pianist from the afternoon session; without hesitation, I picked Henri-Robert Delbeau. My mother gasped as if I were working for one of those psychic hotlines. "That's right! How did you know?" Easy: Henri had played beautifully in last year's event. I thought he should have made the finals, but his playing was apparently too restrained and subtle for the jury's tastes. I hoped that playing so early in the competition would not hurt his chances this year.

After dinner, we all headed back to Ed Landreth Auditorium. I listened to the entire evening session and was struck by both the quality and interest of the performances: the general level of playing was noticeably higher than last year. Requiring a full hour of repertoire and an audition tape probably helped boost the level; memories of the many excellent pianists in last year's event added an extra push for the returning contestants. At the same time, there were fewer quasi-professional superstars this time around. The net result was a field of pianists who, by and large, could be aptly described as "outstanding amateurs".

I ended up listening to far more of the competition this year than last: just over half of the 75 preliminary-round performances and almost all of the semifinals and finals. The prelims were especially enjoyable, as I was able to hear some technically limited but deeply musical pianists who played with real artistry.

since feeling is first

who pays any attention

to the syntax of things

will never wholly kiss you - e. e. cummings, "since feeling is first"

The respectfully quiet audience was also a pleasure to hear (or rather, not to hear). Increasing the length of the prelim program from 10 to 12 minutes had the unexpected benefit of keeping the competition on schedule. Many pianists played for 11 minutes or so - a program they probably would have tried to shoehorn into a ten minute time limit - and finished a little early rather than a little late.

Several competitors this year had been through terrible experiences that made their piano playing especially meaningful to them. Arthur Aitkens had fallen off a horse and was partially paralyzed as a result; another pianist had been seriously injured while skiing and had to give up on a concert career. Few of these contestants expected to get past the preliminaries, but that wasn't the point: their participation in this contest provided gratifying personal validation and inspiration for musicians everywhere.

Admittedly, there were a few performances in which neither technique nor musicianship was in evidence. During one piece in which a silken pianissimo melody was rendered by the performer in a choppy mezzo-forte, my mom handed me a note: "Some people need a sad story about their playing and don't have one." I wrote back, "This contestant was born without the ability to distinguish legato from staccato".

To avoid writing an article the length of the Manhattan telephone directory, I'll try to focus on a few pianists and pieces I found especially striking. To any competitor not mentioned in these notes: please do not interpret your absence as equivalent to "That pianist stunk!".

As for specific, commendable performances on Monday evening: Melinda Baird led off with a warm Chopin Barcarolle, full of fine tone; an eyebrow-raising thumb voicing in the A major section was especially well done. Robert Finley gave polished, refined performances of Faure, Grieg, and Liszt; Greg Fisher showed high poetry in his Aeolian Harp Etude and in his coruscating reading of Debussy's Feux d'artifice.

For me, the biggest surprise of the evening was Michael Moore's rendition of the Copland Variations, a piece I've always hated. A recent performance by a well-known professional quite literally gave me a headache. Michael, however, managed to find the music in between all the sharp edges: he played with color, passion, and integrity - and without the usual painful banging. It was the first time I'd ever managed to enjoy the piece, or at least not to despise it.

I beg you, my friendly critics,

Do not set about to procure me an audience.

I mate with my free kind upon the crags;

the hidden recesses

Have heard the echo of my heels,

in the cool light,

in the darkness. - Ezra Pound, "Tenzone"

Paul Doerrfeld, the only returning 1999 finalist, started well with an exciting Rachmaninoff C major Prelude. Next came a piece that Paul and I had discussed by e-mail: Chopin's terrifying chromatic Etude, Op. 10, No. 2 (I probably shouldn't have called it an "Etude of Doom"). Every pianist in the audience drew a deep breath as the piece began: the first page went well, and it looked like the tightrope act was going to work. Then disaster struck: near-derailment on the second page, followed by partial recovery, but then the middle section attacked and ... ouch. It was like watching the Flying Wallendas fall off a high wire: knowing that an impossibly difficult stunt has been performed many times with total success doesn't make the sound of crunching bodies any less distressing when things go awry.

I runne to death, and death meets me as fast,

And all my pleasures are like yesterday - John Donne, First Holy Sonnet

To his great credit, Paul immediately pushed the etude out of his mind and finished his preliminary round with a brilliant performance of Dello Joio's Capriccio on the Interval of a Second. It was one of the best performances of the day, and I was hopeful that the jury could just pretend that the one-minute etude had never been programmed. Unfortunately, competition for slots in the semis was sufficiently tough that any significant mishap made advancement unlikely.

Chui-fun Poon, a petite woman from Hong Kong now living in Fort Worth (and working for the Cliburn Piano Institute), gave a powerful reading of the Bach/Busoni Toccata and Fugue in D minor. It's often said that a careful listener can predict the likely quality of a performance in the first 10 seconds; in this case, about one second was enough. Chui-fun's opening octave mordent was crisp, bright, assertive, and dramatic - as was the rest of the piece. She closed with a pleasing Schumann F-sharp Romance and seemed assured of a place in the semifinals.

J. Michael Brounoff ("BREW-noff"), a lawyer from a well-known Texas family of lawyers, gave a songful performance of Schubert's A-flat Impromptu from Op. 90 and followed it with a sensitive, relaxed reading of Debussy's La fille aux cheveux de lin. I enjoyed his playing very much and told him so, but given the generally high level of technical accomplishment, it seemed unlikely he would make the semis. (He didn't.)

TUESDAY, JUNE 6: Prelims, Day 2

Tuesday's first order of business was trying out the performance piano on stage. It was a Steinway D and was a glorious instrument; even more sensitive than last year's piano. We were only given seven minutes to try out the nine-foot beauty: everyone would have liked more time, but at least we weren't limited to four minutes as we were last year.

After meeting the piano, I returned to the cheerful grind of practicing. A pleasant surprise arrived shortly after noon: a complimentary lunch buffet, courtesy of the Cliburn Foundation. Aside from being a friendly gesture and a tasty break, the lunchtime spread gave contestants a chance to socialize. Some of my strongest memories of the competition are from these daily mealtime conversations; it was a great way to meet new friends and to discuss our common passion, pre-Columbian art. (Wait a minute, that was just me; I guess we mainly discussed music.)

Around this time, my friend Mike Hawley (from MIT) walked in. I hadn't seen him since the last competition, and we immediately dashed off to a practice room to play our most obscure pieces for each other. I ran through my Scriabin Polonaise (fairly frightening), and Mike did his Art Tatum Sweet Lorraine, which was a lot of fun and looked hideously difficult.

Having put in all the practice I dared before my performance that evening, I went over to Ed Landreth for the last segment of the afternoon session. I particularly wanted to hear Daniel Kandelman, a French-Canadian dentist and professor. He was playing the unfamiliar Gratia transcription of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor: it was much less thick than Busoni's version, and Daniel performed it with considerable gusto.

My own performance time was rapidly approaching. I wolfed down a sandwich, took a leisurely walk around the campus to clear my head, ate the prescribed banana to reduce stage fright (according to legend), and headed for the final warm-up room. My father came along to put me in a performance mood: I played through the Bach/Busoni Chaconne, one of the long pieces from my final round. It went pretty well, earning a "bagpipe laugh" from my dad. (He has a characteristic laugh of genuine pleasure that I associate with his delight in my bagpiping as a boy and young teenager. Whenever he makes that sound at the end of a performance, I know it must have gone reasonably well.) My father wished me luck and left the room with a bagpipe smile on his face. I'd try to remember that happy expression if I got into trouble onstage.

A few minutes later, a monitor took me over to the on-deck room in Ed Landreth, just across the hall from the stage entrance. Being alone in that room for fifteen minutes with only a final warm-up piano as company was the one really nerve-wracking part of the entire experience. I had no interest in warming up any more, and my brain, already high on adrenaline, was in danger of chewing itself apart. In addition to last-minute worries about the upcoming pieces, all sorts of strange and uncomfortable memories can surface in such circumstances. I didn't want to suddenly remember that time in high school when I had a fatal memory slip in a Bach fugue during a master class, or that nasty cut on the thumb three weeks before an important recital in college, or

... Whispering lunar incantations

Dissolve the floors of memory

And all its clear relations,

Its divisions and precisions. - T. S. Eliot, "Rhapsody on a Windy Night"

It was a good thing I had brought along a cheesy Avengers novel to occupy my neurons. Finally, a monitor opened the door and said it was time to go. I walked across the hall and through the stage door, quietly saying hello to longtime backstage mother Louise Canafax, a charming, classic Southern woman who unsuccessfully tried to get me to speak more slowly both this year and last. Steve Cumming, a friendly and humorous man who was the competition's announcer once again, greeted me warmly and introduced me to the audience. I walked onstage feeling a curious mixture of excitement, anticipation, and hope that my own strong feelings about the music would come through.

My friend, blood shaking my heart

The awful daring of a moment's surrender

Which an age of prudence can never retract

By this, and this only, we have existed - T. S. Eliot, "The Waste Land"

The performance went well. I'm tempted to say that's all I remember because it's almost true: for me, a good performance leaves little memory other than a happy residue and fleeting snatches of heightened existence. I remember sitting a little too close to the keyboard, but still being more comfortable than usual since I'd decided to dispense with the cumbersome jacket that most male pianists still wear.

I began with the Copland Passacaglia: a compelling, rarely-heard work that should be performed more often. I had studied it with my first piano teacher (Joan Broadhurst in Atlanta) and had last performed it almost exactly twenty years earlier, in the first week of June 1980. The first five minutes of the piece went very smoothly. I hit a couple of clinkers during the difficult climactic section, but overall, it felt good. Nobody clapped! Last year, applause was generally withheld until the end of the program due to the tight ten minute length, but this year, people had been clapping pretty freely in between pieces. Had the audience hated the Copland? Had they loved it so much they didn't want to break my concentration? I didn't know. I put it out of my mind and dove into Rachmaninoff's great Etude-Tableau Op. 39, No. 5. He wrote the piece only a few months before leaving Russia forever; the poignant fade-away ending after all the tumult is quite moving if played without sentimentality. Again, there were a few scattered wrong notes, but the tone, balance, and overall effect felt strong. I was pleased.

At the end, applause finally broke out. Quite a lot of it. Louise and Steve were also enthusiastic. Steve briefly interviewed me for possible inclusion in his radio show, then remarked, "I'd be very surprised if you didn't make the semifinals". Richard Rodzinski's comments during the break were even more encouraging: "Terrific, just terrific!" he said, with a bagpipe smile of his own. I was delighted that the Copland had gone over so well: several fellow competitors were quite taken with it, and the reviewer for the Fort Worth newspaper singled it out for special mention the next day. Without undue optimism, it looked like I was going to make the semis. I could relax a little.

After playing, I settled down to hear the night's remaining pianists, two of whom particularly stood out. Colorado restaurateur Greg Adams gave a fine performance of Mendelssohn's Variations Serieuses, with especially strong lyrical sections; the Fort Worth paper gave it a rave review the following day. New York psychiatrist Mark Cannon offered an unusual and effective program of Schubert's A-flat Impromptu from Op. 142 and two of Seymour Bernstein's New Pictures at an Exhibition. The Pictures were aggressive and interesting; not to all tastes, but I liked them. The Schubert was melodious and had a wonderfully flexible but inexorable 3/4 beat. When I complimented Mark on his exceptional rhythmic control, he and his wife both started laughing. "You should have been around for all those hours of practice with the metronome!"

WEDNESDAY, JUNE 7: Semifinals, Day 3

In the Waits Hall practice rooms, it was another day of what was rapidly becoming a familiar routine: a vigorous morning practice session followed by an informal but tasty lunch with other competitors. Len Horovitz, a fellow New Yorker and fellow 1999 semifinalist, related his own horror story. Before his prelim performance, he made a large adjustment to the piano bench using those maddeningly slow knobs on the sides of the bench. Len then began to play Prokofiev's Third Sonata and immediately developed a muscle cramp in his chest. He grimly kept going; after 30 seconds, the cramp mercifully faded. He seemed uncertain about his advancement to the semis this year; for what it was worth, my parents had mentioned that they thought Len had played well.

After this sobering story (one hell of a lot scarier than "Where's my golden arm?" for a bunch of pianists sitting around a virtual campfire), the discussion turned to the definition of "amateur." The competition had adopted a simple rule: if you didn't make your living as a pianist or piano teacher then you could call yourself an amateur and enter the contest. Raising the minimum age to 35 helped eliminate a few of those still vacillating between careers. The equivalent French contest has a crazy minimum age of 18: who wants to go compete against some "amateur" Juilliard students?

There was some spirited talk about whether those with music degrees should be allowed to enter. All of my own degrees are in computer science, not music, but I still felt that ruling out music majors would be a serious mistake. Given the difficulty of making a career in music, there are bound to be plenty of ex-musicians who have been earning a living as lawyers or cab drivers for the past twenty years. Denying them a chance to compete feels unfair - even if it means admitting a few questionable amateurs along the way. Yes, it's true that musicians with degrees in the field are likely to have a larger stock of polished repertoire to draw on than a pianist with fewer years of intensive training, but I can live with that. As Richard Rodzinski puts it, "No professional would benefit by calling himself an amateur; winning this competition would not boost one's professional career". Joel Holoubek, last year's enormously talented winner, reports that little has changed for him: he's still a coin dealer in Paris who plays a couple of concerts every year.

The most memorable pianist of the entire competition made her first appearance at 4:15 that afternoon. Steve Cumming introduced Debra Saylor without fanfare, in much the same genially professional way he introduced all of us. We saw the long white cane first. There was a collective gasp. Debra Saylor was blind. Shea made her way to the piano bench with surprising speed and adjusted it quickly with well-practiced motions. She spread her arms widely across the keyboard several times to judge both height and proximity. My mind was awash in conflicting emotions. This was remarkable, brave, commendable - but would it be any good?

Debra began with Schubert's familiar Moment Musical in F minor. It was good. Very good. I was smiling within seconds. The performance had a cheerful Viennese lilt and real charm. Next came Debussy's Clair de lune, for which no one was prepared, or could have been prepared. Debussy's overplayed work, mutilated by several generations of piano students over the past century, glowed to new life in Debra's hands. Her tone was warm and deep, her legato singing, her phrasing impeccable, her pianissimos infinitely shaded. Anyone who claims not to have been in tears by the end is probably lying. It was one of those revelatory performances in which one feels the composer's ideas fusing with the artistry of a gifted pianist.

The words of a dead man

Are modified in the guts of the living. - W. H. Auden, "In Memory of W. B. Yeats"

Debra closed her preliminary program with Chopin's Fantaisie-Impromptu. There was an unfortunate problem: she got a little scrambled in the opening passagework and had to start again. And again. Finally, on the third attempt, the piece kept going and went very well (though nothing could have topped her Debussy). She reached the end without further incident and was rewarded with heartfelt, roaring applause. For a moment, it crossed my overly-rational mind that Debra couldn't see whether I stood up or not, but common sense finally prevailed and I joined the standing ovation.

The evening session, by luck of the draw, had a high percentage of standouts: seven of the twelve performers ended up making the semifinals. First was Mike Hawley (a friend from MIT), who opened with a dark and beautifully shaded reading of the Bach/Busoni Ich ruf zu dir chorale prelude. He followed this with an unconventional Scriabin Op. 42/5 Etude: the piece built almost entirely towards the last page instead of lashing out with the usual outbursts halfway through. Mike ended with an endearing Liebesleid; just the right amount of schlag. I told him I'd have the jury killed if he didn't make the semis this year.

Next came the amazing Christopher Basso, who almost immediately established himself as the likely winner of the competition. He began with several movements from Bach's B-flat Partita in a performance so good that I have no memory of why they were good; I was too busy listening. Christopher wrapped up the round with a technically dazzling rendition of Ravel's Ondine: a bit too articulate and explicitly virtuosic for me, but very impressive. He left the stage with the word "Winner" emblazoned on his forehead.

Completing the opening trio, massage therapist Joey Freeman gave an effortless performance of Chopin's B-flat minor Scherzo. The reading was perhaps a little loose, but the keyboard command and sense of exuberance were strong. And later in the evening, Stephen Hubbard impressed everybody with his fluid finger technique and appealing tone in Liszt's Un sospiro and Chopin's treacherous Op. 10/4 Etude. He was followed by one of the pre-competition favorites, Charles Chien, who daringly played an all-Mozart program (the first two movements of K. 333). This was potentially very dangerous - to quote John Giordano, "Everybody thinks they've discovered the only correct way to play Mozart" - but it paid off. Charles played with high artistry and was a sure semifinalist.

Last year, the post-prelim judging took only 45 minutes. This year, the jury was out for almost two hours. The combination of a high level of playing and a few exceptional cases (Debra Saylor and Paul Doerrfeld in particular) must have made the process unusually difficult. The list of semifinalists ended up being pretty reasonable, though of course I have a stake in saying that: Gregory Adams, Melinda Baird, Christopher Basso, Charles Chien, Robert Finley, Miho Yamada Fisher, Joey Freeman, Allan Fuller, Michael Hawley, Stephen John Hubbard, Scot King, Michael Moore, Hiroko Ohtani, Chui-fun Poon, Ronald Roberts, Steven Ryan, Debra Saylor, and Carl Tait .

Curiously, every semifinalist was American. I was sorry to see that certain pianists had been eliminated (Mark Cannon, for example) and there were two truly startling omissions: Henri-Robert Delbeau and Greg Fisher. Henri had the misfortune to draw the first slot of the entire contest (he actually played second due to a plane delay), so his absence is at least partly explicable on non-musical grounds. But Greg Fisher? How could such a poetic pianist with good fingers have been omitted? I honestly have no idea.

FRIDAY, JUNE 9: Semifinals

The semifinals didn't start until 2 PM, so I had plenty of time to get my practicing out of the way beforehand and listen to the entire afternoon session. The level continued to be high and the playing generally very enjoyable. The jury was enormously enlarged for the semifinals and finals, a practice I still consider dubious. I'd much rather have the same small, expert jury across all three rounds of the competition.

Greg Adams led off with an interesting mix of Mompou, Falla, Ravel, and Chopin. Aside from a slightly rough start to Chopin's Toccata (the Etude Op. 10/7), Greg played very well and appeared to have an excellent chance at the finals. Afterwards, he didn't seem entirely happy with his performance, but I thought this was largely the "hyper-self-critical amateur" effect. Ron Roberts delivered an exuberant program featuring two of the works from my Cliburn repertoire last year: the first movement of Ginastera's Sonata No. 1 and Liszt's Petrarch Sonnet 104. He ended with a dancing L'isle joyeuse; his rapport with the audience was palpable. Later on, Allan Fuller (Director of Table Games at Harrah's Casino) inventively combined Mozart's Sonata K. 332 with Scriabin's Etude Op. 42/5. I had found Allan's prelim performance of the Mephisto Waltz rather bangy, and was pleased to see that he had adjusted well to the piano in the semis. His Mozart was fluid and beautiful (though probably too romantic for some), and his Scriabin roared without screaming.

Mike Hawley's semifinal program stirred up some controversy - not because of the playing, which was really first-rate, but because of the selection of pieces. Mike opened with Faure's last Nocturne (no controversy there), then followed it with two of Bolcom's Ghost Rags and Art Tatum's Sweet Lorraine. I have absolutely no objection to any of these choices individually (and would, in fact, encourage them), but playing all of them together in a 20-minute recital left the program without enough meat for my tastes.

Christopher Basso easily earned a spot in the finals with his program of Scarlatti, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, and Debussy; his L'isle joyeuse was especially scintillating. Stephen Hubbard paired Mendelssohn's Variations serieuses with Debussy's Toccata (from Pour le piano) and was another strong contender for the finals. His leggiero chords and passagework were exemplary: light and bouncy, but always with rounded tone - avoiding the Scylla and Charybdis of either bright and brittle or thin and wimpy. Melinda Baird wrapped up the afternoon session with the Rachmaninoff D major Prelude and yet another Variations serieuses. Both were well played, with the emphasis on drama in the Mendelssohn, but an unfortunate fumble and subsequent scramble on the very last page meant that it would be a fight to get into the finals.

After the session, I was glad to meet Tom Shaw (regular contributor to and his wife Phoebe. Tom had been following the competition keenly, and it was gratifying to hear that he'd enjoyed my prelim performance. (Earlier in the day, an audience member had quietly chirped behind me, "Carl Tait, you're my favorite!" I'll take all the fans I can get.) Tom was looking forward to the evening session; I hoped I wouldn't disappoint him.

My performance time rolled around with startling rapidity. Even my purgatory in the dreaded on-deck room wasn't taxing this time: it was almost annoying to abandon my Avengers novel in mid-chapter and move on to the backstage area. It was nearly routine by now: the purring exhilaration of an upcoming performance, with very little stark terror. Steve introduced me and I nearly ran on stage.

The piano bench felt very high, and I had to crank it down a lot before beginning - while suspecting that at any moment I was going to be struck by a Len Horovitz muscle cramp. No cramps attacked, and I started the Schubert G-flat Impromptu. As far as I can remember, it was technically perfect but a little small-scale - and I was working way too hard. Why? I paused at the end of the piece and toyed with the bench again. Next came the Scriabin Polonaise, a rarely-played work that was my biggest worry. It has a few very difficult and stretchy passages that hadn't fully settled into my fingers - fast, fat chords rolled over spans of elevenths and twelfths. Again, I was having to work very hard, even in passages of less-than-monumental difficulty. There were a number of obvious problems that would be noticeable even to those unfamiliar with the piece; the worst was a jumbled bar in the middle section that could have been mistaken for a major memory slip. Still baffled as to why I was expending so much physical effort and playing well below my best level, I fiddled with the bench a little more before launching into Ravel's formidable Ondine, the piece that had gotten me into the semifinals last year. This year's performance was strange. There were several nontrivial problems in passages that aren't all that hard (by the standards of the piece); conversely, some of the most demanding passages sailed right by with little effort. "Where'd you come from?" I remarked silently to my suddenly cooperative right hand after the first fiendish double-note passage. I have absolutely no memory of the last three pages of the piece, so they probably went pretty well.

I left the stage confused. Steve and Louise, however, were enthusiastic. "Was that good?" I asked. They both thought so. I wondered, though: once a pianist has demonstrated competence and musicianship, there's a tendency to hear through the mistakes in the absence of a blatant catastrophe. I knew there had been some real problems, and wasn't sure how gracious the jury could be in overlooking them. Steve interviewed me again, thinking I had at least a good shot at the finals; I told him it was probably the oddest performance I'd ever given. There was a lot of good playing in there, but a lot of weirdness, too. The audience, at least, was very enthusiastic in their applause, which made me feel better. It's always possible to stir up a large response by playing as fast and loud as possible - or, at the opposite extreme, by wallowing in sentimentality - but I hadn't done either. The musical intensity seemed to have come through, which meant that the performance couldn't have been too terrible.

It wasn't until some time later that I finally figured out what had happened on stage. The pianist before me, Chui-fun Poon, was a small woman who had cranked the bench up all the way. I didn't lower it far enough before beginning, and started with a quiet, introspective piece in which there's a tendency to lean forward. The net result of the awkward position was that my elbows went too far back, cutting my upper arms out of the playing mechanism. No wonder I had to work so hard! I was annoyed with myself for making this silly error; at the same time, I was glad there was a clear and easily-implemented solution to the problem.

I was so busy thinking through my own performance that I was able to pay attention to the rest of the pianists only intermittently. Joey Freeman cut through my introspection with a superb reading of Liszt's Vallee d'Obermann, full of rich, dark tone. His fine architectural command held the sprawling piece together well. Joey's octaves were effortless and melodious; I thought it very likely he would make the finals.

The always-interesting Michael Moore played an all-American semifinal program: The Last Hope by Gottschalk and the lone, masterful Sonata by Charles Griffes. The Gottschalk was well played, but lightweight even by the standards of salon music. One of the jury later remarked, "I've never seen so much icing on such a bad cake!". A competitor whose identity I will diplomatically conceal said that after about the fiftieth time through the insipid, tinkly accompaniment figure, he wanted to run up on stage, slap Michael's right hand as if it were a misbehaving child, and say "Stop that! Stop that!" Once again, though, I admired Michael's courage in programming works that he felt strongly about, and his ability to project them with conviction. I was particularly excited by his choice of the Griffes Sonata: one of the finest American piano pieces and one I had nearly chosen to play in the contest myself. Unfortunately, Michael had a rocky time, making some major errors at the very start and continuing with clumps of wrong notes in passage after passage. It was a shame because I'm sure he can give a terrific performance of this piece; sadly, this wasn't it.

Charles Chien's semifinal round consisted of a single work, Schumann's Waldszenen (Forest Scenes). Charles's playing was up to the high standards of his preliminary round, but the piece has always struck me as ... well, pretty boring. Maybe this reaction is hereditary; during the performance, my dad handed me a note: "I think these Forest Scenes are from The Blair Witch Project (a movie that had bored him intensely). Despite our lack of enthusiasm for Schumann's leafy snapshots, we all felt that the quality of Charles' playing was worthy of a spot in the finals. In addition, he had survived the only cell-phone incident of the contest; the offender was some moron at the end of our row who left immediately and (thank goodness) never returned. The next day, Steve Cumming announced, "We went down to the courthouse last night and made ringing cell phones a hangin' offense!".

Soon it was time for the jury to decide on a list of finalists. Christopher Basso was a lock; Charles Chien and Mike Hawley deserved to make the cut based on their playing (though I still had reservations about both their programs); beyond that, it was very much in the air. I would probably have settled on (alphabetically) Greg Adams, Joey Freeman, and Stephen Hubbard, with Melinda Baird and (ahem) Carl Tait somewhat behind. As it turned out, only the three obvious choices made the finals - the complete list was: Christopher Basso, Charles Chien, Michael Hawley, Michael Moore, Steven Ryan, and Debra Saylor

About the Author

Cart Tait

A native New Yorker who grew up in Atlanta, Carl Tait is a computer scientist with IBM Research in Yorktown Heights, New York. He received his Ph.D. from Columbia University and his bachelor's degree with honors from Harvard University. In between college and graduate school, Carl was a systems programmer with IBM Boca Raton for three years.

After starting his musical career at age 8 on the bagpipes, Carl began taking piano lessons at 13 with Joan Broadhurst in Atlanta. His subsequent teachers have included Gabriel Chodos, Steven Hall, and Edith Oppens. He is currently working with Phillip Kawin of the Manhattan School of Music. Carl played the opening recitals of the 1991-92 Guest Artist Series at Atlanta's DeKalb College, and has been featured several times on Atlanta Public Radio Station WABE. In 1990, he was one of twenty-three pianists chosen to compete in the National Chopin Competition, which is held once every five years. The same year, he was a semifinalist in the New York Chopin Competition.

Carl's other interests include early U.S. copper coins (half cents and large cents), backgammon, photography, and the art and history of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica.

I had not heard Steven Ryan in the prelims, and his semifinal program was in the midst of the evening session when I was only half-listening. He had made a hit with the audience without making a strong impression on me one way or the other; I'd have to reserve judgment until hearing him in the finals. Debra Saylor had performed pieces with minimal technical demands, but had played them with artistry and emotion (I was sorry not to have heard her semifinal round). It is certainly unexpected to advance to the final round of an international piano competition with Chopin's Military Polonaise as the most difficult piece in one's program! But Debra's playing was deeply musical and moving; though one could debate the decision, I certainly felt it was defensible. But Michael Moore? This was, quite simply, a technical error in judging. In absolute terms, I considered Michael among the top handful of pianists in the competition, but he had not played well at all that evening from a technical standpoint. Apparently, a majority of the jury completely missed all the problems in the Griffes, incredible as that may seem. Still, given Michael's strong abilities, I was hopeful he would play well in the finals - as indeed he did.


The finals consisted of six half-hour programs: three one-hour sessions of two pianists each. I was dismayed to learn that two finalists had chosen to play the Liszt Sonata, a work for which my mild initial enthusiasm has dwindled to almost nothing. Mike Hawley's performance had an almost operatic flavor, with lots of big, dramatic pauses throughout. It was technically commanding and, I suspect, quite appealing to those who have not lost the ability to enjoy the work.

Christopher Basso was next, with a staggering reading of the Prokofiev Eighth Sonata. It was his finest performance yet and, along with Debra Saylor's Clair de lune, the best playing of the entire competition. The finale was especially thrilling: great rhythmic drive without pounding, remarkably clear textures, and a build-up of excitement all the way to the finish line. There was virtually no doubt that Christopher would win all the major prizes.

After the first break, Debra Saylor gave her final program: the Chopin Nocturne Op. 55/1, Ravel's Pavane, and (continuing her moonlight theme) Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. Aside from some curious rhythmic bumpiness in the Ravel and slight distortions in the first movement of the Beethoven, Debra made a hit with her trademark glowing sound and warm-hearted interpretations. It was a treat to hear her again since I'd missed her in the semis; the only real liability (as before) was the relatively low technical difficulty.

Michael Moore played a characteristically interesting program: the Bach/Siloti G minor Prelude, Haydn's C major Sonata (XVI:50), and the Gounod/Liszt Faust Waltz. Like Christopher Basso, Michael gave his best performance in the finals: there was real personality, flair, and (unlike the previous evening) excellent technical control. Based on the final round and the prelims, Michael deserved second prize, but it wasn't clear how the jury was going to factor in their blooper of missing the problems in the semifinals.

After the final break of the competition, it was Steven Ryan's turn. His playing still didn't click with me: it was technically assured and decidedly musical, but for whatever reason, didn't excite me. I seemed to be in the minority, however, and there was one very impressive performance in the program: yet another Ondine. This was clearly the best of the four Ondines heard during the competition, with beautiful, unforced sound and high virtuosity. My only complaint concerned all the unmarked ritenutos in the first half; this was Ravel's most notorious pet peeve. I could imagine his comment to Steven: "Tres bien joue' - mais sans rallentir s'il vous plait!"

My father doubted he could survive two Liszt Sonatas in the same afternoon, so he left the concert hall while my mother and I remained to hear Charles Chien round out the finals with his reading of the piece. Charles' view of the work was completely different from Mike's: metrically tighter, with a general approach that leaned more towards the lyrical than the dramatic. Sadly, a couple of minor memory slips led to increasingly serious technical problems. It is extremely difficult to continue a performance of a long, uninterrupted work under such circumstances; Charles fought through bravely to the end.

The jury left to deliberate. The rest of us went out in the lobby or milled around in the auditorium. Everybody knew that Christopher Basso was going to win the first-place Jury Award and the Press Jury Award, and probably the Audience Award as well, but who was going to win second and third? There was very little agreement.

The final decisions were made quickly. After a short but compelling speech by Van Cliburn himself (now there's a guy with stage presence), the awards were announced: Christopher Basso - First Prize (Jury), Press Jury Award, Audience Award, Best Baroque Work, Best Modern Work; Stephen Ryan - Second Prize and Best Classical Work; Debra Saylor - Third Prize and Best Romantic Work; Mike Hawley - Most Creative Programming (see the Cliburn Foundation home page at for more details. The final results can be found at:

After the awards ceremony came the farewell dinner, held at a club that seemed to take pride in how difficult it was to find. It was a joyful, memorable occasion, full of musical conversation, high enthusiasm, and reluctant farewells. To our disappointment, the party eventually ended. And then it was over - until 2002. Can we wait that long?

Ridiculous the waste sad time

Stretching before and after. - T. S. Eliot, "Burnt Norton"

Article reprinted with the kind permission of the author Home