After a wild ride through rain and hail, I have arrived at Texas Christian University's Ed Landreth Auditorium in Fort Worth for the 2011 International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs. These are talented pianists who earn a living doing something more sensible but still spend considerable time at the keyboard. Some are dentists and one is the district attorney in Fort Worth. It is always a surprise to hear them play and the unexpected has been the rule in past such events. I will be commenting at each of the breaks for the next week about the pianists and what they played and how they played it, and offering overall opinions after the premilinaries and the semi-finals and, of course, the finals.
You can view a slideshow of all the contestants here.
You can watch the competition streaming live on TheaterJones by clicking this link (or click the link in the box above the headline to this story).
Stay tuned for my commentary from each day.
Preliminary, Round 1, 1-5 p.m. Monday, May 23, 2011:
Brad Arington got the short straw. The attorney from San Jose, Calif., was the first pianist up. He has placed in some other similar competitions, but some nerves that were inevitable with going first were apparent in his performance of Mozart's 12 Variations in C minor. He did much better on a very flashy piece by composer/pianist Rodion Shchedrin. Although he had originally scheduled this rough-and-tumble work for a later round, it was a wise choice to move it up to the preliminaries. If he moves forward, it will be because this performance superseded the Mozart.
Daniel Bertram, who has a Ph.D in music from Yale University, was immediately of interest. You only had to look at his program for the finals (the murderous Islamey by Balakierv), should he get there, to tell that he either had a formidable technique or delusions of grandeur. He only played one piece for this first round, but it was also doozy. The full-time house dad (he lists his profession as "parent") sat down and launched into the Horowitz arrangement of Liszt's Scherzo and March. The scherzo flew by in a blizzard of notes and the march achieved a sense of nobility among all of the virtuosity. It is not much of a leap to guess that he will move on to the next round.
Christine Cheng has a terrific back story. A physician by profession but trained in her undergraduate days as a pianist at the University of Texas at Austin, she spent some 18 years without playing at all. It was her battle with advanced breast cancer that recently (2010) brought her back to the keyboard. She made a daring opening move by playing the E. Petri arrangeable of Bach's Sheep may safely graze. It was an absolutely entrancing performance. She keep all three lines—chorale, obligtato and accompaniment—in perfect balance. Her performance of Ravel's Alborada del gracioso minimized the considerable technical challenges to her musical instincts. She should proceed.
Nazeli Atayan Rohman-Flynn, the Armenian-born homemaker from Pasadena changed her program, but not to her advantage. She took the opportunity to champion the Armenian composer Kotimas's Three Dances. They were announced from the stage and were completely unknown to this writer. However, these pieces were not a good choice for the situation in that they were repetitive and not particularly interesting; one would have been plenty. Her performance of Khachaturian's Sonatina in C major gave her a more interesting musical palette on which to show her skills.
John DeRuntz, Jr. is a retired scientist specializing in computational analysis of complex equation systems (don't ask me what that is, I copied it from the program). His big mistake is that he only programmed his own music for all three rounds. He demonstrated a command of piano technique but it is impossible to make any judgment about how he would do on standard repertoire. If the judges took a dislike to his music, he could be prevented from moving on just because they didn't want to hear any more of it.
Darlene Cusick (to the right) is one of the competitors that qualifies as an amateur by virtue of returning. She has been a pianos teacher for years and a church organist. Pianists who only play one piece in the first round take a chance but she was on safe ground with her assay of Barber's Sonata, Op. 26. She had a firm grasp of the piece and gave it an impressive performance. She was especially good in the fugue as she kept all of the independent lines clear and the fugal subject on top of the texture every time it appeared. She deserves to move on.
Lori Gilbert is making her third appearance at the Cliburn Amateur. She used to sell Steinway pianos so she should know her way around the instrument. She made a brave attempt at Chopin's Barcarolle. She caught the style if not all of the notes. She might have been better served to play two different pieces.
Larry Harris in a retired investment manager from Madison, Conn. Once again, he was one of the pianists who only played one piece; putting his all eggs in Beethoven's basket--namely, his 32 Variations in C minor. He tripped over his fingers at one point. But however gamely he continued, he had to know that such a mishap is not good in a competition.
Reiko Osawa is a homeworker from Japan who was inserted in the program out of order. If that fazed her at all, it wasn't apparent. Good ol' J.S. Bach made his first appearance as she gave a sparkling account of his Partita No. 2 in C Minor. Her playing was incredibly clean but not soulless, as some highly accurate performances of this work can be. She played Khachaturian's Tocatta with equally brilliant technique. It could have used more abandonment in her playing, but it was still impressive.
Jane Gibson King is a homemaker from Provo, Utah. She is one of two pianists in the competition who has been affected by autism. Although she was a mother to four other children, her youngest (Michael) required her to become a full-time caregiver. Like Christine Cheng, she only returned to the piano in 2010. She started with two Scarlatti sonatas, giving this oft-performed Baroque composer his first appearance at the competition. She played them with charm and grace. She was even more impressive with Chopin's Berceuse, Op. 57. Perhaps this professional mother has a special feeling for the lullaby nature of this piece. The rocking motion in the left hand never wavered while the improvisatory nature for the right hand rippled up and down the keyboard.
Iona Luke, born in Hong Kong, is an attorney from New South Wales, Australia. She is another contestant who took a break from the piano for her career. She started back in 2008 and has obviously make some progress. Her version of Debussy's Reflets dans l'eau, one of the composer's many attempts at writing pieces about water. This relatively late work is one of his most successful and Luke gave it an evocative and highly colorful performance. She really created a spell in the audience and we all hung on every note. Her demeanor changed completely for the Kabalevsky Sonata No. 1. She looked fragile in her back dress that accentuated her thin frame, but she was a powerhouse here. Assertive and forceful, she made a great case for, and tied together, what is an episodic piece.
Another entry from the scientific world is Japanese-born Atsutaka Manabe, who now lives in Besheim, Germany. His field is liquid crystals and MRI technology and he claims to have perfect pitch, which has, unfortunately, gone up a half-step over the years. He played Scriabin's Sonata No. 3 in F-sharp minor, another single piece for the preliminary round. While is played all of the notes and successfully negotiated all of its technical challenges, the piece never gelled for me. Perhaps it was the placebo effect, because he used the music, but the piece didn't sound fully digested. Instead, it was a series of beautifully played but disparate musical events. Scriabin's sonata never took shape.
However, Scriabin's Sonata No. 4, also in F-sharp but this time "major," got a thrilling performance in the hands of Thomas Maurice, a Canadian-born purchasing manager now living in Baltimore. He also used music, but things were completely different musically. Maurice has a complete picture of the sonata and it was obvious that he knew where he was headed fro the very first note. Shchedrin's Toccatina-collage was a delightful bon-bon of a piece, and really welcome after a long day of pianioism. A bit of Bach bantered with Baroque riffs in an adorable musical treat.
Janet Underhill, a retired music teacher from Chicago, was the last up for the afternoon, but she brought the weary audience to attention in short order. She started with Debussy's Feux d'artifice and she took the word "fireworks" to heart. Splashes of color brought the piece to life. But it was in Ginastera's Danzas Argentinas that was possibly the most impressive performance of the day. The program bio said that she played in a big band and that background really came through in the jazzy Latin dances rhythms of this piece. We all cheered when it was over.
Preliminary, Round 2, 7:30-10:30 p.m. Monday, May 23, 2011:
The after-dinner competition was a much more raucous affair and Valentina Rodov, a retired lawyer living in Seattle and a product of the Moscow Conservatory, led the way. She ripped into Chopin’s Ballade No. 4 in F minor with abandon. Her left hand landed with particular force and the sustaining pedal also got a workout. It wasn’t everyone’s idea of how Chopin should go, but it was a very exciting performance. However, since it was the only piece she played, we didn’t have a chance to hear her more reflective side.
Talk about setting a challenge for yourself: J. Spencer Thompson programmed all of the really big virtuoso pieces. Just for the preliminary round, he played Chopin’s massive Etude in F Major, Rachmaninoff’s equally challenging Etude-tableau Op.33 No.8 in G minor, and the last movement of Ginastera's nearly unplayable Piano Sonata No. 1. Things did not go completely as planned but he still delivered a highly credible performance of some of the most difficult works in the repertory. His music for the next two rounds is on the same level, culminating with his final round choice of the knuckle busting Scarbo from Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit.
If you mentally add the black robe, Michael Brounoff looks just like you would expect a United States Administrative Law Judge to look. But if you look further, you see a dedicated amateur pianist who has entered this competition three times and made it to the finals twice. He started with a gentle reading of Mendelssohn’s "Song Without Words" in A flat major, Op. 38, No. 6. It was a welcome relief from the torrent of notes that had opened this round. He played it simply and without fuss; and it was just lovely. He followed this up with two pieces by Debussy, which was one too many for demonstrating the breath of his musical experience. Maybe he should have moved up the jazzy Gershwin he had ticked away for the semifinals. However, he gave Debussy’s Le vent dans la plaine a light an airy performance and then launched into the first of a number of performances we heard in this session of the composer’s much showier L'isle joyeuse. He gave it a fine performance, even if he did have to catch the last note on the fly. Video interview
Denise Humphrey is a psychologist from Dallas. Of real interest is how she combines the universally recognized healing ability of music with her medical career. In fact, her business is named "Creating Harmony" and she is the chair of the Arts Commission for the Dallas Society for Psychoanalytical Psychology. She began with a will-o’-the-wisp reading of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G-sharp minor. She then tackled the second performance of the evening of Debussy’s L'isle joyeuse. Hers was a much more lyrical and transparent reading than Brounoff’'s but it didn’t quite reach the same emotional heights, so that is probably why the last note didn’t try to escape.
Mark Cannon, a psychiatrist from Larchmont, NY was up next. He took the dangerous path of only playing one composer. The first was Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No. 9, commonly known as the "Black Mass Sonata." Although this nickname was not Scriabin’s idea, he certainly seems to have approved of it. The work is transcendentally difficult and, like some of the composer’s late compositions, borders of the atonal. The music is so complex that the score has to resort to three staves on occasion to successfully notate it. Cannon gave it a stunning and deeply considered performance. Dark and brooding, he submersed himself, and the audience, it its mysteries. His second selection, Scriabin’s Impromptu à la Mazur, Op. 7 No. 1, felt even lighter and more like a café piece on a sunny afternoon than it usually does. Perhaps they should have been reversed, unless Cannon felt like the second piece was more of an encore. Video interview
Much was expected of Matthew Tingle. The business executive from Windsor Canada is that rare pianist who crosses easily between the jazz and classical worlds. Also, his three programs contained some works that are rarely heard; a welcome break in competitions where many of the same works turn up frequently. Although I must say that repeated compositions have not been as common as in other competitions, a fact I attribute to one of the glories of the amateur—the wide variety of musical backgrounds. Tingle opened with Szymanowski's Etude Op.4 No.3 in B flat minor, which was a little disappointing. I could think of a whole world of classical pieces written in the jazz tradition, some that even require improvisation (OK, we classical snobs call it "aleatoric passages"), which is his strong suit. This is not to denigrate the Szymanowski performance, which was right on, but just a sign for what could have been a real rabble rouser. Ernesto Lecuona, a Cuban composer and pianist, if often called the Latin George Gershwin. It was a pleasure to hear Tingle play the familiar Malagueña in its original incarnation—the final movement of Lecuona’s Andalucia Suite Española. He played it with style and accuracy, although it ended abruptly. So, was there a difference that his jazz training brought to his performance? Not really. The only thing that I noticed was that the loud notes were brittle and somehow lacked depth, but I doubt this was related—unless he might be used to an amplified piano or one that requires more effort to make speak.
Al Thomas should certainly know his way around a piano, as well as inside out. The real estate appraiser from Burlington, N.C., is also a piano rebuilder. One peek under the hood of a grand piano gives you an idea of the patience and meticulous nature of anyone who would undertake pulling it all apart and putting it back together. He opened with a very clean and bright performance of Scarlatti’s Sonata in A minor. The longed-for jazz influence piece finally showed up as Thomas played Gershwin’s Three Preludes. He took a straight Chopin-esque approach to them, with which I fully agree. He didn’t try to lay an extra layer of jazzy personality and just let the three pieces speak for themselves. Very nice indeed. Thomas followed this with two contrasting Chopin preludes (Op. 28, No. 23 and 24). No. 23 is subtitled "The Pleasure Boat" and Thomas caught the rippling waters in the right hand just perfectly. No. 24, called "The Storm," lives up to its name and allowed Thomas to finally show off some technical ability. The three final thunderous and sonorous low "D" notes were a tribute to the piano tuner who has hovered over his baby throughout the competition.
Larry Masterson is a physician's assistant in the small town of Terry, Montana. As such, he is at the forefront of the healthcare brigade that serves this nation so valiantly. Adding to the heroic nature of this story, in 1995 he developed hemispheric dystonia, a condition that robed him of the use of his right hand—a tragedy for a healthcare professional and pianist. But with the help of medication and sheer determination, Masterson is here performing the first movement of Beethoven’s last sonata for the piano (No. 32 in C minor). This piece was a too-high mountain for Masterson to climb, but while he may have slipped occasionally on the way up, climb it he did. Beethoven’s sonata is full of diminished harmonies, but there is nothing diminished about Larry Masterson. He is an inspiration.
While we are still on the subject of bravely facing tragic events, Madalyn Bingham Taylor from Ogden, Utah, could tell you a thing or two. The homemaker and small business owner is a mother of six and a grandmother of 23, but the death of her son 10 years ago caused her to give up the piano. With another son serving in Iraq, she realized something that this competition has proven time and time again, that music has the power to heal and restore the human soul. Her return to the piano has resulted in some prizes in other competitions and brought her here to play. She opened with Chopin’s Mazurka in A flat, Op. 17. No. 4, one that is not characteristic of the set because of its freer nature. Taylor perfectly caught the mystical nature of the signature four chords in this piece, allowing them their own space to vanish. A quick perusal of her program shows one of Liszt’s arrangements of a Schubert or Schumann song on each round. When listening to her performance of it is immediately obvious that this was a wise choice. Her feel for the vocal line and her ability to create as legato singing sound on what is a percussion instrument at heart was exemplary. When the melody echoes in canon, she brought out each line in perfect clarity and without any loss of the legato connection, even though Schubert requires the pianist to play both lines with the same hand.
Mari Yoshihara, the Japanese Professor of American Studies, is no stranger to the Cliburn. In fact, she wrote a book about the 13th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2009. However, it is certain that her view of the event is far different from the stage than the press room. She played three of the six delightful pieces by Samuel Barber that makes up his Souvenirs, Op. 28. Originally for piano 4-hands and then later recycled for solo piano and also for orchestra, these pieces were written as a ballet suite. Yoshihara got tangled up in the waltz but gave the Pax de deux and the Hesitation Tango to an elegant finish.
Look for reviews of Tuesday's performances coming soon in a separate story.