First rule of backstage behavior at the Van Cliburn Competition: Hold very still when a pianist is playing his or her lightest, most ethereal notes. You do not want to be the Bigfoot who makes the floorboards creak, or the person who drops their notebook with a loud smack…or (woe unto you) the unfortunate someone who enters from the outer hallway and lets the door close with a loud metallic “click” during a delicate musical moment.
Backstage at the Cliburn is, in fact, a fascinating little world, with stretches of not-much-happening followed by little bursts of excitement (and even drama) when each young competitor comes into the area just before the performance.
First, the look and the layout. The walls are black, the ceilings a million miles high. And everything is pretty much in darkness. In the west wings of the backstage area, the video guys hold court at tables full of monitors and digital film devices. This is 88 Films, Inc., which is producing a documentary film about the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Their people—and cameras—are all over the hall.
On the other side of the stage, in the east wings, is a wide doorway that lets grand pianos slide on and offstage in just seconds, and a narrower doorway for performers walking out to face the Big Moment. Three Steinway grand pianos are clustered closely together, with the fourth already onstage. Steinway concert piano technician Ismael Cunha is noodling on one of them, listening for anything he may need to tune up. Nearby is the long table where Cliburn backstage “mother” Kathie Cummins and her assistant Maria Harmon keep everything a young artist might need: mouthwash, water, safety pins, eye drops, lint brush—and a hug if they want one. This area is dark, too, except for the spotlight thrown by a trio of giant white globes (they look like supersized party lanterns) that hang a dozen feet in the air, swaying gently. (Read more about the backstage moms here.)
Who’s around? Cummins and Harmon wait for the next pianist to come in. Longtime Cliburn announcer Steve Cumming, a veteran local radio broadcaster, reads a newspaper feature about the competition and double-checks the pronunciation of names (which Cummins has right at her fingertips, of course). Cumming (no, it isn’t a typo and he and Cummins aren’t related) says he loves being at Bass Hall, but misses the coziness of the Cliburn’s days at smaller Ed Landreth Hall on the TCU campus. “I’m glad they still do the amateur competition there,” he tells us.
Bass technical director Steven Truitt is moving around, checking monitors. His job includes making sure all systems are “go” in the hall: lighting, communications (both audio and video), even the climate of the hall. He’s been here since Bass opened, and so has stage manager Debbie Barr. She’s keeping track of who’s where—and when they need to be someplace else. Barr is the troubleshooter, working all afternoon keeping the schedule moving and dealing with the needs of the people producing the live Webcast of the concert. “In the old days, there was time to read a book once you had things done,” she laughs. “Now, there are so many moving pieces to keep track of, there’s no reading a book, ever!”
In another corner of the east wings are two stagehands, Jay Isham and Kevin Smith “of local 126” of the IATSE, they tell us. Though they laugh about their gray hair, they’re actually newbies at the Cliburn, having taken over when one veteran retired and another passed away this spring. They check a sheet that tells them which of the four Steinway grands to have onstage for each performer. They frequently change out pianos after each short concert, but not this time. “This same one stays out there,” says Isham. “All we change is the level of the bench.” (The pianist’s preferred bench height is measured when they select the piano they will use.) On their table are pairs of white gloves, which they wear for the 30 or 40 seconds it takes to move one piano offstage and another on.
We know there are two American or “New York” style Steinways being used at the Cliburn, and two German style or “Hamburg” models. (Want to know more? Check our feature on the pianos and the team of Steinway technicians who care for them, here.) Steinway concert piano technician Cunha, down from New York, tells us how to know which is which.
“See this straight corner here?” Cunha says, pointing to the side of the piano where it skims along near the high end of the keyboard. “Because this edge is squared off, this is a New York Steinway. The German would have a curved, rolled edge here. The other way to tell, though they all look shiny on stage, is that the German pianos have a much shinier finish, and the New York finish is less shiny, more dull.” He’s working on one note of one piano right now, placing a “mute” on a string next to the one he’s testing to keep it from vibrating. During the performances, he sits by the pianos, having coffee, checking his e-mails, but always listening for any sound from onstage that might mean he has work to do.
But It’s All About the Pianists
If the world backstage is its own little pond, the 30 Cliburn competition pianists are the ripples.
Each one comes backstage a few minutes before one of the biggest moments of their young lives—and the built-in drama of that fact seems to catch everyone up in its spell. People get quiet, movements slow, and everyone seems to wait for that particular performer to let them know how he or she would like things to be. Kathie Cummins is ready at her table, but doesn’t push into their space, waiting to see if they want to talk a bit, have a drink—or be left alone.
One pianist comes in quietly, but sits immediately at a chair in front of the heating pad Cummins keeps set to a medium-high temperature. Into the fold of the heating pad go two very valuable hands, warming themselves, and the pianist begins to swivel back and forth in the chair, chatting easily and quietly—clearly finding something comforting in the moment. This pianist walks slowly to the narrow doorway, waits for the introduction and applause to start, exhales a “whoof” of deep breath…and is gone. During the break between the second and third pieces of this concert, the pianist walks quickly back to the doorway and drains the small glass of water Cummins is holding—along with a small towel in case hands or face need a swipe.
Another performer clearly wants to be left alone. (Not uncommon; try to talk with some actors right before they go onstage, and they’ll bite your head off.) This pianist doesn’t come anywhere near the comforts of Cummins’ table, sitting very upright on a chair at the far corner of the space, staring intently at the blank, black wall ahead. Hands roll inside a black handkerchief, then position themselves over an invisible keyboard and begin to move. Air piano finished, the pianist stands, looks high up the wall, walks closer to the door leading out to the stage—still facing away, still staring intently up and down the black walls.
A third competitor comes in carrying a student’s bulging backpack, checks a cell phone, puts hand on hip and stretches like a runner about to start a marathon. Chatting softly with Cummins and Harmon, this young artist is so casual you start to look around—is a life-changing performance only moments away?
Despite their very different needs and styles “before” a performance, all three turn in performances that are confident and accomplished—and come offstage looking relieved, grabbing a quick drink of water, having a word with piano tech Cunha about some keys that might not be “returning” fast enough. And after a short break, the backstage world will welcome the next trio of competitors, and witness a new set of dramas.
Turns out, being a silent observer—a “fly on the wall”—in the wings of the Cliburn competition is a surprisingly fun, and sometimes dramatic, assignment. And there’s a bonus: the music washing over us all from the nearby stage sounds great—even better than you’d hear in the hall’s best orchestra seats. Lucky us!
◊ Jan Farrington is a freelance writer and editor based in Fort Worth.