The Van Cliburn Foundation presented an unusual program on Saturday at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. Four winners of their Amateur Piano Competition played an eclectic program of works that only had in common the fact that they were for piano.
Michael Hawley, the 2002 First Prize Winner, started out. He played a program of Baroque music, most of which was reinterpreted. Godowsky's "Renaissance" is a pair of sarabandes; one after Rameau and another after Lully. From there, he launched into Bach's Gavotte from the E major, "Partita" in Rachmaninoff's overblown version. Then we had some real Bach, his Prelude and Fugue No. 5 in D Major followed by Hawley's own transcription of Bach's massive Fugue for Organ in G Major BWV 577, subtitled "Gigue."
Drew Mays, who took first place in 2007, followed with an excellent rendition of Beethoven's Sonata No. 31 in A flat Major, Op. 110 and the program closed with a transcription of Saint-Saëns delightful suite, "The Carnival of the Animals." Christopher Shih, the 2011 First Prize Winner, and Clark Griffith, who came in third in 2007 and second to Shih in 2011, played this in a piano four-hands (two players at one piano) arrangement. This transcription wasn't credited in the program, but I suspect it might have been the one by Lucien Garban, which I haven't heard in decades.
All four pianists played beautifully and personified the very high level of non-professional pianists. These are musicians that chose to do something else with their lives and there is some others connections between them. Both Hawley and Griffith work in technical fields and Mays and Shih are physicians. There is something about the precision of music and the discipline of the endless hours required to master the piano that must lend itself to such detail oriented careers. Remembering lots of facts and lots of notes seem to be related. So is the skill to take all of these facts and details and do something creative with them.
Hawley, whose wide-ranging program was limited to Baroque as seen through other eyes, is also an adventurer in his non-musical life. He has worked in computer music with Pierre Boulez, digital movies with George Lucas, NeXT computing with Steve Jobs, and even scaled Mount Everest with a scientific expedition. Oh, and he is also a published author and photographer. Little surprise, then, that he would want to take a fresh look at old masterpieces. It is also not a surprise that the biggest challenge of his program he set for himself. His arrangement of the big organ fugue, now needing to incorporate the pedal part into the existing parts for two already maxed-out hands, was a tour de force.
Mays, on the other hand, studied music but switched to ophthalmology in 1991. He narrowed his interests further to the treatment of glaucoma. Only after he mastered his chosen profession, a period of 15 years, did he return to the keyboard. But he did so in the same exacting way. In 2006, he took second place at the Rocky Mountain Amateur Competition and won the Cliburn Amateur in 2007. His choice of one of the five late Beethoven sonatas shows a serious musical mind that wants to make a statement on a single thought. Even though this is perhaps the easiest of the five to play, its difficulties are legendary, especially in requiring a legato line with little help from the pedal. Mays delivered a thoughtful and technically secure performance.
Shih and Griffith have run dual tracks in their career with music and business living side by side. Shih has played with orchestras and won a string of amateur competitions, culminating with the Cliburn Amateur in 2011. Griffith has bounced around as a radio announcer, web designer, and computer programmer. Musically, he has also stuck to odd jobs: accompanist, orchestral pianist and even a turn at the theater. He played the fiendishly difficult Beethoven Diabelli Variations to accompany Kaufman's 33 Variations, a play about a Beethoven researcher trying to unlock the piece's mysteries, at Theatre Three in Dallas.
It was not a surprise that these two took on the delicious antics of Saint-Saens' "Carnival of the Animals." Having heard this piece many times in many different incarnations, I have to say that I never enjoyed it more that when these two abundantly talented pianist gave it a whirl. The transcription (perhaps Garban's) put the four hands at the same keyboard all right, but frequently they were intertwined or directly on top of each other. Those of us on the keyboard side of the performance marveled at the jumble of hands, which sometimes looked like four wrestling puppies tumbling over each in a joyous romp.
The Cliburn Amateur is, perhaps, the most important competition that they run. While it is imperative to identify and reward the very best of the upcoming crop of pianists, encouraging the other 99 percent to strive for the same level of playing as the pros, when life takes them in a different direction, is Cliburn's lasting gift to music and the art of the keyboard.