Posts Live from Van Cliburn International Piano Competition: Behind the Scenes at the Semifinals

Posts Live from Van Cliburn International Piano Competition

The Van Cliburn International Piano Competition has been called the Piano Olympics. There are similarities.

Both are quadrennial. Both attract competitors from around the globe. Both generate constant rumblings about biased judges, which suggests that playing the piano has more in common with gymnastics or figure skating than with, say, running marathons. Competing in the Cliburn requires intense preparation over many years, careful coaching, physical and mental stamina and nerves of steel.

The Cliburn has set the standard in the competition world for its attentive care and feeding of young artists. They are housed with host families who make sure that they are comfortable, well-fed and free of distractions. Each host home is equipped with a meticulously maintained Steinway.

The Cliburn semifinalists for 2013. Photo by Ralph Lauer/Courtesy of The Cliburn

But even the most thoughtful host family cannot shield the competitors from the presence of cameras once they leave the house. They are often followed by a Cliburn documentary crew. Every performance is recorded and shot with equipment located around the stage. There is a huge, black camera boom that swings ominously above the piano like a drone.

We walked to the hall yesterday evening with Mark Steinberg, first violinist of the Brentano Quartet, the ensemble performing with the competitors in this week’s semifinal round. Mark said that they don’t notice the drone camera when they are playing. He did comment that the biggest concern for the competitors is the presence of cameras back stage.

Anxious hand wringing, stretching exercises, nervous pacing, wardrobe adjustments, post-performance high-fives and tears are all captured for eventual inclusion in the documentary that will eventually air on PBS. Electronic surveillance is not usually a part of classical artists’ performing careers.

Like gymnasts or decathlon athletes, the Cliburn competitors are expected to be all-rounders. They have to be prepared to play several solo recitals, a chamber work with the Brentano Quartet and two concertos with the Fort Worth Symphony. The have to demonstrate that they can communicate a wide range of musical styles.

They have almost total discretion in what they choose to play, but they are all required to perform a work commissioned specifically for the competition.This year, that piece is by noted American composer Christopher Theofanidis, a daunting extravaganza of rhythmic complexity, vast leaps and a surprising dose of whimsy. Having to learn a contemporary piece that has no history of performance is a real test of an artist’s musical imagination. It has been fascinating to hear six different interpretations and we will be hearing six more before bedtime tonight.

Mark Steinberg shared a great story with us. We were very impressed by 26-year-old Italian competitor Alessandro Deljavan’s performance of the Dvorak quintet. Deljavan confided in the Brentano folks that he loves playing chamber music, but hates giving solo performances. Astounded, they ask him if that was the case, then what in the world he was doing at the Cliburn. He laughed and said it was to make his mother happy.

Amid all the hoopla and tension, we ended the day with a warm, fuzzy feeling.

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