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Life & ArtsLife & Arts

Posted on Sun, Jun. 02, 2002 story:PUB_DESC
Tuned in

Star-Telegram Staff Writer
Few insults sting like "amateur."

For a performer, the word suggests second-rate talent, especially when paired with its vicious cousin "rank."

Amateur night at the local club tends to attract jugglers, unicyclists and a dozen off-key renditions of `Tonight' from `West Side Story.' It is best avoided.

So why would the Cliburn Foundation invite 75 amateur pianists to struggle through Brahms for a week, and why would anyone pay to see them compete?

Because the pianists who come to the International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs are amateurs only in the most limiting sense of the word. They play for joy's sake, not money - doctors who sneak in a Bach cantata between surgeries, scientists who plow through Rachmaninoff to relax - but they are talented performers who pursue interests outside of work with the same passion and dedication that they give to their professional lives.

These people do not watch television. There is not enough time.

"One can become one-dimensional, and I find it terrifying," says Rocky Nevin, a competitor from California. "When I get back in contact with some other part of me, there's a sense of `Oh, thank you for remembering I was here.' That's very important, those little voices."

Their playing is free of the vagaries of the music business, the grind of constant performance and the struggle to survive playing music that seldom pays.

Their lives are impossibly rich, and they are perhaps more inspiring than the tuxedo-clad professional virtuosos because they are so approachable. They have day jobs. They commute. We watch them perform and imagine ourselves on stage, seeing our own greatness emerge.

"You're just in awe of them," says Richard Rodzinski, Cliburn Foundation president. "Where do they find the time to be such livers? To become a complete human being, you can't just have your professional life and then go home and eat dinner and maybe watch a little television. You have to nourish that other part of you."

Take Michael Hawley.

By day, he teaches electrical engineering at MIT, where he helped George Lucas develop the digital camera technology behind the newest `Star Wars' films.

Work has also taken Hawley to the top of Mount Everest, where his computers have detected that Nepal is inching toward China one fingernail's width at a time.

Add double degrees from Yale - music and electrical engineering - to Hawley's resume. Then there is his luge habit. And his membership in the U.S. Bobsled Federation. And his Duncan yo-yo championship, circa 1970.

"I get more requests to do yo-yo tricks than play piano," he says.

Great pianists, he insists, lead great lives. The bombast of Franz Liszt's work comes from his spectacular life as a notorious philanderer - a role that brought him duels and attempted poisonings - and a devoted churchman given the title of abbe by Pope Pius IX.

"Music is about life and sex and death," Hawley says. "All that stuff."

Fort Worth's competition was born on the suggestion of Arthur Rubinstein's widow.

Rodzinski had gone to Israel to attend the competition named for the legendary pianist, and while there, Nela Rubinstein mentioned an amateur competition under way in Paris.

She told him, "There are people performing whom my husband would have said, `They belong on stage as much as I do.' You might want to check it out," Rodzinski recalls.

First held in 1999, the amateur Cliburn competition drew international attention. Critics raved the following year when competitors turned clichéd standards upside down, notably Debussy's `Clair de Lune' played painstakingly slow - a taboo in the professional world.

"What was so wonderful," Rodzinski says, "is newspapers around the country would start rooting for their local railroad engineer."

The idea has always been to create a sort of musical Olympic games. Professionals and profit seekers need not apply.

This year's competitors were whittled down from 150 audition tapes. Applicants who weren't outstanding, who failed to bowl the judges over, were not selected.

More than a dozen performers are doctors, but the rest are so varied that they could have been scooped up at random. A homemaker from Alabama. A news anchor from New York. A chemist from Michigan. A missionary from Florida.

Then there is Nevin, a computer programmer from California whose doctoral thesis examined the neural networks of the common cricket.

His motivation for playing: terror.

"I've always been terrified of being stuck in one thing," he says. "The analytical parts of my life, those parts really can dominate and take over."

Playing for an hour a day can keep Nevin's piano side from going inert. He can feel it start to droop in the same way an avid exerciser starts to feel flabby after a week away from the gym.

"Amateurs are some of the most passionate players on the face of the Earth," says James Scott, dean of the college of music at the University of North Texas in Denton. "I've been particularly moved by amateur chamber players. Any time they have a few days off, they will find people to play string quartets with."

In Europe - where vacations are doled out in months, not in weeks - life outside of work is considered essential.

There is a greater craving for an inner life, Rodzinski says. The European schedule has a more varied rhythm than the work-sleep-work-sleep routine of American life.

We should emulate this "richer, fuller enjoyment of life," he says. "It can be charitable work. It can be working as a volunteer coach on a baseball team."

For many Europeans, music is the chosen diversion, says Tamas Ungar, piano professor at Texas Christian University who had three students compete in the 2001 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. To them, it is less a form of recreation than an essential part of being alive. Music is something to be studied rather than switched on for background noise, and to play it well is commonplace.

There is a need to pursue beauty that shows up frequently abroad, Rodzinski says. He recalls an apocryphal story told by the mayor of Jerusalem about a beggar in Shanghai. People passed him by for weeks until one day when a man dropped two copper coins into his hat.

The beggar rose and, with his earnings, bought a bag of rice and a flower. This astonished a nearby merchant, who asked the beggar for an explanation.

"I bought the rice so I might live," the beggar answered, "and the flower that I might have a reason to live."

No one will make the argument that the professional pianist lacks passion or is tainted by commerce.

Pursuing music full time is a brave gesture in any genre, but especially one in which the music is hundreds of years old. Intense love is all that can drive a person into a field that so often leads to failure.

"The decision to fling yourself off the cliff into the free fall of `making a living' as a classical artist reflects a certain unescapable joy, or obsession with making music," says Andrew Russo, a New York-born pianist who competed in last year's Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. "Otherwise, we could certainly find less ulcer-inducing ways to put food on the table and pay the rent."

The grind of constant performance can deplete some of that joy, like the ups and downs of any career, but Russo says it always returns.

Joy and practicality, he says, are compatible. Russo points to Charles Ives, the influential American composer who made his living selling insurance.

Ives watched his father shun the family banking business and take a stab at music, adopting a style so experimental that he sometimes marched several different bands through the streets of Danbury, Conn., all of them playing different tunes. By the end of his life, George Ives had to stoop to working for his nephew in the bank his father once owned.

"It is probable that Charles sensed the futility of his father's efforts and therefore chose instead a career in business and a private musical life," wrote J. Ryan Garber in a 1996 article for the `Classical Music Pages Quarterly.' "Charles achieved what his father failed to accomplish not only in business, but in music as well."

The appeal of amateurs is undeniable. They are the underdogs everyone can cheer.

They represent everyone who took piano lessons at age 10, suffered through recitals and begged their parents to mandate some other form of self-improvement.

But they kept playing. Music awoke some dormant side of them that stayed alive even when they realized it would never earn them a living.

"It's the brain surgeon from Paris and the auto-glass repairman from Oklahoma," Hawley says, "and yet each of these people, when they sit down at the nicest Steinway that Steinway has, they're glowing like a 1,000-watt bulb."

The chance to see that side - persistent, triumphant - is what draws an audience. It is worth knowing that someone with a 40-hour work week can squeeze so much joy out of life.

And that so could we.

Josh Shaffer, (817) 685-3957

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