Review of the The Third Amateur Cliburn Competition

By Robert Finley
6 July 2002

On June 2nd, I went to Fort Worth to compete in the 3rd International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs, sponsored by the Van Cliburn Foundation. My parents accompanied me this time, as they did during the first competition in 1999.

After we arrived at the airport, we went straight to Texas Christian University so that I could register and receive my welcome package. I received a warm welcome from the volunteers at Waits Hall who remembered me from last time. I then went to check in at the hotel and to get ready for the party at the Railhead Smokehouse, just down the road.

It was good to see many friends at the party from previous competitions. There were quite a few new contestants this time. I met some of the Cliburn staff at the party. The food consisted of roast turkey or brisket with vegetables.

It was very nice to see Stephen Hubbard, Professor of Electrical Engineering at Clemson University again. He showed me a photograph of his new 8 month old son sitting at the piano, and I asked him if he could play the Beethoven Opus 111 sonata yet. It was also good to see Viktors Berstis and to hear the latest recordings of his dog Daisy, singing to the Chopin 3rd Scherzo and Fantasy Impromptu.

The next morning I went to practice at Waits Hall. This had been modernized and re-decorated since last time. Each practice room had a new upright piano. This was a big improvement over the pianos in 2000 that were older and mostly out of tune. I was given a three hour practice time, and this was longer than I needed. I can never play for this long without several breaks.

The reception area and lounge had a good selection of refreshments and drinks. There were comfortable sofas and chairs. All the newspaper cuttings were posted on a notice board. This was a very good area to meet contestants and have a chat.

I spent most of the afternoon listening to the preliminary round performances. Some of the most enjoyable performances during the first day included Linda Poligono's outstanding performance of Beethoven's 32 Variations, David Hibbard's Rachmaninoff selection, John Gardecki's Fantasie Impromptu, Nocturne and Etude by Chopin, and Stephen Fierro's El Puerto by Albeniz.

I didn't sleep very well during the night because my performance was at 2 pm the next day. I woke up at 3 am and heard all the pieces in my mind. I couldn't get back to sleep, and felt tired by the time I got up. This has happened time and time again to me at competitions. I thought that this problem would be a good topic for discussion at the Medical Symposium, two days later.

At 8:37 am I was scheduled to try out the Steinway concert grand in the auditorium. Before my rehearsal, I heard some of fellow electrical engineer Franz Mantini's Bach Partita No. 5. This was some of the best Bach I had heard in a long time. I played all of Liszt's Valse Melancolique, the Scriabin Etude Op 8 No 4 and some of Granados' El Pelele. The rehearsal went very well and I liked the instrument. The lady volunteer backstage measured the height of my piano bench. This was a very nice idea I thought!

I then went back to Waits Hall for some more practice. After lunch I went back to the hotel to change into my suit and to collect my video camera and tripod. I went back to the Ed Landreth auditorium at 1 pm to set up the video and to wait for Victor Alexeeff who agreed to operate it for me.

I was slightly nervous before my performance as usual, but when I went on stage I felt fine. I enjoyed playing very much. On the whole it went quite well. I tried to put much expression into the pieces. I had a few minor problems with the El Pelele when I struck a few wrong notes (octaves), but nothing too serious. The piano wasn't as responsive as I had hoped in the middle range. A few of the grace notes in the Liszt piece didn't sound even though I pressed the key down fully ( at least I thought I did) and I noticed this when I watched the video later.

It was very nice to get the applause and to be congratulated by many who came up to me during the break to tell me they enjoyed my performance. This made it all worthwhile.

I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening listening to the other preliminary round recitals. Allan Blumenthal gave a delightful performance of his arrangement of Richard Strauss' waltzes from Der Rosenkavalier. Logos Hall's Sonatine by Ravel was very enjoyable, as was Ellen Dodson's B flat minor Scherzo by Chopin. Scott King also gave a very fine performance of the same Chopin Scherzo later in the day.

In the evening session, Milton's Farbstein's movement from Petrushka by Stravinsky and Chopin's Berceuse were played very musically, even better than when he played them in Paris. Debra Saylor captured the varying moods of Tchaikovsky's Romance in F Op 5 very well. She always makes the piano sing with a good sound. Fox News anchor Lauren Green's played a Brahms Intermezzo, Tchaikovsky Meditation and Ginastera Dance extremely well. This was the best playing I have ever heard from her. She and several others have improved enormously during the last two years.

I had a very good review in the Fort Worth Star Telegram the next morning. The article said I proved my self to be the "master of piano colours" in virtuoso works of Liszt, Scriabin and Granados.

On Wednesday morning, the Medical Symposium took place at the University of North Texas Science Centre. The discussion was led by several rheumatologists, neurologists and other doctors. Several members of the Van Cliburn Foundation staff including Richard Rodzinski, Alann Bedford Sampson, and Amy Brown attended. Alina Rubinstein (one of the jurors), and several contestants and guests were there too. The attendance was a little low due to the rain and all the other events going on.

The symposium was a very interesting and beneficial event. Most of the discussion was concerned with the question of taking beta blockers to overcome nerves and the side effects. They had some solutions to my problem of losing sleep. They suggested that if I wake up in the morning I should read, watch television or listen to music until I feel drowsy again and then try going back to sleep. They advised me not to take sleeping tablets. Relaxation exercises such as stiffening and loosening the muscles, accompanied by deep breathing and counting might also be helpful. The also mentioned the importance of being careful what one eats and drinks before sleeping, avoiding too much caffeine.

One of the highlights of Wednesday's preliminary round was Henri Delbeau's performance of Granados' El Amor y la Muerte. He played this with such musicianship and expression, capturing the romantic and sad moods with wonderful dynamic variation and tonal colour. It made me imagine the tragic scenes from Romeo and Juliet. I was spell-bound. I remember his performance of Schubert's Wanderer Fantasy at the Northeastern Competition last year. This was one of the best I have ever heard, and the cantabile sections brought tears to my eyes. Henri is one of the most musical people I know.

Charles Chien's performance of Chopin's 4th Ballade was very enjoyable. He has the ability to make the piano sing, and everything is beautifully phrased. He always plays very musically and expressively, and I remember how wonderful his Mozart Sonata was in Boston last year.

Before the evening session, we all went to the River Crest Country Club for a buffet dinner consisting of salads, breaded catfish, chicken, vegetables, desserts (hot cherry pie and ice cream!). It was in a very nice banqueting hall. The food was excellent.

During the evening session, Louis Dalaveris' performance of the Brahms B minor Rhapsody and Ravel Jeux d'eau proved that he had made a big improvement in his playing since the last competition. A highlight of the evening was Paul Romero's song like rendition of Chopin's Nocturne in F sharp major, followed by a very entertaining and brilliant performance of Alfred Grunfeld's transcription of Johann Strauss' Die Fledermaus. Michael Hawley's Godowsky and Liszt transcriptions of Bach pieces were well played with good voicing and tone.

Before the semifinalists were announced, there were speeches by Alann Bedford Sampson and Van Cliburn, followed by everyone going on stage to meet Van and to receive the certificate. The announcement of the semifinalists is always a nerve-racking time as I wonder if my name wouldn't be mentioned even though I tried to play as well as possible. My name was mentioned, and this meant that I could play some more of my repertoire! I was very happy.

Each semifinalist was called on stage to receive another certificate and gift (CDs and a CD ROM about Steinway piano production). I was very amused to hear Franz Mantini who also made the semifinals telling Van Cliburn "There goes my golf game!" because I think he may have been planning a game if he didn't make the semifinals (I look forward to playing golf with Franz sometime in the future when I visit Florida so we can discuss music and golf on the course!).

There were some interesting events on Thursday including the Jury Symposium and a chamber music session. The jury symposium took place in the Pepsico auditorium and the idea was for the jurors to discuss what they were looking for when choosing contestants to advance. They included John Giordarno (Chairman of the Jury and former conductor of Fort Worth Symphony), Shields-Collins Bray (Principal Keyboardist, Fort Worth Symphony), David Karp (Professor of Piano Southern Methodist University), Antonio Pompa-Baldi (Silver Medalist 11th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition), Harold Martina (Professor of Piano, TCU), Alina Rubinstein (pianist, psychiatrist, daughter of Artur Rubinstein), John Owings (Chairman Piano Department TCU) and Philip Kawin (Major faculty member Manhattan School of Music).

Some of the discussion concerned the difference between playing from music or memory and whether they took this into account. The most important factor is how the music sounds. Even though one plays from music, parts of it have to be memorized, and there could be a problem losing one's place in the score if one looks up. Harold Martina made an amusing comment that Robert Schumann thought a chord sounded better when played from memory! He also made some other funny remarks. When contestant John Blasdale said he "plays mainly for relaxation", Harold said that someone mentioned this in a masterclass with a famous teacher, and the teacher said playing the piano is not for relaxation. It can be exciting, tiring, exhilarating, amusing, so if you are looking for relaxation, I advise you to go to bed!"

It is very important to play what you love and do not play for or try to impress the jury. A performer should be sincere, and should not necessarily choose the most difficult piece. Shields-Collins mentioned that a couple of performers we so "at one" with the music that they almost "merged" with or "became" the music. One should not worry too much about wrong notes unless they are serious and destroy the structure and of the piece. The overall effect is important. Alina Rubinstein was interested to know why a contestant chose that piece. If a new piece is chosen and played really well, this can be a revelation.

Another question was when the contestants all play at a high level, what does the jury look for? They look for imagination, personality, respect for the composer's intentions. Usually they can tell if one can "play' or not within the first few minutes. They want to be compelled to listen and to be interested in knowing what the pianist will do in the next phrase. Rather than a performer playing very fast to impress, and sometimes going out of control, it is far more important to play accurately and have a good rhythm and pulse. This will give the illusion of speed. Sophisticated pedaling is very important, and this is often lacking in amateur performances. The question of memory slips was discussed. As long as this is not too serious and the performer gets back on track, this will usually be forgiven.

They also discussed the pros and cons of computerized voting versus voting with discussion between members of the jury. Judging a performance is subjective and a different jury may come to a different conclusion. Jurors can usually remember one's performance throughout a competition, even with many contestants.

My chamber music session was scheduled for 2 pm with a violinist and cellist from the Fort Worth Symphony. We played the Schubert B flat piano trio in one of the small halls next to the main auditorium. They were excellent players and good sight readers. Since I had to spend most of my time practicing for the competition, it didn't allow much preparation time for the Schubert. I had played this several years ago so it came back to me. I had an excellent time and the ensemble was quite good. My parents were there to hear it. More people should play chamber music. This is one of the most enjoyable types of music making, and helpful in producing a well-rounded musician. It's also great fun. This will hopefully be a permanent feature during the next Van Cliburn IPCOA.

The next day my performance was scheduled for 7:30 pm, not as late as in the last competition (close to 11 pm). I spent some of the day practicing and resting (I still didn't sleep well the night before). My rehearsal on the concert grand went well. Unfortunately I didn't hear many semifinalists. This is one of the problems in a competition, that you can't hear everyone. I heard Debra Saylor playing the Debussy Arabesque, Ravel Pavane and Schumann Arabesque, and then I went back to the hotel.

I heard that my recital would be broadcast live on KTCU radio and on the internet, so I called a few friends back home to let them know, in case they would be able to listen. (several did listen and heard my performance!)

I was somewhat more nervous before my performance due to the live broadcast, with the possibility that millions of people could hear me, but I felt OK when I started playing. The Bach Prelude and Fugue went quite well, with only one minor mistake in the fugue. I had a few memory slips that weren't noticeable in the Faure 6th Nocturne. I am not sure if this was due to over-practicing, nerves, a distraction or feeling tired. This never happened before in this piece. I have played it dozens of times without any problems. The Rachmaninoff Etude Tableau, a faster and more risky piece, went well. When I went off stage, I was not completely happy due to the few mishaps in the Faure, and this showed on my face. Steve Cummings, the announcer, noticed this and mentioned that I didn't look happy. I told him why during the radio interview.

I went back into the auditorium to hear the remaining contestants. I was very impressed with John Gardecki's professional and well polished performance of a Haydn Sonata and Chopin Polonaise in A flat. Michael Hawley gave a fine performance of Liszt's Legend of St. Francis Walking on the Waves.

When the jury announced the finalists, my name wasn't mentioned. I was wondering whether this was due to the small mishaps I had in the Faure? I was disappointed, but at least I was a semifinalist like last time. I met a couple of jurors and one said to me I was on his list of finalists. The other said if there had been seven finalists I would have made it. It was encouraging but not like being a finalist. Maybe I will have better luck next January in Paris or Salt Lake City?

On Saturday morning, I had another good review in the Fort Worth Star Telegram newspaper that said "Electrical engineer Robert Finley delivered a cleanly etched appealingly lyrical rendition of a Bach Prelude and Fugue followed by the melodies of Faure's Nocturne in D flat and the folk-like energy of a Rachmaninoff Etude Tableau"

I went to the Question and Answer session, attended by members of the Van Cliburn Foundation staff , jurors, contestants and guests. The idea of this was to give feedback to the staff and to suggest what could be added and changed to make future competitions even better. For social activities, they may consider inviting us to a Texan ranch next time! That would be wonderful.

I suggested that the winner should have an opportunity to play a concerto with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, as is done in Paris. I also suggested that the piano marathons (short recitals for those who didn't progress to play some of their remaining repertoire) should be in a decent auditorium with a concert grand, and not in a downtown library. I told them the chamber music was wonderful and should be a permanent feature. I also suggested that opportunities for piano duet, two piano works and concertos would be a good idea.

It is clear that the Van Cliburn Foundation is doing whatever it can to make this a wonderful experience and especially to help those who do not progress. It can be very disappointing to spend months preparing repertoire and not to get past the first round, only to play for a mere 12 minutes (I know how disappointing this can be myself from previous competitions). It should be a good opportunity to obtain feedback and to learn from the experience.

Some people enter the competition with completely the wrong attitude, just to win, and when they don't progress, they immediately leave, missing out on all the rest of the fun, music and celebrations, and without even saying goodbye. Getting a good press review the next day and being congratulated after a performance does not mean that one is going to progress or win. The odds of winning are very small and it can depend on the whims of the jury (music is very subjective), whether you are feeling OK at the time, luck, and many other factors. The main reason should be to have a good time making and listening to music, to socialize and enjoy the company of others, and to make new friends. One is more likely to be successful with this attitude.

On Saturday afternoon, the final round began. I was most impressed with Henri Delbeau's Liszt Sonata. Although he had some memory lapses, he played most of it with such poetry, expression and passion that it was one of the best interpretations I have ever heard. Charles Chien excelled in several variations of the Schumann Symphonic Etudes, especially the last posthumous variation before the finale that was the most beautiful of all.

Debra Saylor played the Chopin Polonaise in A major and the Beethoven Pathetique Sonata very well, although the Polonaise seemed unusually slow. She produced good power from the instrument where it was needed in the Beethoven. As a singing teacher she probably has a highly trained ear and good sense of melodic lines and phrasing.

Michael Hawley's own arrangement of Bernstein's Dances from West Side Story was ingenious and finely crafted, complete with finger snapping. He created the atmosphere of the rival gangs very well. I was wondering though why most of his repertoire consisted of transcriptions and arrangements of other works. Was this because transcriptions might be more impressive than the original works? Weren't original compositions by other composers sufficiently musical? Maybe he particularly loved these transcriptions.

Another contestant who likes playing transcriptions was Paul Romero. He played the Andre Watts arrangement of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. He played this in Paris last January and achieved a standing ovation. It is far more interesting than Gershwin's original solo version which I have played. It incorporates more of the enhancements from the version for piano and orchestra. I think he played it even better in Fort Worth. He followed the Gershwin with Moszkowski's "Caprice Espagnol", a piece he also played in Paris. Paul has a phenomenal technique and always adds excitement to his playing. He also allows the phrasing to expand, and makes the most of sustained notes and pauses, which add to the dramatic effect.

Victoria Bragin played the Chopin Sonata in B minor. Although it was a "solid" performance without any memory slips and with few wrong notes, I felt very bored during this performance. It seemed restricted in dynamics, lacking in expression and excitement (especially in the finale that required more power and fireworks). I like to be moved, excited, amused, or saddened by a performance, and this did nothing for me.

The results of the competition were announced after a long jury deliberation, and Michael Hawley and Victoria Bragin tied for first place with Paul Romaro second. Debra Saylor, Charles Chien and Henri Delbeau received discretionary prizes.

I was very disappointed with the jury's decision, especially after listening to the Jury Symposium to find out what they look for. The participants of the symposium were not the complete jury because the press jury joined them later for the semifinals and finals, so this may have changed the outcome. I felt that those who played the most musically were not rewarded enough, and memory slips were penalized unduly.

I wonder whether such a large jury is a good thing. In Paris they also have a huge jury. Maybe this is good for publicity, with members of the press writing articles for their newspapers and magazines, but I wonder if this helps the contestants with a fairer verdict. I personally would prefer a smaller number of jurors composed entirely of concert pianists. Such a jury would know very well what it takes to produce an excellent performance.

After the awards ceremony, we all went to TJ Garcia's, the famous Mexican restaurant in Fort Worth. We had the buffet dinner in our own private hall across the road from the main restaurant. Last time it was during the day, and the tables were outside. I enjoyed socializing very much. The food was good, and not too hot and spicy.

After the dinner we were invited to a reception at the home of a former Chairman of the Van Cliburn Foundation. It was after 11 pm when I arrived and there were still many people there. I met Van Cliburn again, and Antonio Pompa-Baldi and his wife. When I arrived back at the hotel it was 1:30 am.

I had a wonderful week and was sorry it had to end. I heard some great performances and met some of the nicest people ever in my life. I can hardly wait for the next competition in 2004!

Rober Finley's Review Page with pictures