The Party Continues: The Third Amateur Cliburn Competition

By Carl Tait (
25 June 2002

Since its inception in 1999, the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs -- informally known as the "Amateur Cliburn" -- has been a source of inspiration and aspiration for serious non-professional pianists the world over. Modeled on an annual contest held in Paris, the 1999 Amateur Cliburn was so enthusiastically received that it was held again in 2000 and is now a biennial event.

I had played in the first two competitions and reached the semifinals both times. With two more years of experience -- and a gold medal in the 2002 Northeastern Amateur Competition (one of several contests that had sprung up in the wake of the Amateur Cliburn) -- I hoped to reach the finals this time. There had been 130 applications for the 75 available slots, so the level of playing promised to be high. More than anything else, however, I was looking forward to a week of immersion in a sea of piano fanatics who happened to have full-time careers in other fields.

SUNDAY, JUNE 2: Arrival and Welcome Party

From almost the moment I arrived at the Dallas / Fort Worth airport, familiar faces from previous competitions started popping up. By the time I reached the competition site at Texas Christian University, it was practically a family reunion. The mother-and-daughter team of Genny Mascorro and Lauri Lawrence welcomed me warmly when I checked in at Waits Hall; this was the third time around for all of us.

After a bit of practicing on one of the pianos that had been moved into the Waits dorm rooms for the duration of the competition, I was off to the welcome party at the Railhead Smokehouse. Old friends were everywhere; new friends were easily made in such a congenial atmosphere. As I rhapsodized over the delicious smoked brisket while excitedly discussing a beloved composition by Chopin, fellow competitor Rick Jorgensen remarked, "Carl, you need to work on your lack of enthusiasm."

Back to the practice rooms. A couple of hours later, I returned to the hotel and confirmed that my parents had arrived safely from Atlanta. With everything happily in place, I conked out for the night.

MONDAY, JUNE 3: Prelims, Day 1

Steve Cumming walked on stage at Ed Landreth Auditorium at 1 PM to announce the start of the competition and introduce the first pianist. Steve's easy-going manner and keen sense of humor have made him an asset to both the Amateur and Professional Cliburn Competitions, and we were all pleased to have him back as announcer. He reported that 43% of this year's contestants had played in at least one of the previous events. No wonder the whole thing felt like a get-together at Aunt Mary's house.

Lawrence Porter, a New Mexico piano technician, opened the competition with creditable performances of two difficult Liszt Etudes, La Campanella and the Tenth Transcendental. Not exactly the repertoire that comes to mind when hearing the word "amateur."

Next came a trio of three-time competitors: Clemson electrical engineering professor Stephen Hubbard, New York City architect Rick Jorgensen, and Fort Worth railroad manager Dave Hibbard. All were musicianly players who impressed in various ways -- Stephen with the pearly ease of his passagework, Rick with a cheerful lilt in Chopin's A-flat Ballade, and Dave with his fine ear for Rachmaninoff's style -- yet none seemed optimistic about making the semifinals. Stephen, in particular, had had his first child this year and discovered that some things were more important than cramming in a couple of extra hours of piano practice. He brought along a photo of his young son sitting with his hands on the piano keys and a Liszt Etude on the music rack. Impossible to start working on that stuff too early....

I spent the bulk of the afternoon practicing. I was making an effort to spend no more than three hours a day at the piano: in retrospect, those six hours a day during the 2000 event had seemed like mind-numbing overkill. While six hours is fine for general practicing, I had found it to be counterproductive for pieces I was going to perform just a day or two later. Mental fatigue can be even more deleterious than physical fatigue.

Even with the self-imposed time restrictions, I managed to miss the performance by Linda Poligono, a San Francisco homemaker with an M.B.A. and a degree in computer engineering. She made a hit with everyone who heard her and was named "Star of the Day" by the Fort Worth paper. Since it was clear she was going to be in the semis, at least I'd have a chance to hear her then.

I took a break from practicing to hear Victor Alexeeff, a composer from Ohio who had won the 2001 Boston Amateur Competition yet failed to advance past the first round in the 2002 Northeastern. After hearing him play, it was easy to see why juries might have wildly differing reactions. His technique was rock solid, but his interpretations were along the lines of a romantic Glenn Gould: "highly personal" or "downright perverse," depending on one's point of view. His tempos were often very fast -- especially in the Prelude to Debussy's "Pour le piano," which Victor later said he had wanted to play even faster! -- and he was one of the few pianists who was difficult to judge from only 12 minutes of music. His playing was alternately compelling and crazy, sometimes both within the space of a few measures. It was hard to predict how the jury would react. As it turned out, they chose not to include Victor in the semifinals, but I'd still like to hear him again at some point.

After my parents and I had dinner and compared notes, we returned to hear the entire evening session. We were especially interested in hearing South Carolina homemaker Ann Herlong: she and my mother had given their senior recital together at Converse College many years ago. Happily, Ann turned out to be a fine pianist, opening with a colorful and beautifully- phrased reading of Chopin's Aeolian Harp Etude, and following it with a charming performance of Villa-Lobos's Branquinha. Rachmaninoff's G minor Prelude was also good but slightly rougher: fast repeated chords were unusually difficult on the performance piano, as I was to find out for myself the next day. This was Ann's first time at the competition, but given her excitement at finding so many congenial pianophiles from all over the world, I have little doubt she'll be back in 2004.

Texas attorney J. Michael Brounoff made a strong impression with a well-chosen assortment of Debussy Preludes. Musicianship, subtle tonal control, and a good sense of humor were all in evidence. I fully expected him to reach the semifinals this year, and was glad that he did.

A number of competitors made last-minute changes to their programs, either playing their pieces in a different order or deciding to play works they had originally selected for later rounds of the contest. Michael Moore, a retired court reporter from Tucson who had reached the finals of the 2000 competition, was perhaps the most extreme example: he ditched his entire planned program and played two pieces that weren't listed in his repertoire for *any* round. The results were excellent: Clementi's big C major Sonata (a Horowitz item from the late 1970s) had full tone and good shaping, and a set of variations by Ponce (on a Mexican tune, I believe) were also a pleasure. Michael seemed to be a clear semifinalist.

Overall, it had been an impressive day. No one had played horribly; quite a few had played well, and a handful had played *very* well. The average level was clearly the highest of any Amateur Cliburn so far.

TUESDAY, JUNE 4: Prelims, Day 2

Shortly after dawn (10:24 AM), I had my seven-minute tryout on the performance piano. It was a nine-foot Steinway D as in previous years, but I didn't find it as appealing or responsive as the instrument used in 2000. The action was a bit heavy and sluggish, and extra work was required to coax warm sounds out of the mid-range. On the positive side, each pianist's preferred bench height was carefully measured and recorded so that the stage crew could set it precisely just before the performance. This was a great idea that removed one source of anxiety.

"Backstage Mother" Louise Canafax, as friendly and charming as always, decided this year to give up trying to get me to talk more slowly. "We love you just like you are," she said kindly. (I still tried to talk a little slower, but doubt I succeeded.)

After getting up so early, I had to sneak back to the hotel for a short nap. On awakening, I'd planned to hear most of the competitors, but given my uneasy feelings about the potentially combative piano, I decided that more practice time was in order. The first part of the afternoon session ended up being thick with future semifinalists, and I missed four of them: Dave Duebendorfer, Franz Mantini, Robert Finley, and John Markey.

I got to Ed Landreth in time to hear a strong performance by Ellen Dodson, a Massachusetts business consultant with natural, unforced musicianship and solid technique. She played Chopin's B-flat minor Scherzo, a piece that appeared frequently enough in the competition to be nicknamed "this year's G minor Ballade." (The 1999 contest had featured literally a dozen performances of Chopin's Ballade No. 1 in G minor.) A first-time Cliburnian, Ellen received rousing applause and was clearly delighted.

Uncharacteristically nervous about my upcoming performance, I had a light dinner with my parents and tried not to worry. Then I returned to Waits Hall to begin the ritualized progress from warm-up room to on-deck room (across the hall from the stage entrance) to ...

"Okay, they're all ready for you."

I entered the backstage area just as Arizona microbiologist Milt Farbstein was leaving the stage after his applause. Steve Cumming offered a cheerful hello and said he always enjoyed mentioning my bagpipe playing in his introduction. Milt's eyes lit up. "You play the bagpipes?" he asked excitedly. Turned out he was another fan of this unjustly maligned instrument. So there we were, a radio announcer, a computer scientist, and a microbiologist, backstage at a piano competition talking about our mutual love of bagpiping. Only at the Amateur Cliburn.

We regretfully interrupted our pipe-chat so the contest could continue. Steve introduced me and I walked on stage feeling somewhat less nervous after the Scottish banter. I sat down at the well-measured bench, relaxed, and started the Chopin D-flat Nocturne. Within seconds, my nervousness was entirely gone and the piece went well. As with most of my better performances, I don't remember much about it except that it felt good.

When the piece was over, the audience clapped. I turned my head and smiled, then turned back to the keyboard. The applause continued. I looked at the crowd again and gave a bigger smile. Still the clapping went on. Delighted, I stood up and took a bow, then sat back down and started to play Liszt's Tenth Transcendental Etude with confidence.

Unfortunately, confidence wasn't enough. I was struggling before the first bar was over: somehow, I couldn't get used to the feel of the piano in this ruthless etude. The piece stayed on track reasonably well -- no memory slips and no disasters -- but there were decidedly more mistakes than usual and the whole thing felt uncomfortable and thin-toned. Though it was well below my best level, it wasn't a terrible reading, and I thought it would probably be good enough to make the semifinals when the Nocturne was taken into account. My optimistic opinion would fall precipitously over the course of the next 24 hours.

In thinking about the performance during the following hours and days, I decided I had made The Doerrfeld Mistake. Paul Doerrfeld, a talented pianist and 1999 Amateur Cliburn finalist, had performed Chopin's terrifying chromatic Etude Op. 10/2 in the first round of the 2000 competition. It fell apart somewhere around the middle and never really recovered. Afterwards, Paul had said he knew it was going to be a struggle the minute he had tried out the performance piano. The central problem in both Paul's case and mine was that we had chosen *relentless* etudes: not only difficult, but merciless. There were no spots to catch a breath or recompose one's technique if something started going wrong. True, both Paul and I could *usually* play these pieces well, but the risk was greatly magnified on a big, hefty piano under circumstances that were intrinsically taxing for amateurs. (Can I substitute the videotape of a much better performance of the Liszt I'd given for half a dozen friends a week before the contest?)

There was the usual post-performance interview with Steve Cumming, then I returned to greet the cheering mobs of admirers (if one adopts an extremely loose definition of "mob"). Dave Hibbard gave me a bear hug and said the only way the Nocturne could have been closer to the spirit of Chopin would have been if I'd developed tuberculosis while playing.

By the time I was feeling semi-normal again, it was time for Omaha sales associate Debra Saylor, the blind pianist who had floored us all with her breathtaking performance of "Clair de lune" in 2000. This year, she began with Tchaikovsky's F minor Romance (a piece I don't know well) and was warmly applauded. She followed this with Schubert's A-flat Impromptu from Op. 90 -- and unfortunately, I had some reservations about it. The dancelike element that had been present in her Schubert playing in 2000 was rather soggy here; the cascades of sixteenth-notes tended to clump up, impeding the flow of the music. The underlying warmth and musicianship were still in place, however, and it seemed likely that Debra would once again advance to the semifinals.

Chemistry professor Victoria Bragin was next, with Haydn's Sonata in F (Hob. XVI:23). Haydn, snore. Shame on me; Haydn's a great composer worthy of being mentioned in the same breath with zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Okay, I've made my prejudices clear: Haydn doesn't do a lot for me. So why was I hanging on every note of Victoria's performance? Answer: It was alert, intense, colorful, witty, *alive*. What a musician. Bragin, not Haydn. Okay, maybe both.

New York City news anchor Lauren Green offered a well-contrasted mini-recital of Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Ginastera. Her playing was sympathetic and appealing, and her chances of making the semis seemed very good. This was the best I'd ever heard Lauren play -- a thought that crossed my mind with a number of other pianists as the competition continued.

Like Michael Moore in 2000, Minneapolis sheet music salesperson Darin Tysdal made *music* out of Copland's often-obnoxious Piano Variations. It is ironic but not entirely unexpected that the only two performances of this work I've ever liked (better make that "didn't hate") were at the Amateur Cliburn.

The evening ended with Kentucky attorney J. Todd Spangler, who opened with the first movement of Beethoven's Waldstein Sonata. True, it could have been a lot more forceful in its fortissimos, but the passagework was well-oiled and bright. What followed was wonderful: an utterly effortless and charming performance of Gottschalk's "Souvenirs d'Andalousie." *This* is the way to play salon music! No finger-pointing at the virtuosity; no playing down to the music or up to the crowd; just disarming simplicity that had the audience chuckling with delight.

WEDNESDAY, JUNE 5: Prelims, Day 3

I woke up feeling much more uncertain about my chances of reaching the semifinals. The worst part of the problematic Liszt had been the first page, making an impression that would have been hard to erase even if the remaining eleven pages had been spectacular, which they hadn't been.

In both 1999 and 2000, my preliminary-round performance was mentioned in the Fort Worth newspaper's review. This year, it wasn't -- another ominous sign. At the same time, however, the Dallas Morning News gave me the nicest compliment I've ever received in print: my "gently backlit D-flat major Nocturne was ravishing."

I had slept very late, and my attendance at the afternoon session was spotty thanks to the (at least theoretical) need to continue practicing. I did hear Canadian economist Marie-Claude Montplaisir in a solid and enjoyable performance of Liszt's octave-laden Sixth Hungarian Rhapsody. Marie-Claude was followed by California flight attendant purser Charles Chien, whose compelling reading of Chopin's F minor Ballade made him a lock to reach the semifinals for the third time.

The best performance of the entire preliminary round may have been Long Island physician Henri Delbeau's "El amor y la muerte" from Granados's Goyescas. The piece is dark and wild, alternately passionate and tragic, and Henri captured its shifting moods with fine feeling and impressive virtuosity. Yet another three-time Amateur Cliburnite, Henri had made the semis in 1999 but for some reason had not gotten past the first round in 2000. He was certainly bound for the semis this time, and possibly the finals.

Before the final session of the preliminaries, everyone headed out to the River Crest Country Club for the competitor/jury dinner. As in previous years, this event was thoughtfully scheduled at the last mealtime during which we would *all* be active competitors -- a fine idea that was typical of the care taken by the Cliburn staff. I sat at a table populated by fellow New Yorkers and a few interlopers. One pleasant surprise was the appearance of restaurateur Greg Adams, a competitor in 1999 and 2000 who has now started his own amateur contest in Colorado. Greg hadn't had time to prepare for this year's Amateur Cliburn, but wanted to come anyway to visit with old friends.

Two of the pianists in the evening session played all-Bach programs -- something of a rarity, given the reputation of Bach's music for falling into ruins with only slight provocation. Michigan business owner Kenneth Roe gave a fluent, straightforward, and appealing reading of the Sixth French Suite and appeared to have a good shot at making the semis. MIT professor (and good friend) Mike Hawley played a pair of Bach transcriptions: one by Godowsky and one by Liszt. The great Prelude and Fugue in A minor came off as especially strong and big-boned, both in Liszt's treatment and in Mike's able hands. Another name had been added to the list of sure semifinalists.

[WARNING: I would not ordinarily mention Paul Romero's performances because they were so antithetical to my own musical tastes. Given his success in the competition, however, a write-up seems necessary. Those who do not wish to read any negative comments should skip the next paragraph.]

Paul Romero, a Los Angeles CD-ROM game composer, had won the Paris Amateur Competition and its Audience Award earlier in 2002. Though his technical facility was remarkable, I had a hard time finding much to admire in his playing. He opened with a steely Chopin F-sharp Nocturne that prompted a fellow contestant to later ask me, "How'd you like that Prokofiev Nocturne?" Paul continued with Alfred Grunfeld's "Soiree de Vienne," a virtuoso transcription drawn from Johann Strauss's "Die Fledermaus." Grunfeld himself made a wonderful recording of the piece in 1910. In Paul's performance, however, genial old-world charm was replaced by calculated new-world glitz. I looked at my parents: my father had his head in his hands; my mother -- who had sung in Fledermaus when she was in the Metropolitan Opera -- was aghast. ("Like a loud music box," she said later.) I was frankly horrified, both by the interpretation and by the thought that the dazzling fingerwork would probably carry Paul forward to the next round. It did.

New York City psychiatrist Mark Cannon gave the final performance of the preliminary round. He began with a sensitive reading of Chopin's darkly introspective B-flat minor Mazurka, and closed with Scarlatti's Sonata K. 162 / L. 21. His tone in the Scarlatti rang warmly, even in the relatively dull mid-range of the instrument.

Before the semifinalists were announced, the enjoyable "Meet Van Cliburn" tradition was continued. Each contestant shook hands with the kind and infinitely patient Cliburn, speaking with him briefly as fellow competitor Viktors Berstis snapped a picture with a digital camera. (I can see those framed 8x10s destined for living room walls all over the world: "Oh yeah, Van and I go *way* back.") I told my old buddy Van that I planned to keep coming back to the competition until I was 97 years old, banging out "Chopsticks" with my walker.

And then it was time for the announcement. I had downgraded my own odds to a 3:1 underdog, feeling that there were just too many solid performances to choose from -- while still hoping I would beat the odds. The list was:

Oops. No more Liszt Etudes in the preliminaries for me.

One real surprise was the omission of Michael Moore. I had him on my short list of nine pianists who were obviously going to make it, and am not sure why he didn't. Another listener thought that Michael's chords in his Clementi were a touch heavy-handed, and the jury may have agreed.

Overall, the selection of semifinalists looked reasonable. Given the depth of this year's field of pianists, the eighteen slots could have been filled twice over. One contestant who heard almost every performance said that his list of plausible semifinalists contained forty names.

An unofficial award: Charles Chien had the honor of being the only three-time semifinalist.

After the announcement, I saw Richard Rodzinski (President of the Cliburn Foundation) in the hall outside the auditorium. He offered a rueful smile and a shrug: "Oh, well." I grinned back without distress: "Next time!"

I returned to the hotel and called my "press agent" Jeremy Cook in Connecticut to spread the news via e-mail. Jeremy is a friend and pianist who might be tempted into applying to the 2004 Amateur Cliburn with a bit of gentle arm-twisting (such as this paragraph).


My disappointment over not making the semis faded rapidly. It was replaced, for the most part, with two happy thoughts: I don't have to practice any more! And I'm on vacation!

Along with my father and Stephen Hubbard, I spent a good chunk of the day enjoying the hospitality of Dave and Anna Hibbard, who live practically around the corner from the competition site. Like me, Dave has a near-evangelical fervor for recordings by the "Golden Age" pianists. We listened to a number of selected gems -- it's just plain impossible to get tired of hearing Ignaz Friedman's celebrated recording of Chopin's Nocturne Op. 55/2 -- and punctuated our musical discussions with slices of Anna's delicious homemade cake. I had three pieces and feel no shame.

My Aunt Marty and Uncle Jack arrived from Abilene late in the afternoon. It had been a pleasure to have them in the audience for the first two competitions and I was pleased they wanted to continue the tradition even without me in the semifinals. Their granddaughter Bree -- a student at TCU -- joined us for dinner that night, resulting in one of my rare you-must-be-getting-old moments. I had last seen Bree as a child of 11 or so; through the miracle of puberty, she had now changed into a sultry young woman. Impressive if mildly disconcerting as a reminder of my own collision with the big 4-0 this year. (But if I weren't at least 35, I couldn't play in the Amateur Cliburn, so it's not all bad, right?) (That sentence will be found under the definition of "rationalization" in the next edition of Webster's.)

FRIDAY, JUNE 7: Semifinals

I felt a twinge of sadness upon seeing the schedule for the semifinals without my name on it. After the cloud had passed, however, I found the day rewarding and impressive, with an unusually high level of playing. Many contestants played as well as they had in the prelims, or even better.

As in previous years, the jury was enlarged for the semifinals and finals. One addition was my own piano teacher, Phillip Kawin of the Manhattan School of Music. Of course he would not have been allowed to score my performance had I made it into the semis, but there was no need to worry about that now....

Debra Saylor led off the semifinals with her leisurely, golden-toned playing. She was getting better sound out of the piano than in the prelims, and her Debussy Arabesque was full of poetry. Her second piece was more controversial: a very, VERY slow performance of Schumann's Arabeske. The sound was beautiful and the overall approach was certainly musical, but the continuity suffered badly. Debra ended the round with Chopin's moderately difficult Fantaisie-Impromptu, which raised yet another issue: How much should the jury take the technical difficulty of the chosen repertoire into account? Should a pianist who has played nothing but pieces of slight-to-moderate difficulty be judged on the same basis as one who plays much more challenging repertoire and plays it well?

Franz Mantini was next: another three-time competitor who had reached the semifinals for the first time. He began with Debra's final piece, the Fantaisie-Impromptu, and played it quite well. His shaping of the longer lines in the main section was especially good; the music flowed easily across the bar lines. His most amusing playing, however, was in the closing bars of the Chopin B minor Scherzo. Stumbling a bit before the start of a chromatic scale that tears wildly up the keyboard, Franz omitted the scale completely, improvised a few fortissimo chords, thundered out a low B octave, and stood up grinning. It was a great moment. Few professionals would be able to do something so audacious with such ease and pleasure.

Paul Romero's semifinal round was a decided improvement over his playing in the preliminaries. Although Liszt's Petrarch Sonnet 104 suffered much the same fate as Chopin's F-sharp Nocturne, the rest of the program was noticeably less objectionable. It helped that Paul ended with Ginastera's pounding Malambo, a piece that cannot be overplayed. From the perspective of a juror who had not heard the preliminary round, this was another likely finalist -- and, I was starting to think, the possible winner of the entire competition.

Charles Chien had established himself as a fine Mozart player in the 2000 competition, and his semifinal performance this year of Mozart's Sonata K. 570 was an unqualified treat. It was warm and poetic, yet sparkling when appropriate. Charles was obviously a finalist.

Having missed Linda Poligono's acclaimed performance in the preliminaries, I was eager to hear how she would handle (Handel?) the Handel Variations of Brahms. They turned out to be crisp, clean, and musical with many fine moments, especially in the higher registers of the keyboard. There was one significant worry, however: Handel was all there, but the expected Brahmsian heft was often missing. It wasn't clear how much this would bother the jury.

Henri Delbeau had chosen to play Rachmaninoff's Second Sonata (1931 revision). The piece is of appalling difficulty, but Henri handled the technical problems with aplomb, getting to the music behind the notes. Unfortunately, there were several memory slips of increasing severity: first a bar, then several bars, then an entire page. Each time, however, Henri got right back on track with seeming ease and no loss in concentration. The audience broke out in well-deserved cheers at the end of the performance -- aside from the memory problems, it had been very impressive -- but I was afraid that the jury wouldn't be so generous.

After the performance, I told Henri that his playing had moved to a new level since the last time I'd heard him. "Too bad it's accompanied by senility," he answered wryly. Someone else: "We'll hear you again tomorrow!" Henri: "No you won't!"

Ellen Dodson opened the evening session with a pair of Scarlatti Sonatas and a pair of Rachmaninoff Preludes. The second Scarlatti (K. 113 / L. 345) was breathtaking, notable both for its vitality and the uncommon cleanliness of its dangerously rapid hand crossings. (Ellen later remarked, "I can't drink caffeine before I play that one.") Her Rachmaninoff D major Prelude was a little underpedaled for my tastes, but the massive B-flat Prelude was very good; full-toned but never harsh. I told Ellen I was pretty sure she'd make the finals; she was pleased but added, "Well, I was pretty sure *you'd* make the semifinals." Alas, both of our predictions turned out to be wrong.

Then there was J. Michael Brounoff, whose entire semifinal round consisted of his own transcriptions of music by Stephen Sondheim. I would have had grave reservations about a program consisting of nothing but *Schubert* song transcriptions, so it is not difficult to imagine my horror at twenty minutes of Broadway show tunes. The playing, as far as I could judge, was quite good, but the questionable choice of repertoire made for queasy listening.

The best playing of the semifinals -- and of the entire competition -- came from Victoria Bragin. She opened with Bartok's Improvisations, Op. 20, and played them with such life and color that even confirmed Bartok haters must have enjoyed them. There wasn't a hint of banging; the music danced and sang and breathed. She followed this with the single finest performance of Debussy's "Feux d'artifice" I have ever heard. Most pianists reduce this piece to a vague rumble of rolling fists, or conversely, to a chattery buzz saw of over-articulate notes. Victoria pegged the middle ground precisely, producing a beautiful pianissimo haze of rippling notes. Her color was again spectacular, giving the music an incandescent layered texture. I gave her my only standing ovation of the competition and decided that everyone else was now vying for Second Prize.

Victoria's playing was probably the best that has been heard in the Amateur Cliburn since Joel Holoubek's staggering reading of the Dutilleux Sonata in the 1999 semifinals. Other candidates for the All-Time Best list include two performances from 2000: Christopher Basso's thrilling Prokofiev Eighth Sonata in the finals and Debra Saylor's unforgettable "Clair de lune" in the preliminaries. Joel and Christopher both ended up winning First Prize, and it seemed likely that Victoria would do the same.

Even with a ten-minute break intervening at this point, I knew I was too euphoric to be able to pay much attention to the next contestant, who turned out to be Mike Hawley. To his credit, Mike did get me listening to his Godowsky transcription of Schubert's "An Mignon," but the rest of the program was largely a blur. It didn't help that his final piece was one of those longer Liszt things I can't stand, even under the best of circumstances (St. Elmo Dancing on the Beach, or whatever it's called). Still, from the reliable sensory input I was able to assemble, it seemed more than likely that Mike would make the finals.

The most pleasant surprise of the semifinals was John Gardecki (who, incidentally, prefers the authentic Polish pronunciation "gar-DET-ski"). He has always been a musical guy, but his playing here showed a tremendous leap forward in pianistic control. His Haydn sparkled, his Debussy was colorfully idiomatic, and his Chopin A-flat Polonaise was polished and lyrical. I wanted him in the finals, but he didn't make it; a bit of fumbling on the last page of the Polonaise may have hurt his chances.

After some delay, the six finalists were announced:

Victoria, Charles, and Mike were certainly no surprise, and Paul Romero wasn't unexpected either. But the remaining two choices were startling. I had thought Henri's memory slips would put him out of the picture despite the overall excellence of his performance; I was happy to be wrong. And Debra Saylor? This choice stunned a great many people, including me.


The Finals were the easiest day for everyone except the finalists, jury, and competition staff: a 3:00 PM starting time and a relatively short three hours of performances. Even for those of us with a great love of piano music, it is taxing to listen to seven hours of playing on the same day, and the competition had four such days almost consecutively. I salute the jury for their aural stamina.

Debra Saylor began with two pieces she had played in the 2000 contest, Dvorak's Humoreske and Chopin's Military Polonaise, and played them both pretty well. As with virtually all of her pieces, however, tempos were noticeably slower than average, and the Polonaise would have benefited from more brio and rhythmic crispness. Debra closed with Beethoven's Pathetique Sonata. The first movement was very good indeed -- the most fiery playing I've heard from her -- and the second movement was gently lyrical. The finale, however, was more problematic, often lacking rhythmic continuity.

Mike Hawley was next, with a problematic final round of his own. In this case, the issue was repertoire selection: most of his half-hour was devoted to his own transcription of the Symphonic Dances from Bernstein's "West Side Story." When Mike first mentioned this choice to me before the competition, I somehow put the emphasis on "Symphonic Dances" and "Bernstein" and didn't make the connection that this was ... yet another mega-dose of Broadway show tunes! EYAAAARGHHHHH!!! Ban Broadway now! Ban Broadway now! Or perhaps more acceptably, I seriously propose the following new rule: "Non-classical repertoire is strictly limited to a maximum of 5 minutes per round (and this doesn't mean you can blow your entire 15-minute budget in one round). Broadway classics and classic rock may not be counted as 'classical music.'"

Once Mike started to play and I realized I was back in Broadway Hell, my brain seemed to melt and I waited in a near-catatonic state for the torture to end. Mike's closing work was the Kreisler/Rachmaninoff Liebesfreud, a performance of which I have no memory, or even awareness that it took place except from the testimony of others. I staggered out into the lobby at the break, trying to put on a semi-normal face, but without success. Sevan Melikyan, the Cliburn Foundation's Marketing Director, came up to me with real concern and asked, "Carl, are you feeling all right?"

To be fair, it should be emphasized that there is currently no rule that would prohibit even the performance of a Grateful Dead medley followed by an assortment of TV theme songs. Also, at least according to my mother (the only member of my family who survived the experience in good health), Mike really did play very well. She was touched by his understanding of the music and his connection to the composer.

After the much-needed break came Paul Romero, whose centerpiece was a surprisingly good performance of Rhapsody in Blue. Though predictably emphasizing the glittery aspects of the work, Paul's reading had some real flair. I was glad he'd played at least *one* piece I sort of liked in case he ended up winning first prize. Unfortunately, the Rhapsody was followed by Moszkowski's "Caprice espagnol." The graceful dancing and castanet clicks of the music were nowhere to be found among the ruthless barrage of sledgehammer repeated notes. It was unlikely that any juror who knew the piece would be comfortable awarding Paul the top prize after such a performance. But how many jury members would be familiar with a piece that had all but vanished from the active repertoire by the 1940s?

Next was Charles Chien, whose deeply musical reading of Schumann's formidable Symphonic Etudes was like slipping into a warm bath after a long walk in freezing rain. Most of the performance was both technically and interpretively outstanding, but there were a regrettable number of errors in the finale after Charles was unnerved by a minor memory lapse. For me, it was still the most enjoyable playing of the day so far.

As in both previous competitions, the Liszt Sonata made its way into the final round. (In 2000, we'd had to hear it *twice*.) This year, it was Henri Delbeau's turn to challenge the beast. The performance was a curious one: technically adept and quite musical, but riddled with memory problems. It simply sounded like the piece needed a little more time to settle into his fingers. As one jury member remarked (much to Henri's amusement), "When it was good, it was good." As in the previous day's Rachmaninoff, Henri never stopped, plowing ahead boldly until he found solid ground. In one case, this meant repeating a long virtuoso passage almost in its entirety. "We sure got our money's worth with all those extra octaves," mused one listener.

Like Henri and Charles, Victoria Bragin had selected a single large-scale romantic work for the finals: the Chopin B minor Sonata. Although the performance had much to admire, it was decidedly below the extraordinary level of her first two rounds. The first movement of the sonata was underpowered, and the notoriously difficult finale contained quite a few obvious mistakes. Still, the playing was invariably musical, and given her wonderful first round and mind-boggling semifinals, Victoria was still my choice for First Prize. (I later learned that she had had virtually no sleep the night before the finals.)

The jury trudged off to deliberate and stayed away a long time. A long, long time. We began to wonder if they would return before the start of the 2004 competition. Finally, they came back smiling and marched onto the stage for the awards ceremony. After a few short speeches -- including one by Van Cliburn with an interesting and repeated emphasis on "CLASSICAL music" (had he been following the Broadway shenanigans?) -- it was time to hand out the prizes.

I presume that Victoria's "Best Romantic" prize was for her Debussy. Debra Saylor won the same prize for her "Clair de lune" in 2000.

After the awards, it was time for a final dinner at Joe T. Garcia's, a Fort Worth institution and an Amateur Cliburn tradition (we had the competitor/jury dinners there in 1999 and 2000). To wrap up the evening and the week, we were all invited for drinks with Van Cliburn at the incredible house of Martha Hyder, in which every room is an art museum: Chagall in the dining room; Miro by the stairs; Picasso in the bathroom. To quote an embroidered pillow in the living room, "Less is a Bore."

And then, once again, it was over. Already? No one really wanted to leave. But there was no need to worry: the Amateur Cliburn shows every sign of healthy longevity, and will be waiting in 2004 to welcome its fourth crop of enthusiastic part-time pianists.