Robert Finley's Review of the Van Cliburn Fourth International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs

I had been looking forward to taking part in the Fourth International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs for months, and the day finally arrived for me to depart for Fort Worth Texas on Sunday, May 30th, my birthday!

After I arrived at Dallas-Fort Worth airport, I drove straight to Texas Christian University to register and collect my competitor information package and gift bag. Registration took place in Waits Hall, and as usual I was greeted by the friendly team of volunteers. They all remembered me from previous competitions. It was like a "homecoming". This time they provided a board with each competitor's photograph and asked everyone to put a signature next to the photograph.

I drove to the Courtyard Marriott Hotel to change and get ready for the welcoming party at the famous "Garcia'" Restaurant in the historic Stockyards area of Fort Worth. Before I left the hotel, I studied the schedules and the program booklet to see what everyone else would be playing.

I was surprised to see in the program book that there were six jurors for the first round of the competition, of whom three were amateurs. Two of the amateurs, Victoria Bragin, and Michael Hawley, were the co-winners from the last competition. Although amateurs are in the best position to know what it takes to prepare for an amateur piano competition, I didn't feel that winning a competition qualifies them to be on a jury, especially when they would be judging their peers and friends. I didn't think this was a good idea.

The party at Garcias was held in La Portita Building, a private hall, and the food was a Mexican buffet. It was great to see so many old friends and to meet new people. Everyone was so welcoming, friendly, and glad to see me.

The next day, I got up early in the morning to have breakfast and to do some practice. When I arrived at Waits Hall, I met some good friends including fellow electrical engineer Franz Mantini, and Viktors Berstis. I spent the rest of the day listening to the first day of the preliminary round recitals. The competition took place in the Ed Landreth Auditorium as before, and they had provided an excellent Steinway D concert grand. Everyone told me they were very happy with this piano.

There were some very good performances that day. I particularly liked David Villanueva's lyrical and musical performance of Chopin's Nocturne in B Flat Minor, and Scriabin's Etude Opus 42 No 5. Viktors Berstis played the Schumann-Liszt "Widmung" song transcription and two Bach transcriptions very well during the afternoon session. I videotaped his performance for him. Viktors was the last performer of the afternoon session, and during the evening dinner break, I went with him to a restaurant a few miles away.

The next day I spent most of the time practicing and relaxing. I didn't sleep well, because I woke up at 3:30 a.m. and started to think about my performance and how I would play. This happens every time I take part in a competition. I met John Blasdale and Allan Blumenthal during breakfast in the hotel. The Van Cliburn Foundation had provided a good selection of fresh fruit, cookies, cakes, yogurt and drinks in the reception area of Waits Hall, so I could really have had breakfast there.

I heard a couple of recitals during the day, but after a contestant was surprised that hearing others didn't make me nervous, I decided not to spend the day listening to everyone as I did the day before. I went to have lunch with Franz Mantini at a "Panini" sandwich restaurant.

When I returned to Waits Hall, I met a lady from the Times of London Newspaper who was there with her husband to review the competition and write an article about it. She interviewed me and several others. I also discovered that journalists from BBC Radio 4 and Classic FM were there from the UK covering the event too. They also interviewed me. Hopefully it will produce some good publicity for amateur competitions and attract contestants from the UK.

I went back to the hotel in the afternoon and saw on television that most of Texas was under a severe thunderstorm and tornado watch for the rest of the day. I didn't realize the excitement that was to come later.

I had dinner alone in the restaurants next door to the hotel, and noticed that the sky was becoming cloudy and grey, around 6 p.m. After about an hour of practice at Waits Hall, I took a break to have something to drink and to socialize. I heard what sounded like rocks hitting the roof and windows of the building. The volunteers told me that there were big hail stones falling from the sky. One volunteer collected some that had fallen near the door, and they were very large, about half an inch in diameter. I had never seen hail stones as big as that before.

All hell had broken loose outside. The rain was bucketing down, the wind was howling around the building, the trees were bending under the wind, the lightning was almost every second. I also hear the sky had turned a funny green color before sunset, indicating the conditions for a tornado. The tornado sirens had been going off all over Fort Worth.

The volunteers were busy talking on their cellphones and walkie-talkies. Apparently, the evening preliminary round sessions had to be interrupted for 20 minutes due to the rain and hail. The contestants had to walk a few hundred feet from the Waits Hall to the Landreth auditorium, and it was too dangerous and wet to go there until the storm had subsided. John Gardecki told me he had to take his shoes and socks off to walk across to the other building. The volunteers were equipped with a towel to dry competitor's feet before they went on stage. The whistling wind and hail stones could even be heard in the auditorium during Dale Backus' recital, but he managed to complete his performance without too much distraction.

I had a problem getting back to my car to drive back to the hotel. No sooner had I left the building and got a few yards towards the parking lot, the wind and rain picked up again. I nearly got blown off my feet, and my umbrella was blown inside out. When I got near the parking lot, I found that the steps down were blocked by a large tree trunk. I had to go back to the building and exit through a side door after the rain had died down. I was absolutely drenched from head to toe.

When I arrived back at the hotel, everything was in darkness. There was some emergency lighting in the lobby, where most people had congregated. I was able to get into my room using the magnetic card reader, but there was no power in the room. I used my cellphone as a flashlight so I could find some dry clothes to change into. I went back to the lobby to chat with some of the contestants and to watch the vivid lightning show. I hear that half a million homes in Fort Worth had lost power, and a tornado touched down at an airfield a few miles away.

The next morning on Wednesday, it was time for me to try out the concert grand in the auditorium. I had seven minutes on the instrument, and I played some of the Schumann-Liszt "Widmung" and the Liszt 2nd Polonaise. It was very responsive and pleasant to play on. The action was just right, not too stiff or too light

During the previous few days I was concerned about an aching pain in my right arm, probably caused by lifting a heavy suitcase (I brought everything but the kitchen sink with me, as usual, and it weighed a ton). Franz Mantini gave me some Ibuprofen, and I went to a pharmacy to get some more. Fortunately the pain subsided on the day of my recital.

I had also been concerned about some technical problems that had mysteriously developed in parts of the Liszt Polonaise that hadn't existed before. I just couldn't play some chromatic variation without stumbling, and I tried different fingerings and practiced it slowly. Maybe I practiced too hard and was worrying too much. I was hoping that I wouldn't have a mishap in this section during my performance. Sometimes there can be a danger that one will discover a misreading in the score just at the last minute, and this can cause anxiety. Maybe it would have been better not to look at the score.

After spending some time in the warm-up room, I was escorted backstage where I was met by the very charming volunteer, Louise Canafax. Louise has been the "stage mother" since the first amateur competition. She welcomes everyone, offers words of encouragement, and has a large selection of drinks, snacks, medications, and everything necessary to help the performance go well.

My performance went fairly well, without any major mishaps. There were a few wrong notes, but that always happens. No performance is perfect. I got a good applause, and many people came up to me afterwards to tell me how much they enjoyed my performance. This made it all worthwhile. I gave my video camera to Viktors to make a videotape for me. I could now relax a bit and listen to some of the remaining performances including my friend Charles Chien who played a Scriabin Etude and Schubert Impromptu very well.

The dinner following the afternoon round was held in the luxurious Rivercrest Country Club, as in the previous competition in 2002. It consisted of a sumptuous buffet of salads, chicken, catfish and desserts. The social events such as this are always a highlight of the competition, and are well organized and very enjoyable.

After dinner, we hurried back to the Landreth auditorium to hear Paul Romero, Mark Cannon, Louis Dalaveris, Ellen Dodson, Franz Mantini, Henri Delbeau, Rebecca Davis and others. I was surprised that Henri had arrived the previous day instead of an hour or so before his performance, as in previous competitions.

Paul Romero gave a very polished performance of several Rachmaninoff preludes, with wide dynamic variation. He finished with an entertaining rendition of the Polka de WR, reminiscent of one my favorite pianists when I lived in the UK, Shura Cherkassky. Mark Cannon tackled the challenging Fantasy in F minor very well, and brought considerable power to the octaves.

Louis Dalaveris has made a remarkable improvement in his playing since starting these competitions. Although I am not too familiar with the Prokofiev Sonatas, I thought brought out the details and changes of mood in the third sonata extremely well. Ellen Dodson has made a good recovery from her wrist surgery to remove a cyst. I remember in the last competition she had to walk around with her hand in an ice pack to reduce the pain. She played the Chopin Fantasie in F minor very well. Rebecca Davis, who did so well in the Paris competition earlier this year, gave a very fine performance of Chopin's Scherzo No. 2.

Franz Mantini is a very good Bach player, as he proved in his performance and in the 2002 competition. Henri Delbeau gave an excellent performance of the Wagner-Liszt "Liebestod" and the Bach-Siloti Prelude.

After the last performance and while the jury was deliberating, everyone was called onto the stage on stage to receive their participation certificate, to meet Van Cliburn, and to have a photograph taken with him. One of the contestants, Thomas Maurice, was even taller than Van by several inches, as Steve Cummings, the MC, amusingly pointed out!

When the jury had made it's decision, and after the speeches, the results were announced. Unfortunately, my name wasn't called. I was rather disappointed because I hoped to get into the finals this time, after making the semifinals twice before. I guess this shows how subjective judging a piano competition can be.

I was surprised at a few who made the semifinals and who didn't. There were some who progressed and well deserved it, but they overlooked some very musical and talented players. Maybe this was a result of not having more professionals on the jury?

On Thursday, I spent the morning playing chamber music. I really enjoyed playing the Schubert Piano Trio in B flat with two excellent string players of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. Although I hadn't spent much time practicing this, it went very well. I hope that for the next time they will schedule other works such as the Schumann Piano Quintet (a standard work for the professional competition), the Trout Quintet by Schubert, and the Mendelssohn Trio in D minor.

I signed up at the last minute to play my semifinal round pieces in the "Piano Marathon" at the Modern Art Museum. I had a twenty-minute slot early in the afternoon. They provided a Steinway D in a very nice auditorium with good acoustics. I had quite a fair audience, and my performance went well. I didn't realize that a music critic from the Dallas-Morning News was there. He gave me a good review the next day, saying "Robert Finley gave a solid performance of works by Rachmaninoff, Scriabin and Granados". Although I didn't play in the Piano Marathon last time (because I made the semifinals) I was very impressed with this venue and grateful for the opportunity to perform my other repertoire.

I returned to the University and played a few works for piano duet with Dale Backus and Stephen Fierros, including Debussy's "Petit Suite", Faure's "Dolly Suite", and the duet version of Roger Quilter's "Three English Dances" (which is really delightful, and better known in it's orchestral version).

In the evening, I went with John Gardecki and Harriet Becker to meet Harriet's son and daughter-in law at their house, and then to go to a local restaurant. Harriet's son is a very talented artist who has produced many interesting paintings and other works of art.

On Friday morning, I attended the Jury Symposium, where members of the jury spoke about what they are looking for from contestants. It was an interesting discussion, but I would have preferred more time for questions from the audience.

I spent the rest of the day listening to the semifinal round performances. When the results of this round were announced, I was again very surprised at some of those who made it to the finals and some of those who didn't. The jury for this round was much bigger, with more professionals, and the additional "press jury", so I would have thought fewer mistakes would have been made.

I was hoping to get some feedback on my playing from members of the jury. I was only able to speak with Harold Martina and Alina Rubinstein, but not Carol Leone and John Giordano, so this was rather disappointing. I hope that in future it will be possible to schedule a few minutes with each juror. It is important to get comments so that one can have an idea what to work on for the future in order to make improvements.

On Saturday morning, I attended the "Round Table Discussion", chaired by Richard Rodzinski, Amy Brown, and other members of the competition committee. The purpose of this session was for the Van Cliburn Foundation to obtain comments and feedback on the competition so they that can make enhancements in the future. There were quite a few contestants there and one of the jurors. I mentioned my thoughts about amateurs being on the jury, a greater selection for chamber music, and the hope for contestants to get some feedback from the jury.

The finals took place on Saturday afternoon. I particularly enjoyed Paul Romero's performance of Liszt's Vallee d'Obermann, Schubert-Liszt "Soiree de Vienne No. 6", and his arrangement of the "Trolley Song". Ann Herlong produced some very musical moments in Beethoven's Sonata Opus 31 No. 3. Victor Alexeeff gave an "entertaining" performance of Rachmaninoff's Sonata No. 2. This was faster than I have heard before, unconventional, and could have emphasized some of the lyrical and tuneful parts more. I felt it was too fast to hear some of the detail in this complex and wonderful work.

There were two Schumann selections in the finals. Averill Piers Baker played the Symphonic Etudes, characterizing the different variations well, and Ellen Dodson played the Sonata in G minor (with the romantic song-like middle movement well played with much expression), followed by the challenging Spanish Rhapsody by Liszt.

Paul Romero won the competition, followed by Averill Piers Baker in 2nd place, and Ann Herlong in 3rd place. Paul won so many prizes, he had difficulty taking carrying them all.

After the awards ceremony, everyone went to the rooftop Reata Restaurant in Downtown Fort Worth for dinner, attended by Van Cliburn. It was a pleasant end to a very memorable and enjoyable week. I would like to express my thanks, appreciation and congratulations to the Van Cliburn Foundation for arranging another fabulous event.

Robert Finley
July 2004.