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Posted on Mon, May. 31, 2004
Michael Hawley plays in the final round of the Third International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs in 2002. Hawley was a co-winner.
Michael Hawley plays in the final round of the Third International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs in 2002. Hawley was a co-winner.

Amateur Cliburn generates its own emotional mystique

Star-Telegram Senior Arts Writer

The International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs -- colloquially known as the Amateur Cliburn -- may be only 5 years old, but its scrapbook of lore is already filling up.

In the 2000 final, an unassuming latte pusher from Starbucks named Christopher Basso guided his grand piano to first prize. That year also brought blind Iowan Debra Saylor's tender, moving rendition of Clair de lune.

At the 1999 competition, Greg Fisher fell for fellow contestant Miho Yamada, a Japanese pediatric cardiologist. He traveled to Japan to woo her, and now they are married, living in Denton, and back for their fourth shot at the Amateur Cliburn's top prize.

As the first note is struck today at Texas Christian University's Ed Landreth Auditorium, the competition seems poised to deliver its most melodious memories to date. And establish its own cachet.

No longer is it simply the appetizer to the quadrennial musical feast at Bass Performance Hall, the vaunted Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. The Amateur Cliburn is its own musical repast.

And if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the Amateur Cliburn should be blushing. It has inspired similar competitions in Boston, New York, Washington, Colorado Springs, Colo., and Salt Lake City and helped launch an informal satellite circuit for amateurs.

Everyone from persnickety music critics to academicians to previous contestants credits the Amateur Cliburn with putting a human face on the sometimes imposing persona of classical music.

"I'm always in favor of anything that does an end run around all the wild nonsense of trying to be a professional musician and just gets back to simple music making," said Tim Page, classical music critic for The Washington Post. "Frankly, I'm probably more interested in a really terrific amateur piano concert than in 99 percent of the professional piano concerts."

Richard Dyer, classical music critic at The Boston Globe, said the Amateur Cliburn can also help buoy the occasionally anemic profile of classical music.

"My feeling is that anything that says loud and clear that music is important and fun and that draws the public's attention to this precious classic music world -- which is in a difficult period right now -- is a good thing," Dyer said.

Purity and romance

While there's no discounting the virtuosity and drama of a professional concert performance, audiences in Fort Worth seem drawn to the purity and the romance of watching an engineer or a homemaker realize a musical dream.

"This is the event where we get to see some extraordinary people, who may normally be in an operating room 14 hours a day, or flying airplanes, sit at the piano and create something extraordinarily beautiful," said Richard Rodzinski, president of the Van Cliburn Foundation.

More than 3,000 tickets are projected to be sold for the nine-session run, which runs through Saturday. That is a 15 percent increase over 2000, according to the Cliburn Foundation.

One of the lures is that the play at the Amateur Cliburn is, for many, so searingly honest and so idiosyncratically delivered that it often can make a more distinct musical impression than what some of the professionals offer.

"Some of the playing you hear is so heartfelt that while it might not be the kind of virtuosic -- who can play the fastest, most accurately -- playing of the main Cliburn, pianists at that event should come and listen to what piano playing used to be when people really let loose," said David Karp, a music professor at Southern Methodist University.

For this year's event, 74 players have been culled from a list of 110 applicants. In addition to the traditional participants -- doctors, lawyers, engineers, accountants and homemakers -- the competitors include a flight attendant, a porcelain dealer, a tennis coach, a railroad manager and a birth support doula. This year's roster may be one of the Amateur Cliburn's most globe-trotting, with players from Canada, France, Brazil, Venezuela, South Africa and Germany.

They'll all be vying for amateur prizes: a check for a couple of thousand dollars and some merchandise including a pair of cowboy boots with "Cliburn spurs," a western hat and a grab-bag of compact discs.

Still, most of these contestants are highly driven, type-A artist-everymen, many of whom have logged hours in the practice halls of prestigious conservatories.

Daniel Goodman, a 44-year old first-time participant, is a senior scientist at MKS Instruments in Wilmington, Mass., and a visiting scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Although Goodman has played piano since age 6, it has been 20 years since his last serious competition.

His preparation for this year's Amateur Cliburn includes working with several top-drawer piano teachers and a memory specialist. "Memory -- boy that can be the bane of most concert pianists," Goodman admitted.

His regimen also included three to four hours a day of playing, always at night while his family slept. His three children often occupy the piano during the day, occasionally leaving a not-so-gentle reminder of their play time: a cracker jammed between and underneath the keys of his prized centennial-edition Steinway baby grand.

Goodman will be up against a healthy number of returnees to the event. In fact, 29 of the 74 contestants have competed in an Amateur Cliburn. To some familiar with the competition, the number of returnees points to a slightly worrisome shrinking pool of amateurs dedicated to playing such events.

Robert Finley is making his fourth trip to the contest.

"Frankly, everybody enjoys the Cliburn so much you want to play it again," said Finley, an engineer who is president of the Boston International Piano Competition for Exceptional Amateurs. "This competition is a great motivator for someone like myself. It gives you something to work for rather than just playing at home."

Force of the music

While today's culture often sneers at the quaint status of the amateur -- whether athlete or musician -- the Amateur Cliburn participants embrace it.

The Amateur Cliburn will never be accused of being an American Idol for the classical piano set. In fact, the minimum age was raised from 30 to 35 in 2000 to dissuade contestants hoping to make a late run at stardom.

For these amateurs, the rewards are tangible but also spiritual.

Not long after his victory in 2002, Michael Hawley, a director of special projects at MIT's media laboratory, performed a concert with the Boston Pops at Symphony Hall. He performed at the University of Texas and New York's Steinway Hall. And the 42-year-old, single, globe-trotting professor even received several offers of blind dates from across the country.

But his lasting memory is of his time on the Fort Worth stage. "It was one of the most uplifting events I've ever been part of," Hawley said. "It was so nice to be congratulated for taking time out from one's life to make beautiful music."

There is a payoff for audience members as well.

"I've attended all the amateurs since 1999," said Patricia Steffen, a retired American Airlines employee. "And I've particularly loved taking my piano student granddaughters to help introduce them to the music of a variety of classical composers."

Michael Kimmelman, art critic for The New York Times and a 1999 Amateur Cliburn finalist, said the audience and the competitors are simply moved by the transcendent force of music.

"What I find extraordinary is that so many people with very busy lives and important careers will take themselves from far-flung places to Fort Worth, Texas, for the chance to do nothing more than play for 10 minutes or so before a group of complete strangers," Kimmelman said. "If anything tells you about the power and meaning of music and the need to communicate with others -- then that fact speaks to it very clearly."

Andrew Marton, (817) 390-7679

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