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
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
"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
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
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