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Different backgrounds, different day jobs, but all share a love of music

10:07 AM CDT on Saturday, May 29, 2004

By OLIN CHISM / The Dallas Morning News

They're coming from all over the United States as well as six other countries. They're a highly varied group, united by a love of music. On Monday afternoon in Fort Worth they'll kick off the fourth International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs, a six-day festival that is less pressured and sometimes more fun than the better-known Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

Although the 74 competing pianists are called amateurs, that doesn't mean they aren't very good. Some of them might have become professional concert pianists if they hadn't veered into other careers. They tend to be high achievers, with strong representation from fields such as medicine, computer science and engineering.

Back, together

Suzanne Fremon and Milton Farbstein

The Cliburn Amateur is much less of a hothouse environment than its sister competition. It's started friendships and even marriages: Suzanne Fremon and Milton Farbstein, both of New York City, for example. Although they knew each other slightly before, they really became acquainted during the 2002 competition. Now they're married and they're back to play.

Mr. Farbstein is a microbiologist. The multifaceted Ms. Fremon is a childbirth assistant, a computer programmer, a free-lance writer-editor and a piano teacher. Musically, Ms. Fremon is a graduate of the Juilliard School while Mr. Farbstein has had years of private piano study.

Ms. Fremon says that performance anxiety kept her from pursuing a career as a pianist. She has overcome that now and even teaches students how to deal with the problem.

She and her husband are active on the amateur piano competition circuit and have developed a circle of friends in New York who frequently get together to play for each other. "It's fun, that's the main thing about it," Ms. Fremon says.

Changing course

Salam Murtada

Like many competitors, Salam Murtada once faced a difficult choice: music or another profession. When he arrived at the University of Texas at Austin in 1985, he tried to have it both ways with a double major in music and engineering. But he soon realized the impossibility of that dream and chose engineering.

A native of Amman, Jordan, Mr. Murtada is now an environmental engineer in Mebane, N.C. Although he has bachelor's and master's degrees in engineering, he never really gave up music. In Austin he studied piano with Lita Guerra, a prominent UT faculty member.

His devotion to music began during his boyhood in Amman, when he heard his mother playing the piano. She died of cancer when he was a child, but he still associates certain pieces with her because he heard her playing them. "In essence, music has made my mother immortal," he says.

His mother was his first teacher, but during her illness she arranged for him to study with a friend of hers, a graduate of a British music school. Except for a couple of short breaks, he has studied piano consistently since then. One of his teachers became his wife, Vanessa Cornett-Murtada of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Public position

Averill Piers Baker

Averill Piers Baker can thank Google for her participation. The Canadian pianist from Gander, Newfoundland, says that she was going through her collection of recordings when she ran across an old Van Cliburn LP. "I thought to myself, 'I haven't heard anything about him in years.' So I went on Google, started browsing and came across the Van Cliburn Foundation. That's how I found out."

A prize-winning student, Ms. Baker entered the Royal Conservatory of Music of Toronto at 13, later became a part-time faculty member there and started performing actively. Then she fell in love. She and George Baker, a Canadian Broadcasting Corp. producer, were married in 1965. Soon he went into politics. "I had fully intended to carry on [in music], but we started having children, I loved being a mother, and I was not prepared to let housekeepers and baby-sitters bring up my kids."

Mr. Baker is now a Canadian senator and former federal cabinet member. Ms. Baker calls herself the "unpaid and very happy home secretary to my husband." They have four children, three of whom are lawyers. "All play classical music beautifully," she says.

E-mail ochism@dallasnews.com

Location: Ed Landreth Auditorium on the campus of Texas Christian University, University at Cantey in Fort Worth.

Schedule: Preliminaries (12-minute recitals) from 1 to 5 p.m. and 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Wednesday. Semifinals (20-minute recitals) from 2 to 5:30 p.m. and 7:30 to 11 p.m. Friday. Finals (30-minute recitals) from 2 to 7 p.m. Saturday. Awards ceremony at conclusion Saturday.

Tickets: $105 package for everything, $60 package for semifinals and finals, individual tickets $10 for each preliminary session, $20 for each semifinals session, $35 for finals.

Call 817-335-9000 or 1-800-462-7979 or go to www.centralticketoffice.com.

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