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Husband, wife go head to head in Van Cliburn contest

12:37 AM CDT on Sunday, May 30, 2004

By Lucinda Breeding / Arts & Entertainment Editor

Greg and Miho Fisher could say they owe their lives to a prestigious piano contest.

The couple met at The Van Cliburn Foundation’s first amateur piano contest four years ago.

They married not long after that first meeting. Since then, the computer programmer-Web site designer and the former pediatric cardiologist have made music a more prominent part of their lives than ever it was.

This year marks the fourth appearance at The Van Cliburn Foundation’s Fourth International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs. It might be the first year, though, that the husband and wife are truly serious about winning.

“They make fun of it, but I don’t really think that much about it, our competing against each other,” said the Tokyo, Japan, native Miho Fisher.

“The last several years, I’ve really just supported her. This year, I really want to win,” said Greg Fisher.

Seventy-five pianist were selected to participate in the fourth amateur competition out of 110 applicants. Pianists have to submit a fresh CD of their playing to get their name in the hat. This years contenders come from 27 states as well as from Canada, France, Germany, Brazil, South Africa and Venezuela.

Semifinals begin June 4, and will showcase 16 pianists. The final round starts June 5.

Miho Fisher began playing piano at age 4, but her training never became formal. She was a good student, and eventually went to medical school. As school took over the dominant role in her life, Miho said she kept playing, but mostly just for herself. When she worked at Baylor College of Medicine at the Texas Medical Center in Houston, Miho said she’d get off of work at 10 p.m., and then go home to her apartment, where she’d play her clavinova keyboard with headphones on.

Miho Fisher has left the medical field to pursue piano performance. She’s earning an undergraduate degree in piano performance at the University of North Texas. She is currently a research assistant professor in the UNT biology department, however.

“In Japan, if you are kind of good in school, you don’t really want to do something that is fun. It doesn’t sound good to say, I know, but if you are good at school, if you don’t go into academics you are letting everyone down,” she said.

Musicians don’t earn much respect or notice in Japan unless they are world class, Miho Fisher said.

Greg Fisher begged for piano lessons early on, when he was a kid in Milwaukee, Wis.

“I grew up in a lower middle class family, so piano lessons were expensive,” he said.

His dedication didn’t waiver. Greg Fisher attended the Kansas City Conservatory of Music, then went on to the University of Central Oklahoma, where he studied and taught classical piano. He didn’t finish his degree, but returned to the family business, a glass business, before coming to Denton.

Since the two met at the first Van Cliburn foundation contest, Miho said her husband has become another teacher, supplementing her studies at UNT.

“I learn a lot from him,” she said.

Where Miho excels in accompaniment, performing with chamber ensembles, Greg is driven more toward the later, more religious writings of Franz Liszt.

The Fishers have two pianos in their modest Denton home. One is a 1915 Steinway that Greg Fisher said he picked up for a song, and the other is a Baldwin. Both grand pianos occupy the same room. Miho practices about 3 hours a day. Greg said he’s so serious about this year’s contest that he’s spending between 6 and 8 hours at the keyboard a day.

“I’m taking it very seriously this year,” he said.

The Fishers will join their competitors at Ed Landreth Hall on the Texas Christian University campus next week when they begin the preliminary rounds. Miho plays 2 p.m. Monday and Greg performs 9:15 p.m. Tuesday. Miho Fisher will begin the performance with Scriabin’s Sonata No. 4, and an etude by the same composer. Greg Fisher will start a piece by Liszt.

“Waiting is definitely the hardest part. You play and then you have to wait and wait and wait to find out if you are going to go to semifinals,” Greg said.

The Fishers says each gets anxiety for the other when time comes for them to perform. Because they aren’t professional, they might take the stage in front of an audience twice a year, whereas a professional performs twice a week.

“I walk her up to the stage, and I’m a wreck,” Greg Fisher said. “I get really nervous, incredibly nervous before she plays. I think it’s because I have no control over what’s about to happen.”

The Fishers said the contest for outstanding amateurs exceeds the “big Van Cliburn” contest, the contest that determines which of the world’s upcoming professional pianists are to be heard.

“The amateur contest is more spiritual. When I say spiritual, I don’t necessarily mean a God thing. I mean move me. You can’t turn on your radio and get a spiritual experience. Music right now isn’t about that. But the pianists in this contest are doing this because they love to play. They have to play. I’ve gotten the idea over the years that the critics think this contest is better than the big Van Cliburn. This contest is made up of people who’ve lived. In the big Van Cliburn, it’s filled with 29-year-old kids who’ve locked themselves inside a rehearsal studio,” Greg Fisher said.

Each pianist comes to the contest prepared to perform 60 minutes of music. A jury will judge all three rounds of the competition. In the preliminary round, the jury is: John Giordano, the music director of the Corpus Christi Symphony Orchestra; Victoria Bragin, music artist-in-residence at the Huntington Museum of Art; Michael Hawley, co-winner of the third international Van Cliburn Foundation contest for outstanding amateurs.

In the semifinal round, the jury is: Jose Feghali, artist-in-residence at TCU; Yoheved Kaplinsky, chairman of The Julliard School Piano Department; David Karp, professor of music at Southern Method-ist University; Carol Leone, associate professor and head of piano at SMU; John Owings, concert pianist and professor of piano at TCU; John Rubenstein, actor, director and composer; and Barrett Wissman, chairman of IMG Artists.

The press jury for the finals is: William Littler, music critic for The Toronto Star; Scott Cantrell, classical music critic at The Dallas Morning News; Daniel Cariaga, music critic at The Los Angeles Times; Stuart Isocoff, pianist, composer, author and editor of Piano Today; John Von Rhein, music critic at The Chicago Tribune; Donald Rosen-berg, music critic at The Plain Dealer; and Gail Wein, producer for National Public Radio’s Perfomance Today and music critic for The Washington Post.

The first-prize winner will take home a cash award of $2,000, second prize is $1,500 and third is $1,000.

“In the last two Van Cliburns, there have been two gold [medal] winners,” Greg said. “Wouldn’t it be great if we both did that this year?”

Each round of the contest is open to the public. Tickets are $10 for each preliminary session; $20 for each semifinal session; $35 for finals and awards. Tickets for the complete amateur competition are $105. Tickets for all semifinal, final and awards rounds are $69.

For tickets, call 817-335-9000.

LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877. Her e-mail address is cbreeding@dentonrc. com.

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