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Tuesday June 1, 2004 8:18 a.m. Central Daylight Time

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Years of practice on the line for first day of Cliburn's amateur biennial

02:08 AM CDT on Tuesday, June 1, 2004

By SCOTT CANTRELL / The Dallas Morning News

FORT WORTH – There were some dropped notes, smudged passages, even outright memory slips. But Monday's opening sessions of the fourth International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs also provided some impressive technique and interpretive sophistication.

Sponsored by the Van Cliburn Foundation, the biennial competition is held at Texas Christian University's Ed Landreth Auditorium. It's limited to people who don't make their livings as pianists or piano teachers. But many, perhaps most, of the contestants have had years of piano lessons, and some have advanced degrees in piano. They find time to play in off-hours from careers as varied as pathology, investment management and homemaking. And plenty of professionals could learn from the unassuming openness of these performances.

One of the standouts Monday was Jim Allison, program manager of the Washington, D.C., classical radio station WGMS-FM. He maybe rushed the Gavotte and Gigue movements of Bach's G major French Suite a little too much to let them dance. But the Allemande and Sarabande were beautifully played, and Rachmaninoff's E-flat minor Etude-Tableau (Op. 39, No. 5) had granitic authority.

Miho Yamada Fisher, a medical researcher from Denton, turned in sympathetic accounts of Scriabin's Fourth Sonata and Etude in C-sharp minor (Op. 2, No. 1).

Deborah Davis, a homemaker from Minnesota, supplied a well-schooled, fluent Chopin Scherzo in B-flat minor (Op. 31).

One of the attractions of the amateurs is a willingness to personalize the music in ways rare among present-day professionals. After all, they don't have to worry about upsetting managers or critics; their livelihoods aren't on the line.

Gerald Finkel, a retired pathologist from Seattle, tugged too much at sleeves in Chopin's Nocturne in F-sharp major (Op. 15, No. 2), but there was a fetching quirkiness to his reading of the Rachmaninoff D-minor Prelude (Op. 23, No. 3). John McInerney, a financial communications consultant from New York, found surprisingly sinister undercurrents in Debussy's L'isle joyeuse, but also a rhetorical flair in the Allegro movement of a Haydn Sonata in E-flat major (Hob. XVI:52).

What you don't always get in the amateur competition is consistency. But there were isolated performances of quite special loveliness. Among them: Barbara Bolton's intimate, warm-toned Schubert Impromptu in A-flat major (D. 935, No. 2), Daniel Goodman's nicely improvisatory Chopin Nocturne in E-flat major (Op. 9, No. 2) and Dallasite Anne Blakeney's Debussy Arabesque No. 1.

Among all the Bach, Chopin and Rachmaninoff, there were also welcome repertory surprises, notably Robert Weeks' Ned Rorem Barcarolle No. 3 and Jeanne Green-Sherman's Schoenberg Gigue (from the Op. 25 Suite for Piano).

First out of the gate

The No. 1 position in a piano competition traditionally is something to be dreaded. But if Scot King felt any pressure, it wasn't showing when he walked off the stage about 1:20 on Monday afternoon.

The California mortgage broker had played a ballade and an etude by Chopin. "I was very prepared for this," he said. "Where I played didn't really matter. Some contestants would say, 'Well, they'll forget you sooner.' I don't think that's applicable. I think the judges know what they're doing."

If the past is prelude, Mr. King's chances are decent. He was a semifinalist in the 2000 contest in Fort Worth, and two years later was a finalist in the Paris version, the granddaddy of all amateur competitions.

Like many participants, he had advanced training in piano, including graduate study at the Royal College of Music in London, but when a music career didn't work out, he went into accounting and mortgage brokering. Still, "I'd rather be playing the piano," he says.

Now that his preliminary performance is out of the way, he says he plans to listen to the other contestants rather than plunge into a practice marathon.

Olin Chism

News and notes

•One of the points of the competition is to give everyone a chance to play before a knowledgeable audience. But most are eliminated after their 12-minute preliminary performances. What about the rest of their repertory?

That's where the competition's two marathons come in. From 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday and again from 10 a.m. to 1:20 p.m. Saturday, competitors will move to the auditorium of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth to play music they would have played had they gone all the way.

Each will give a 20-minute recital, with short breaks between performances. The marathons are free. They're a good opportunity to hear gifted musicians. The museum is at 3200 Darnell St., a short drive from Ed Landreth.

•The first phases of the contest are not being broadcast, but the finals can be heard live over KTCU-FM (88.7). The scheduled time is 2 to 5:40 p.m. Saturday, with the awards ceremony to follow from 7 to 7:45 p.m.

Coming up

Today-Wednesday: Preliminaries, 1 to 5 p.m. and 7:30 to 10 p.m. Friday: Semifinals, 2 to 5:30 p.m. and 7:30 to 11 p.m. Saturday: Finals 2 to 7 p.m. Awards ceremony at conclusion.

DETAILS

Location: Ed Landreth Auditorium on the campus of Texas Christian University, University at Cantey in Fort Worth. 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. Information: Central Ticket Office, 817-335-9000 or 1-800-462-7979 or www.centralticketoffice.com.

ON THE WEB

For coverage, go to DallasNews.com/entertainment. For the competition's site, go to www.cliburn.org.

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