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Passion rages on second day of competition

12:06 AM CDT on Wednesday, June 2, 2004

By SCOTT CANTRELL / The Dallas Morning News

FORT WORTH – Even through two layers of heavy masonry, Thursday night's storms could be heard pummeling Ed Landreth Auditorium. Inside, after a pause to check weather reports, the second day of the International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs proceeded with more drama than usual. Not to be outdone, Denton computer programmer and Web designer Greg Fisher stormed his way through Liszt's Funérailles like a man possessed – probably just what Liszt intended.For whatever reason, Tuesday's crop of 23 pianists included more compelling players than Monday's 25. There was more genuine virtuosity – and more deeply personal engagement with the music.

Carolyn Luskin, a real-estate agent from Devon, Penn., set the tone with Beethoven's 32 Variations in C minor, her visceral energy balanced by subtly caressed phrases. Ann Herlong may have been a white-haired grandmother from South Carolina, but she laid down the law of Mendelssohn's Variations sérieuses with authority and eloquence.

Greg Kostraba, music director of a radio station in Toledo, Ohio, nimbly dispatched two movements of the Second Piano Sonata by American composer Robert Muczynski and delivered a boldly hewn Liszt arrangement of Bach's G minor Fantasia for organ. (Dr. Kostraba has a doctorate in piano from the Cincinnati College ­ Conservatory of Music. But, for the Van Cliburn Foundation-sponsored competition, he qualifies as an amateur because he doesn't make his living as a pianist or piano teacher.)

Victor Alexeeff, a film composer from Burbank, Calif., gave razzle-dazzle performances of the Prokofiev Suggestion diabolique and the Allegro marcato movement of Ginastera's First Piano Sonata. But he brought an almost extravagant rubato – and sheer enchantment – to a Chopin Etude (in A-flat major, Op. 25, No. 1) and Rachmaninoff Étude-tableaux (in C major, Op. 33, No. 2).

Rocky Nevin, a biophysicist and software designer from the San Francisco area, clotted the loud, stormy passages of a Scriabin Etude (in F-sharp minor, Op. 8, No. 2) and Rachmaninoff Prelude (in B minor, Op. 32, No. 10). But this was magically otherworldly playing, as was his ethereal reading of a Scarlatti Sonata in B minor (K. 87). John Gardecki, a private investor and arts adminstrator from Washington, D.C., brought Old World grandeur to three preludes and a mazurka by Chopin, and his performance of the Scriabin Nocturne for the left hand was drop-dead elegant.


Dr. Rocky Nevin

Dr. Rocky Nevin once studied crickets' brains. Tuesday he played music of Scarlatti, Scriabin and Rachmaninoff. That sort of bizarre juxtaposition is common; many of the competitors come from fields far removed from music.

Actually, "I wouldn't call them brains. It's more like clusters of neurons," he says, speaking of the crickets, of course. "They're like robots, in a way." He studied them while working on his Ph.D. in biophysics at the University of California at Berkeley.

"I wanted to entitle my thesis 'Robocricket,' " he jokes. "But my adviser said no." Instead the adviser insisted on the more academic-sounding "Morphological Analysis of the Cricket Cercal System." "Cercal" refers to crickets' wind sensors, Dr. Nevin explains. "When they're flying around they sense both their position and the ambient conditions of the wind and then they correct for it that fast," he says, snapping his fingers.

Dr. Nevin is in awe of what little creatures such as crickets, ants, cats and squirrels can do. Humans may not think much of these critters' brainpower, but they are extremely good at doing what they do. "It's stunning," he says.

Dr. Nevin has his more instinctual side. He wouldn't try to apply the techniques of physics to the analysis of music and visual art, another interest of his. "Physics is too reductionistic," he says. "Then it would become 'RoboRocky,' and that doesn't appeal to me."

Olin Chism

News and notes

• What's a person dropping in on the competition likely to hear? Place your money on Chopin. Of the 74 contestants, 62 have Chopin in their repertoire. But there's more of the Polish composer than that, because many of the pianists have more than one Chopin on their list. In fact, there are 98 potential Chopin performances, though that figure won't be reached because many contestants won't make it to the finals and the semifinals. However, if you go to the piano marathons scheduled for Thursday and Saturday at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, you'll get to hear a hefty percentage of them.

Who's No. 2? Probably Rachmaninoff, which makes the amateur competition not all that different in terms of repertoire from the regular Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. One thing you won't hear much of is modern music, though an occasional Schoenberg or William Bolcom slips in.

• The field slipped to 73 competitors on Tuesday when radiologist Joel Fishman decided not to play.

Coming up

Today: Preliminaries, 1 to 5 p.m. and 7:30 to 10:30 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.


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.

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