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Posted on Sun, Jun. 06, 2004

Old-school style earns top award

Star-Telegram Classical Music Critic

For half an hour Saturday afternoon at Ed Landreth Auditorium on the TCU campus, Californian Paul Anthony Romero evoked the aura of the golden age of the virtuoso, when Liszt and his cohorts crisscrossed Europe and the United States, presenting solo recitals of transcriptions, monumental showpieces and their original music to culture-hungry audiences.

In the process, Romero gave the jury of the fourth International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs little choice but to award him the top honors a few minutes later.

Romero's calling card for his performance in the final round was Liszt's Soiree de Vienne No. 6, a gussied-up virtuoso arrangement of an innocent Schubert Waltz; the thunderous opening chords announced Romero as a fearless virtuoso of the old school, an impression he continued to reinforce in the long series of fancy elaborations on Schubert's melodies, ranging from delicate passage work to roaring octaves.

He moved on to one of Liszt's original compositions, the Vallee de'Obermann, a partly autobiographical musical description of a man reflecting on his life. On a phrase-by-phrase level, it's a catalog of technical challenges; on a broader level, it demands a sure command of momentum and a strong, sincere sense of drama -- all of which Romero possesses.

For the capper of this magnificent performance, Romero included a built-in encore in his program, a 2 1/2-minute Godowsky-style paraphrase (packed with scales, leaps and other virtuoso ornaments) on Martin and Blane's Trolley Song.

Romero's performance, which also won him the audience favorite award, was the last of six on the final day of the contest.

The session opened with Brazilian-born, California-based Marisa Naomi Haines, who gave the proceedings a promising start with American composer Emma Lou Diemer's Toccata, an effective showpiece that starts out with Bartoklike rhythms and energy but which calls on the pianist to reach inside the piano to strum, hit or dampen the strings directly.

South Carolina homemaker Ann Herlong followed with a genteel rendition of Beethoven's Sonata in E-flat, Opus 31, No. 3. Her beautiful shaping of the melodic slow movement epitomized her refined artistry. Although she seemed a little on edge at the beginning of her performance, she settled into fine high spirits for the humorous, lively fourth movement that closed the Sonata and her performance.

Canadian Averill Piers Baker, meanwhile, demonstrated a penchant for brilliance as she launched into her performance of Schmann's Symphonic Etudes, a set of variations in which Schumann demonstrates every possible technical challenge he can conjure. Baker communicated her ideas clearly, but one could sense that she probably has a better performance of this piece inside her.

Though it certainly wasn't a night of perfection, it was thoroughly enjoyable, as all the performers proved that they deserved their places in the finals of the Amateur Cliburn.

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