Today we saw my sister's family off. We were glad to have them visit us.
I drove the hour over to Fort Worth. I planned to attend a preliminary round of the 13th annual Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. There was this fellow named Van, Van Cliburn, you see, who grew up in a town called Kilgore. Kilgore is a town in east Texas, a place of piney woods and courteous people and hot sausages called "hot links" and a bit of oil here and there. Kilgore's other famous entertainers are the Kilghore Rangerettes, who are girls who attend the local junior college, and put on white boots and cowgirl hats and skirts and high-step while twirling faux rifles and real batons as the band plays. The annual Cotton Bowl Parade on the television of my childhood was always enlivened by those Kilgore Rangerettes.
One might imagine that Kilgore would be an unpromising place to learn the piano, but in fact, Van's own mother had taken lessons from a fellow who took lessons from Liszt himself. Van Cliburn took this early training, and some training in New York with the widow of a great Russian pianist. Mr. Cliburn turned out to be right talented at piano, and next thing you know, he's off in Russia winning the First International Tchaikovsky award. Tickertape parades and massive classical sales erupted in the states at this decisive victory in the Cold War. Ronald Reagan gets an awful lot of credit for winning the Cold War, but in fact Van Cliburn won the only battle fought on Russian soil--and he won it with mad skillz, a deep love for Russian music and culture, and an amiable, modest personality.
I don't know as how I've ever held forth on Fort Worth, though I'm mighty fond of that place. It's the kind of city in which everyone is proud to refer to it as "Cowtown" but they also have world class museums and a lot of funding for the arts. When the folks in Fort Worth figured out what Van had done, aided by the inspiration and guidance of the National Guild of Piano Teachers, they started a new Van Cliburn competition,which, every four years, gathers roughly 30 folks with keyboard chops to have a great big demolition derby.
Today was a preliminary round of the 13th annual Cliburn soiree. I showed up early and bought a box seat, as it turned out that box seats for a preliminary round were much cheaper than ten-yard-line seats at a Dallas Cowboy game. I had some time to kill, so I walked over to the Fort Worth Water Garden, in which I saw outdoor art in the form of sprinklers and pools. I liked the sprinkler which showed rainbows. I watched sparrows and mockingbirds fly. They flew just like Dallas birds. I also had a lunch at Cantina Laredo, where I ate too many tortilla chips for best results, but did like the spicy-hot roasted pork in soft corn tortillas. It was really cool when that waiter realized that nobody was helping me, because then he could.
I sat in my box beside four folks who must have been important, because somebody official-like came to thank them for their sponsorship and told them that because they were donors they had a special invitation to something called a reception, which I believe is a lot like a country club party except it involves punch and wedding cake disguised as concert cake.
I was confirmed in my belief that they--a mom and three attractive latter-year teens--were really important when they left after the first pianist, because anyone unimportant would have sat, enrapt, through all that amazing day of piano. Behind me a nice couple sat. The man rushed to scribble something down after each performance, so I don't know if he was a juror or a journalist or if he had 2 dollars on the Italian to show. They were real nice, and they stayed for the whole shebang.
Now, you'd think that a box seat means you have to sit in a seat in which you are boxed off from everyone, like at a race-track, and that you get to get popcorn and hot dogs at a better stand than the hoi polloi. But in a performance hall, a box seat means you sit in a kind of really useful balcony seat that you get to through a special door. The way you know it's a good seat is that the ticket-taker looks at the fact you dressed casually and wonders out loud if she can help you, but then she sees you have a box seat and she knows you're on the up and up. They called this place the Bass Performance Hall, but I found out it was not about fishing but about some people named Bass. It was sure pretty--I saw the Nutcracker once there with my wife and our niece and our niece thought she had gone to a place where sugarplum fairies dance.
Afore you knew it, around 1 p.m., the maitre'd of the competition was standing off to the left while a big piano that said Steinway was in the middle and he was telling us to turn our cell phones off and all sorts of good, soapy things.
Then the first pianist showed up. His name was Ning Zhou,and he was from Shanghai. I read all about him in a playbook they sold me in the lobby. One thing that interrested me about this playbook is that every competitor chose every song she or he is gonna play all the way to the end, before they even figure out if they are gonna make it anywhere near the end.
Ning Zhou is 21, but I could start playing piano full-time for the next 21 years, and I could never get the piano to sound anything like Ning Zhou does. Each pianist is allotted 50 minutes to play his or her preliminary round pieces. Ning chose three pieces:
Ravel: "Miroirs" [that's a French word]
Liszt: "Vallee d'Obermann [that's a German phrase]
Liszt: "Mephisto Waltz 1" [more German, but I can translate--Mephisto is the devil and a waltz is a dance they often do on the Danube when it turns blue].
I want to tell you something about piano players. That something is this: piano players, well, they can play. Each one played 50, that's five, zero minutes of piano music, all from memory. I took piano lessons for four or five or six years or some such, and I can barely remember how to read music. But piano people in competitions, they do really complexicated songs by rote alone.
Mr. Zhou showed us during the Ravel that he can massage those keys with nuance and feeling, which was especially interesting when later in the piece he had to play forcefully like a man with a mission. The piece goes kinda back and forth--now up, now down, and he was the man for the quiet parts, but also the man for the loud parts. The first Liszt piece has its dark and broody parts, and its pretty parts, and he brooded right pretty. He went offstage after his Ravel piece to loud applause, and got a towel, and you could tell he was not one of those fellows who doesn't break a sweat, because he broke a sweat, and had a cool white towel to assuage it.
The third piece, the Mephisto Waltz, is probably named for Old Scratch because you have to sell your soul to be able to play it. But Ning Zhou did all these acrobatic and gymnastic part as if he were a Summer Olympian destined for a Wheaties box in Beijing. He had to take his glasses off to play that piece, being a bit glistening I reckon, but he remembered it just as well even thoug he can't see. Another of the Cliburn contestants is literally sightless this time, so I'm amazed at what the human spirit can do.
The audience gave Ning Zhou a very warm and very well-deserved hand, and called him back out for a second hand, and then it was time for Michail Liftis to play. Mr. Liftis hails from Uzbekistan, but he lives in Germany now. The guidebook says he's been "concertizing" since he was a teen, so I guess "concertizing" is a word like "monetizing". The Cliburn folks in the lobby seemed to have monetizing down real well, what with t-shirts and caps and 20 dollar programs and the ability to buy CDs and DVDs of the contest on the same day you see it, so I guess it's good that Michail is on top of the concertizing. I myself handled the listenizing and binocularizing the competitors, though they were also cameraized and big-screen-zied for those patrons without Swift Audubon top dollar birding binoculars at the show. It is, by the way, better to see fingers flying through 8 x 35 lens than to see them through a glass darkly on an elevated home movie screen.
Michail Liftis played these pieces:
Mozart: "Sonata in D Major, K. 311"
Schumann, "Fantasy in C Major, Op. 17"
If there's one thing that American Idol teaches you, it's that everyone thinks if they sing real big like Celine Dion or Aretha Franklin or Sarah Brightman or Freddy Mercury, then they'll blow the audience away, even if they have the vocal chords of Sanjaya. I'm not any kind of expert at the piano game, but I suspect piano competitions are kinda the same. Two of the three fellows kept trying to dive triple-gainers-with-a-double-corkscrew-s
Michail did not fall for that "Liszt way or the highway" approach. His Mozart sounded like a piece by Mozart, capturing all of its melodic challenge and subtlety of idea. His Schumann, by contrast, shouted out "romantic era" like a harlequin romance in a crowded locker-room. His "touch" was respectful, controlled, and very competent. I wondered if the American Idol judges would have told him that this choice was too safe, like singing "Yellow Submarine" or something. I liked his works the best though, perhaps because Robert Schumann's work, when done well and not with too much syrup and melodrama, is as much fun as listening to Jean Ritchie play the dulcimer, all emotion and expertise and humanity, just streaming at you. The applause for him was again warm but not as warm,but he was my favorite. I liked, too, that while the first fellow wore a full tux and tie (or at least a morning coat and tie), Michail went tie-less, while the third fellow wore no coat at all. It was like a great, charming metaphor for progressive thinking and the theory of evolution.
The third player was from Italy, and his name was Allesandro Deljavan. His two pieces were:
Haydn "Sonata in E-Flat Major, Hob. XVI: 52"
Liszt "Sonta in B minor".
I must say that I think that in this world everyone is altogether a critic. Take our Dallas Morning News music critic. His reviews are as snarky as the paper's American Idol recaps, and yet I wonder how many Cliburn and Tchaikovsky medals that news fellow has received. Maybe he got some tips from the sports section about pontification, as the paper just abolished the religion section and thus he would have to look elsewhere than religion for his pontiffing.
I'm a lot like that fellow in the Woody Allen film Manhattan who loves everyone famous whom every pseudo-intellectual ever called over-rated. So I hate to make even the remotest criticism of a pianist I found amazing. Yet I found myself enjoying the Haydn less than any other piece today. Haydn's work can be so joyous and melodic and it gives you a big wink of amused surprise, sometimes, in the midst of a melody you had almost written off as obvious. But this Haydn was less like smooth jazz with a tangy strawberry lemonade chaser and more like a scrum in a rugby match you really enjoy seeing played. One fellow in the lobby said it this way: "that German fellow's Mozart sounded like Mozart, but the Italian fellow's Haydn sounded like Liszt!". Don't get me wrong. It was amazing. I'd see it again. But the Haydn felt like it needed Haydntizing.
Not so the actual Liszt, which Mr. Deljavan played just as if it were a Liszt piece. This fellow was a great showman. If his right hand only was playing, his left raised up, palm upward, as if coaxing it. He seemed to be whispering sweet nothings to himself which makes you wonder if people shouldn't just be allowed to marry themselves. His skillz, as they say, were simply mad. He did a great job with that Liszt.
When he was done, people not only clapped but a few people shouted "bravo" and "bravissimo", so I guess he won Mr. Congenalitity for today.
What's odd is that they picked 29 people out of 151 who auditioned world-wide. These three today were simply amazing, but they won't even get "in the money" unless they are of the 12 out of 29 who make the semi-finals, whereupon they get 5 grand. Yet if these three are any indicia, then everybody is awfully good.
The real enchilada, apparently, is not the 20,000 dollars you get if you win--it's concerts and promotional, and so the top one or two are virtually made for years, and even also-rans get some leg-up to future performances. The guidelines for judges said these kids aren't yet artists, but have the potential to be artists. But you could have fooled me. They're way cooler than lots of artists who spend a lot of time telling you what artists they are, instead of just playing the piano.
I'm gonna skip the part about the man who coughed for minutes during the second song, and did not know to leave the auditorium, because he kinda looked like somebody's grandfather, and I'm not going to speculate why the one cell phone mishap had to involve the person with the most cheesy cell phone melody.
I'd rather save my exasperation for internal combustion, and say instead that when I got home, I thought: "wouldn't it be cool if there were a butterfly on our blooming butterfly bush?"--and then I saw a red admiral (pictured above). It was that kind of day--when pianists could transport you can the every bush has a butterfly.
I may go to another of the days of competition--or I may watch on the cool free webcast of all the performances--it was neat watching the robotic camera arm hover way behind the pianists.
Then we walked our dogs and listened to mockingbirds sing. I wish I could have met Mr. Cliburn, but I'll settle for visiting Kilgore again someday.