Amateur pianists offer music on a different scale

Van Cliburn (left) presents Christopher Shih with the Richard Rodzinski First Prize at theSixth International Piano Competitionfor Outstanding Amateurs in Fort Worth, Texas.
Van Cliburn (left) presents Christopher Shih with the Richard Rodzinski First Prize at theSixth International Piano Competitionfor Outstanding Amateurs in Fort Worth, Texas. (RODGER MALLISON / Van Cliburn Foundation)
Posted: June 05, 2011

FORT WORTH, Texas - Concert pianists tend to measure their worth by success and failure. But there's plenty of gray area in between, as heard in the Van Cliburn Sixth International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs over Memorial Day weekend. The participants emerged into adulthood years ago, not with some competition's grand prize, but with a tire company in Ogden, Utah, or a race-car design that won the Indy 500; with a large, happy family, or maybe a more challenging one with an autistic child.

The 73 contestants ranged in age from 35 to 79, some retired, some actively engaged in high-powered careers. So many were in the medical field that you could have come down with most any ailment and had a doctor in the house, probably a specialist. They flew in from as far away as Tokyo, Taiwan, and Berlin, and as close as Oregon and Maryland.

Some are serial contestants: With enough time and money, they work the amateur circuit, much in the fashion of ballroom dancers. Others had solid training when young - some even entered the big Van Cliburn Competition - but gave up the keyboard when life intervened. Some returned to playing only in the last year or two. The criterion was not having made a living from piano in recent years.

Certainly, the competition wasn't about prizes. The Van Cliburn Foundation wants to be a piano festival more than a cutthroat competition and capped cash prizes at $2,000 - plus a pat on the back from Van Cliburn himself, who appeared at the final awards ceremony Sunday at Ed Landreth Auditorium. A second press jury - of which I was part - came up with an alternative winner whose prize was a ten-gallonish hat.

Considering that contestants pay their own way (though with reduced airfare and hotel), they could hope only, at best, to break even.

Some said that just being present was the prize. The life of a pianist is often isolated, even on the amateur level. And here was a week of musical immersion with people such as themselves. The audiences were as engaged and intelligent as one could want. But even though about 27,520 people streamed parts of the event through their computers, the listeners who attended numbered no more than 500.

Most pianistic amateurs are like the ones I've encountered at Philadelphia's Reading Terminal Market, which welcomes those who can barely get around the keyboard on some days but have a small faithful public, if only because they get something there that's not available elsewhere. Clearly, something elusive but important lies beyond good and bad.

In Fort Worth, performances were in three rounds, none longer than 30 minutes, several including Brahms' Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Chopin's Barcarolle, and Schumann's Widmung. John A. DeRuntz Jr., a mathematician and senior staff scientist at Lockheed Research Laboratories, played only his own compositions. Several contestants played their own transcriptions of Bach, even if, in the case of retired database programmer Clark Griffith, the harmonization was in the style of the composer's semi-namesake Burt Bacharach.

More power to them. As much as I enjoyed top prizewinner Christopher Shih and his more-than-professional-caliber Brahms, I was more interested in the pianists who exercised freedoms that only amateurs have. That's why I enjoyed Ken Iisaka, an Internet start-up entrepreneur who played the arch-eccentric Charles-Valentin Alkan in the final rounds - whether he could get all the notes or not.

Dominic Piers Smith, who designed an Indy 500-winning race car, played Chopin's Ballade No. 4 with rhetorical pauses you could drive a truck through. Bravo! I disagreed with him, but this kind of daring is simply off-limits to career pianists. Somebody has to show us where the edge is. And he had the imagination to do so.

The critics jury settled on a talent with a less-than-blazing set of fingers - Jane Gibson King, a homemaker from Provo, Utah. Generally, I opted not to read the player biographies, though her celestial Debussy and entrancing Bach had me flipping through the program book, wondering "Who is this person?"

She had years of serious study at Arizona State University, but her playing went on hold when the youngest of her four children was diagnosed with autism. That's the kind of life event that changes (and broadens) one's inner world. Whatever her playing was like before, her music is now alive with deeply relevant details. The word that kept coming up during jury deliberations was humanity.

Of course, the knee-jerk question is whether such a pianist should have a career. In America, the minute something acquires value, the impulse is to figure out how to sell it. But qualities such as King's tend not to survive commerce. When Lang Lang was a Curtis Institute student, he played with a disarming openheartedness that was bound not to last - and didn't.

The top Cliburn amateur winner may not even last as a pianist. Shih told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that he now plans to give up piano for three years - perhaps the price of playing at a professional level while also working at the Maryland Digestive Disease Center.

Stressful goals defeat the advantage of amateurism. My wish for King is a life in music that touches friends and family in something close to one-on-one communication (in contrast to a concert's one-on-2,000 communication). Is there anything more powerful than that?


Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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