Picking from the (piano) bench: UNT professor helps select Van Cliburn musicians

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The Dallas Morning News
2013 Cliburn Gold Medalist Vadym Kholodenko

Pamela Mia Paul didn’t travel the world for six weeks to listen to some of the most ambitious pianists in the world as if she were a computer picking over data.

The University of North Texas regents professor of piano listened like a person ready to fall in love.

The men and women at the piano were the ones trying to measure the right amount of technique against the perfect dram of passion as they played a repertoire Paul describes as “Olympic.”

That’s what it takes to be one of the 30 musicians vying for a medal in the 15th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in May. But for the five screening jurors, including Paul, the task at hand was more like alchemy.

“The simplest way to describe it is to say that I wanted to fall in love with someone,” Paul said. “I wanted to hear someone, be moved by them and then immediately want to go online to buy tickets to see them in concert.”

The Van Cliburn competition is a world-class contest that takes place every four years in Fort Worth. It’s named for the tall, shy Texan, Henry Lavan "Van" Cliburn Jr. The prodigious pianist traveled behind the Iron Curtain in 1958 to compete in the International Tchaikovsky Competition — a contest meant to showcase Soviet cultural superiority during the Cold War. Van Cliburn took the gold medal, and later that year, he won a Grammy Award for his recording of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1. In 1962, the first Van Cliburn International Piano Competition debuted at Texas Christian University.

Paul said in acting as a juror, she was looking for a pianist who has the education, training and experience to perform on the stage at Bass Performance Hall.

“You’re looking for people who know the rep [repertoire], people who have been to major competitions, have been in them or won them,” Paul said. “You look at the last 10 concerts they’ve performed with a orchestra or solo. You are looking for someone who has stamina.”

Jacques Marquis, the president and CEO of The Cliburn, said the screening auditions are important.

“It’s one of the most important stages of the competition, but it’s not the most important,” Marquis said.

The Cliburn received about 300 applications from pianists around the world, including video of applicants performing. Then, Marquis said, 145 applicants were chosen for the screening auditions. Paul joined four other pianists, Dmitri Alexeev of Russia, Michel Baroff of France, Janina Fialkowska, of Poland and Canada, and James Parker of Canada, in a six-week tour across the world to decide who would make the contest.

Marquis said he invited five musicians to preside over the screening auditions. He had a basic idea for a juror in mind. They had to be exemplary pianist wide a command of a wide-ranging repertoire. They had to have experience performing alone, and with chamber and symphony orchestras.

"I'm looking for pianists," Marquis said. "People who know what it takes to be on that stage and play that rep. They have to know the stories. They know Chopin. They have played it. Their life is piano and music."

But Marquis was looking for jurors with open minds, too.

"They will listen to something and know exactly where there is going to be trouble," he said. "They are looking for unique voices, people who can bring something new to the table. I like to use the metaphor of the chef. Everybody has a piece of steak and the nice spices — but not everyone can cook. We're looking for chefs."

The 30 competitors will be whittled down through three rounds. The preliminaries present all 30. Then, 10 competition jurors will select 20 for the quarterfinals, 12 for semifinals and six finalists. Only three pianists will take medals. Their victories include concerts and performance engagements.

Marquis said the Cliburn has a longstanding relationship with university programs that turn out high-level pianists, such as Southern Methodist University, UNT and TCU. The jury panel heading out to the auditions needed to be a balance — hence the representatives of Russia, North America and Europe.

"They are looking for unique voices, people who can bring something new to the table. I like to use the metaphor of the chef. Everybody has a piece of steak and the nice spices — but not everyone can cook. We're looking for chefs."

"And I need to know the jurors," Marquis said. "We were going to spend six weeks together."

Paul said she and her fellow jurors heard stellar music at the auditions, which were held in England, Germany, Hungary, Russia, South Korea, New York and Fort Worth.

 "When you hear that many play, some of it you're not going to remember," Paul said. "But of course, there were auditions that I still remember vividly."

Fellow jurors tended to agree on the standout performances.

"It wasn't a process that involved a lot of bickering," Paul said.

For the professor, one audition stands out in particular, and affirms the jurors' drive to select pianists with a fresh point of view or a unique voice at the instrument.

"I have to confess that there's this one piece of music that I have always disliked — the solo version of Liszt's Totentanz. For years, I have made it clear to my students how much I dislike it," Paul said. "Well, I heard this young man play this piece, and I said, 'I almost like this music.'"

There is one country that continues to train artists who impress the longtime teacher.

"I think Russia is one of those places that is producing all-around just fabulous players," she said.

Marquis said the screening auditions included more than 90 hours of music. Paul said it was a vigorous task, but a pleasure.

"As my dad said, 'This isn't a horse race,'" Paul said. "You don't get to see who crosses the finish line."

Well, not as a juror, anyway. Paul promises that she will, in fact, get to see which three pianists make it to the winners circle, so to speak.

"Oh, I've already got my tickets," she said.


When: May 25-June 10

Where: The Nancy Lee and Perry R. Bass Performance Hall, 525 Commerce St. in Fort Worth.

How much: Tickets start at $80. For subscriptions, visit www.cliburn.org. For more information, call 817-738-6536

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