Forget ‘Chopsticks’; Amateur Pianists Show Real Chops

June 18, 2016. Cliburn Chairman of the Board Carla Thompson, President and CEO Jaques Marquis present winner Thomas Yu with the Press Award during announcement of the winners of the Seventh Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition at Bass Hall in Fort Worth, Tx. (Photo Ralph Lauer)
Periodontist Thomas Yu, right, took the top prize at the Seventh Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition.
(Photos: Ralph Lauer)
By Susan Geffen

FORT WORTH — The audience members were growing increasingly impatient. The competition jury had been out for nearly two hours, and the verdict was long overdue. Occasional eruptions of demonstrative clapping broke out, and many had abandoned their seats and were milling around the concert hall. An outsider could only assume that the stakes were high.

In the conventional sense, they weren’t. The restless audience was in Fort Worth’s Bass Hall, awaiting the results of the Seventh Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition, held June 19-25. Compared to the $50,000 grand prize awarded in the professional Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, the amateur prize of $2,000 (plus a pair of tickets to the 2017 Van Cliburn International) is quite modest. Additional cash prizes range from $500 to $1,500. Nevertheless, the audience of loyal supporters and diehard Texas pianophiles was not leaving until the results were in.

When the winners were finally announced, audience and critical favorite Thomas Yu, a 38-year-old periodontist from Calgary, Alberta, took the top prize. Second prize went to retired ophthalmologist Michael Slavin, 65, of Manhasset, N.Y., with Paris strategy consultant Xavier Aymonod, 40, taking third.

Michael Slavin, a retired ophthalmologist, won second prize.
Michael Slavin, a retired ophthalmologist, won second prize.

All three have experience in the amateur piano competition circuit. Yu has won multiple amateur competitions, including the 2006 Paris International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs and the 2012 Chetham’s International Amateur Piano Competition in Manchester. Slavin tied for the top prize in the 2015 Paris event, with other wins including the 2012 Chicago Amateur Piano Concerto Competition. Aymonod was a laureate in the 1998-2000 Paris competition and a semifinalist at the Orléans International Piano Competition.

In the 2016 Cliburn Amateur, 68 pianists played in the preliminaries, 30 in the quarterfinals, and 12 in the semifinals. Semifinal programs are 25 to 28 minutes of contestant-chosen repertoire, almost double the length of comparable programs in the Paris, Manchester, and Chicago amateur competitions. Six pianists compete in the final round.

This year’s finalists were all men, from the United States, Germany, France, Canada, and Japan. Each played one concerto movement with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, adroitly led by Damon Gupton. Cliburn Amateur contestants choose from a list of 25 concerto movements, with Mozart, Beethoven, and Saint-Saëns predominating; three of the finalists played the first movement of the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 3.

Third-prize winner Xavier Aymonod performs with the Fort Worth Symphony under Damon Gupton.
Xavier Aymonod performed with the Fort Worth Symphony under Damon Gupton.

Although the most frequently heard music was by Chopin and Beethoven, the repertoire in the earlier solo rounds was sometimes more adventurous. It was a particular delight to hear two of the finalists play 21st century repertoire by living composers. Aymonod’s semifinal round included two contrasting etudes from Klavierstücke No. 7 by Argentinian composer Carlos Roqué Alsina (b. 1941), sandwiched between the more commonly played Brahms Rhapsody in G Minor, Op. 79, No. 2, and Mephisto Waltz No. 1. Aymonod says that he believes in playing a variety of repertoire, and he especially loves Bach. Upcoming projects are the Schubert Sonata in C minor, D. 958, and the Rachmaninoff Études-Tableaux.

In two of the rounds, Saskatchewan-born Yu performed music by contemporary Canadian composers. His preliminary selection, Butterflies and Bobcats, by David McIntyre (b. 1952), is an expressive piece alternately reminiscent of Prokofiev, Ravel, Gershwin, and straight blues. His convincing semifinal performance of the Beethoven Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111, was preceded by Prelude No. 1 by Marc Durand (b. 1949). The latter, a beautifully voiced miniature evocative of Scriabin, provided an apt and thoughtful introduction to Beethoven’s difficult and psychologically challenging work.

Lana Maria won Jury Discretionary Award.
Lana Marina won Jury Discretionary Award.

Whatever the repertoire, the majority of Cliburn contestants are amateur only in the strictest sense. Although entrants may not be professional musicians, many have music degrees, and a number were prodigies who studied with prominent teachers. These are high-level performers. Indeed, the competitors’ biographies tend to be strikingly similar: an early life dedicated to the piano and performing followed by a shift to a nonmusical profession. The competitors, however, continue to yearn for the piano, and, somehow, they are able to rededicate themselves to the instrument.

But some competitors don’t follow the pattern. Semifinalist Sean Sutherland, 39, grew up in St. Vincent and The Grenadines, and he fell in love with the piano early on. By the time he was fifteen, however, he had exhausted the piano teaching resources available on St. Vincent. He kept up his musical activities by becoming the arranger and manager for a “boy band” (one of his bandmates was Kevin Lyttle, now a highly successful pop singer). After a three-year lapse in his piano study, Sutherland enrolled at MIT, receiving degrees in music and electrical engineering/computer science. He also has an MBA from Montréal’s McGill University, and, this fall, he will enter Stanford as a graduate student in education. Meanwhile, he arranges classical music for the steelpan and plays regular piano recitals; upcoming programs feature music by Kapustin, Prokofiev, and Scriabin.

Semifinalist Sean Sutherland once managed a boy band.
Semifinalist Sean Sutherland once managed a boy band.

New Yorker Lana Marina, 47, came from a low-income background in Chicago, but she made an early mark as a prodigy. She played the Haydn D-major piano concerto at seven and the Beethoven Concerto No. 1 at eight. She has never hit a ball or put on a roller skate; her childhood was spent at the piano. As a teen, she won the Van Cliburn scholarship to Interlochen, and seemed destined for the concert stage.

Then life surprised her. During her junior year at Northwestern, she fell on the the ice and fractured her left wrist. “I didn’t want a career that might be ruined with another slip and fall,” she says, so she attended Cornell Law School and became a successful trademark attorney. Her life took yet another turn when, in 2007, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Her law career was over.

When Marina returned to playing in 2012, she “basically hadn’t touched the piano” since 1990. Despite further health setbacks—including a serious MS relapse four days before the beginning of the Cliburn Amateur—Marina made it to the competition and into the semifinals.

Competitor Janet Sommerfeld, 53, has also had a varied career. She entered the University of Southern California as a music major, but her father wanted her to study something “more important.” She changed her major, but, for a year, she “escaped to Japan” as an exchange student. She studied and performed in Tokyo—a Japanese orchestra asked her to play Rhapsody in Blue, and she learned it in two days—but returned to California to complete a journalism degree. She has spent years in television news and marketing, writing and producing, among other things, 30-second commercials for the Star Trek films. After a 25-year hiatus, she returned to the piano, wanting to enjoy, she says, what was “taken away from me.” “For me,” she notes, “it came full circle.”

Competitor Janet Sommerfeld had taken a 25-year hiatus from the piano.
Competitor Janet Sommerfeld had taken a 25-year hiatus from the piano.

In the past, a large number of Amateur Cliburn competitors have been either active or retired physicians; this year, software engineers and other technological professionals predominated. Is there a mental connection between music and software engineering? Semifinalist Gregory Knight, a software engineer from Asheville, N.C., offers a possible theory. He says it’s the “ability to deal with abstractions and symbols.” Both writing computer programs and fashoning musical performances require building a “model” and constructing a concept from an abstraction.

And how do these already-busy people make time for the kind of practicing that enables them to build their musical models? Yu smiles and says his piano is in his basement; Aymonod and semifinalist Gordon Cheng note that spouses and family members care for their children while they are practicing.

But, at the end of it all, Yu credits his wife Michelle: “She’s won this more than I have.”

Susan Geffen is managing editor of Clavier Companion. She is active as a music educator, adjudicator, presenter, and writer.