Part Two: The Program~Cliburn Amateur Competition

Part Two: The Program

The Cliburn Amateur takes copious planning. From the first notes my student, Janet, sent in for the screening audition to the last note she'll play in the finals, every note is part of a carefully engineered experience. Each round is a complete mini-recital with its own flavor and integrity. The only guidelines given are the amount of time allotted for each round. Otherwise it's hers to make brilliant. 

I've sat on enough juries myself to know that every jury is made up of remarkably human people. After hours of listening to people play, no matter how dazzlingly, you get tired and sleepy. You want to hear something electrifying. Something new. Anything but another Liszt Sonata. (At least that's how I felt. But even on my best day I don't want to hear a Liszt Sonata.)

Here's what Cliburn tells you:

Competitors are free to choose their own programs for all recital phases of the Competition. Applicants may perform any work written for solo piano by a classical composer of any era, including contemporary music. It is suggested that the repertoire reflect a variety of musical periods and composers. Returning competitors are encouraged to present repertoire that has not been performed at previous competitions.

  1. No works may be repeated in subsequent rounds.
  2. Total performance times must include applause and pauses, and will be strictly enforced. (I think this one is funny. Who knows how long people will applaud?)
  3. Separate movements of larger works will be accepted but must be performed in their entirety. Repeats are at the discretion of the pianist.
  4. Works do not have to be memorized (a page turner will be provided). (Some pianists do play from the score. Most do not.)

Here are Janet's programs and the behind-the-scenes reasons we chose them:

Preliminary Round
Ravel: Jeux d’eau    
Prokofiev: Mercutio  (from Romeo & Juliet)    

Janet has played Jeux d'eau for a long time. She'll be comfortable with it and that's essential. It's is a colorful, impressive piece that will help the jury gauge her playing. They'll all know it and hopefully its familiarity will work for her.

The Mercutio is more unusual. It's from a suite of pieces transcribed from the Ballet by Prokofiev. He premiered them himself in 1937. It is full of fire and provides a great contrast to the watery beauty of the Ravel.

Quarter Final Round
Beethoven: Sonata, Opus 81a "Les Adieux"
         Second movement: Absence
         Third movement: The Return

Prokofiev: Romeo Bids Juliet Farewell  

This programming is more unusual. Janet starts with a slow, sad piece: short, but heart wrenching. The Third movement is to be played Vivacissimament (super lively and fast!) It's technically demanding and one of Beethoven's most famously difficult sonatas.

Romeo Bids Juliet Farewell may be my favorite piece that Janet is playing. I adore the way she plays this piece. This round will end quietly, with a sad sense of foreboding at what lies ahead. Janet says that she finds this piece particularly inspiring because she has seen the ballet and imagines the story unfolding onstage as she's playing.

Semi Final Round
Liadov: Barcarolle   
Prokofiev: Young Juliet
Chopin: Fantasie in F minor, Opus 49

The Liadov Barcarolle is relatively unknown. Like the Chopin Barcarolle, it is gorgeous and showy. It's the newest piece for Janet. It's important to play something new so the entire program doesn't feel stale. Having some pieces that are newer means the learning process is in different stages and it helps your mind stay agile. Young Juliet is quick and light hearted, but ends softly. The Fantasie is another celebrated piece. Janet plays it wonderfully and it will make a riveting ending to this compelling program.

Final Round
Schumann: Concerto in A minor, Opus 54
           First movement, Allegro affettuoso

This is the first time the Cliburn Amateur has had an orchestra for the finals. Janet is lucky. She got to play this concerto last January for the California Concerto Weekend. For many competitors this may be their first experience with orchestra. Janet already feels comfortable with this piece and knows what it feels like to play it with an orchestra.

Practicing this much repertoire takes lots of time. It also takes a sense of personal confidence that isn't easily discouraged or distracted. It's easy to only practice the first round or two, thinking you'll surely get knocked out. Bad idea. My teacher, John Perry, told me to always practice at least one round ahead. When playing the preliminaries I should be working on the next two rounds. Otherwise when you've been advanced to the next the only thing that awaits you is panic.

Janet is too smart for any of that. She'll practice every note between now and the competition. And I hope she gets to play every one of them in Fort Worth.

Read Part One: The Invitation.


Part One: The Invitation~Cliburn Amateur Competition

March 22, 2016

Dear Mrs. Sommerfeld,

It is my great pleasure to invite you to the Seventh Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition, June 19 to 25. The quality of this year’s applications, of which we received 159, was exceptionally strong, and we are delighted to inform you that you have been selected to participate as a competitor this June!

Within the next few weeks, you will receive additional details on performance and rehearsal schedules, travel and accommodations, performance opportunities, symposia, and social events planned during the competition week. Once again, please accept our warmest congratulations. We look forward to seeing you in Fort Worth.

With all best wishes,
Jacques Marquis
President and CEO, The Van Cliburn Foundation

Janet listening to the audio playback of a take of her Ravel Jeux d'Eau.

It began with an application. Even putting together the videos to apply to the Cliburn Amateur is a daunting process. This year 159 people applied and they accepted less than half of them. The videos had to be good.

In an example of the kind of love and support often seen among my adult students, Bob offered the use of his gorgeous Steinway B for the recording and took care of all the technology involved. Janet played and I offered moral support and a quick bit of repertoire advice. (Ditch the Scarlatti, go with the Prokofiev.)

I had competed in the Van Cliburn Competition (for Professionals) many years ago. (1985, if you must know. Doesn't that sound like the Stone Age?) I know it's a well-oiled machine and all the facets of it are beautifully run.

Janet and I met when we were both students at the University of Southern California. She was studying with James Bonn, a teacher who usually only taught piano majors. Her father didn't want her to major in Music and instead encouraged her to study Journalism. After a career that included being a television news reporter and editing Star Trek Voyager promotions, she finally returned to playing the piano. It had been twenty-five years.

Through the magic of Facebook we reconnected. Though she lives in Los Angeles and I live in San Francisco, she began flying up to study with me. When I realized how beautifully she was playing, I encouraged her to submit an application to the Cliburn Amateur Competition. (I had judged the competition in 2002 and was aware of the level of playing.)

I'll be writing more as the competition draws closer, and then during the competition itself. I'm looking forward to telling some behind-the-scenes stories as I'll be neither competitor nor juror this time. 


Here are Janet's audition videos to give you an idea of the level of playing in this "Amateur" competition. Enjoy!

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