In New York, Cliburn hopefuls are keyed up

Posted Monday, Feb. 11, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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NEW YORK -- With the historic snowfall turned to rain and slush, Jeanette Aufiero fought traffic from her family's home in New Jersey and a devilishly difficult sonata by Prokofiev.

Then it was done.

The 26-year-old pianist, who studies at the Cleveland Institute of Music, had successfully completed her audition for the 2013 Cliburn International Piano Competition.

"This is huge. It's like telling someone you auditioned for the Olympics," she said in the lobby of the Caspary Auditorium at Rockefeller University. "The Cliburn is the Olympics of piano, at least that's how I think of it.

"Yeah, check one off the bucket list. At least I tried. Whatever happens from here on out, at least I can say I did it."

Aufiero was the second pianist to perform here Monday, one of more than 30 who will audition between now and Saturday.

Then the auditions move to Fort Worth, and sometime after they end Feb. 22, the five jurors will select 30 of the 133 pianists they have heard from around the world to compete in May. In previous weeks, the Cliburn jury has conducted auditions in China, Germany, Russia and Italy.

About 50 piano aficionados attended the first New York session, drawn to the auditorium on the Upper East Side of Manhattan by the Cliburn's reputation for excellence.

In the audience were Audrey Abela and Alex Karpayev, themselves young pianists. Karpayev auditioned for the Cliburn four years ago but did not advance.

"It's one of the biggest competitions in the world, and it's interesting to see who might be selected, who's on top of their game this year," Karpayev said. "I'm curious who is playing, what they are playing, and how they are playing it."

Dennis Dalton gave up the piano for psychiatry in 1961, but his passion for the instrument and the competition clearly lingers.

In past years, he has traveled the world from his Dallas home to hear Cliburn auditions. This year, he said, New York would have to do.

"I want to hear the pieces played and make my own judgments," said Dalton, seated in the last row of the auditorium.

"Sometimes [I] agree with the jury. Sometimes, [I] don't."

Dalton gave a positive review to Venezuelan Kristhyan Benitez, whose 2009 audition was disrupted when a fire alarm sounded. On Monday, Benitez's recital went off without a hitch, and he was clearly relieved afterward.

"Exhausted, completely exhausted," he said. "The amount of concentration necessary, just 100 percent. I'm actually happy, really happy. No fire alarms. I'm glad I got to play the whole thing. I enjoyed myself. I was a little bit anxious because of the pressure. But this is what I wanted."

And now?

"I'm pretty positive, actually," he said.

Juror Veda Kaplinsky, who's based in New York at the Juilliard School, reflected on the weeks of auditions: "To go around the world and hearing dozens of people sound as good as one person used to 50 years ago, it's very impressive. The idea of missing notes being excusable, that's out the window. People don't miss notes anymore, which is unheard of when I was growing up. They all play performances that are clean. The level of mastery of the instrument has certainly gone up."

Listener Norma Mandelstam, 76, of New York, concurred.

"I don't know how jurors can hold one performance in their minds in light of the next one that comes right away and is just as astonishing," Mandelstam said. "I've heard other Cliburn winners over the years. The people who have won are just wonderful. This is the future of classical music."

Tim Madigan, 817-390-7544

Twitter: @tsmadigan

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