When it comes to tackling a Bach toccata or a Beethoven concerto, it’s clear the Cliburn contestants are very much in charge of what happens on stage.But when it comes to arranging for these prodigiously talented players to sample a tasty burger at Kincaid’s, attend a yacht party on Eagle Mountain Lake or shoot skeet on a farm in Everman, it’s all part of their host families’ performance.For this year’s competition, 30 local families were plucked from a bigger pool of highly eager Cliburn fans to act as surrogate moms and dads to this year’s competitors.Not every important piano competition on par with the Cliburn provides such friendly and, often, luxurious accommodations to its participants. (Some provide college dorm-like hospitality.) But the tradition of the host family is about as old as the competition itself in Fort Worth. And, with the addition of a youthful, social-network-savvy coterie of 20- and 30-something “social hosts” assigned to each of this year’s 30 competitors (see Page 7D), the Cliburn host family is a nurturing refuge for the pressure-riddled contestants.The Cliburn organization starts as early as nine months before the competition to ask former host families if they would like to host a competitor again. This year, according to Maureda Travis, chairwoman of the host family committee, 14 families repeated from four years ago, meaning she needed to recruit additional families for the remaining competitors. “We mostly rely on word-of-mouth to find those new families,” says Travis.Once Travis and her team have lined up the candidates, a thorough home visit is the next crucial step.Mark and Katie Kalpakis, who live in Westover Hills, were newcomers to the Cliburn host family market and were eager to show Travis how ready they were to house a competitor. Travis, upon a cursory inspection of the Kalpakis’ home, needed to make sure the player would have a private room with a bath. She also checked the availability of a spare bedroom, in case a competitor wanted to bring a parent.Travis then made sure the Kalpakis’ living room or dining room could accommodate either a Steinway baby grand or a 6-foot grand piano. “As we tour the home, one of the most important things we are looking for is whether the competitor has privacy,” says Travis.Another key consideration for many families is whether the competitor smokes. Most families won’t object to a player who smokes, but only ask that he or she do so outside.In recent years, another area of some competitor concern is the kind of pets kept by the host family. Most competitors are concerned about allergies. In fact, Alex McDonald, who lives in Plano and who was eliminated after this competition’s first round, cited recent severe asthma attacks from being around pets as a reason to veto a family with a pet.The presence of a child can go a long way to pairing up a competitor with a host family. In the case of the Kalpakis family, they have a 9-year-old son who is taking piano lessons, and the Cliburn thought it would be great to pair his family with Kuan-Ting Lin from Taiwan.“We thought a budding young musician would enjoy meeting another young man who would be such a good influence on him, especially to show him how dedicated you have to be to practice,” says Travis.Lessons learnedWhen it comes to entertaining their guest competitors, the host families are probably taking cues from veteran host parents, like Tim and Susan Matheus. The Matheuses, this year’s hosts to American semifinalist Claire Huangci, are famous for ferrying around competitors in a vintage 1959 pink Cadillac, arranging a yacht party on Eagle Mountain Lake or taking the players up in a private helicopter or jet.This year, they have taken Huangci on shopping trips to Neiman Marcus and Dillard’s, and thrown her a special Memorial Day weekend luau at Lake Worth.“Even after three competitions, I still enjoy having these players around,” says Tim Matheus.Meanwhile, Andy Taft, head of Downtown Fort Worth Inc., and his wife, Dawn, a painter, hosted for the first time, taking in Jie Yuan of China.“In preparing for the visit by the Cliburn, making sure we were suitable, I’ve never seen our house cleaner,” says Andy Taft, with a laugh.After requesting that the future contestant not practice after 10 p.m., “once he started playing,” Taft said, “my wife turned to me and said, ‘He can play all night as far as we are concerned.’ It was so beautiful.”Owing to his former college days at TCU, Yuan confessed his fondness for chicken wings — to the point where he called Taft and politely asked if he could make a run to Wingstop on the way home from work.A recent Taft-organized Sunday for Yuan involved a trip to his favorite local church, followed by one of the Taft family passions: skeet shooting. The Tafts ended up inviting Yuan and fellow competitor Steven Lin to Everman’s Alpine Shooting Range.“My children, 15-year-old Cole and 13-year-old Katie, love to skeet shoot,” said Taft. “I brought up the shooting with Jie Yuan and he jumped all over the chance to try it. It just seems like a very Texas thing to do.”Local host Andrew Power, a retired Air Force musician, was happy to receive Ukrainian Oleksandr Poliykov as his guest competitor. With Poliykov no longer in the competition after the preliminary round, Power has introduced him to the distinctive culinary offerings of Joe T. Garcia’s and Railhead Smokehouse (especially its barbecue brisket and chicken) and photo exhibits at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. Power also invited Poliykov to his family’s 50-acre ranch in Brazos.While Poliykov made almost zero food demands of his host, he did confess to a love of American apple juice, so Power stocked up on three gallons of it, along with a profusion of Central Market cheeses. Poliykov added, as a housewarming gift, Ukrainian chocolate pastries, along with several quarts of Ukrainian vodka.“We live like a couple of bachelors,” says Power, who never put a curfew time on Poliykov’s rehearsing, allowing him often to practice up until midnight.“It was very emotionally rewarding to have a Cliburn competitor,” continued Power. “To be around such a sensitive musician who investigates all these various facets of a piece. We definitely had a deep connection.”Joe and Mary Dulle hosted, for their third Cliburn competition, Italian Alessandro Taverna.“He is a total delight,” says Mary Dulle. “Charming and sweet.”What the Italian really enjoyed was the Dulles’ way of catering to his copious protein needs.They satisfied his meat cravings by first taking him to the H3 Ranch in the Stockyards for its rum-flamed tenderloin, then for steaks at Lucile’s and more tenderloin and rib-eyes at Charleston’s.“Alessandro admitted that he couldn’t get enough steak here because what he had in Venice wasn’t nearly as good,” says Mary Dulle, who also introduced Taverna to Italian gelato, Fort Worth style, at Paciugo.“He rolled his eyes in joy over that ice cream,” recalls Dulle. “There is no doubt that we made a new friend.”As for Glenn and Marcia Garoon, they took the hosting plunge for the first time, taking in Russia’s Nikita Abrosimov.“When I found out we were going to host Nikita, I immediately got on the website to see the pieces we were going to be listening to hour after hour,” Marcia Garoon said. “When I saw he would be playing lots of Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff, I got really excited.”The Garoons, looking to satisfy their competitor’s few dietary requirements, made sure to prepare such rib-sticking meals as chicken, roast beef, beef stroganoff and salmon, along with plenty of prepared foods from Central Market.During their many home-cooked meals with Abrosimov, the Garoons had several interesting linguistic sessions, where the Russian pianist picked up slang expressions such as “gotcha” and “nice folks” — both of which he would sprinkle in sentences.“Now every time we explain something to him, he would turn around and say, ‘Gotcha,’” says Marcia Garoon. “Honestly, I couldn’t imagine a more delightful house guest.”Consoling competitorsAll of the host families acknowledge that the biggest risk in developing a close relationship with their competitor is the possible crushing emotional disappointment if he or she happens to not advance to the competition’s next round.Andrew Power recalls that his competitor, Oleksandr Poliykov, actually consoled him when he didn’t make the semis.“He was the one who reassured me,” Power says, “that he understood that it goes with the territory of being in these competitions and that, for him, to be able to play in the beautiful Bass Hall was enough for him.”And Alessandro Taverna’s philosophical approach to being eliminated before the semis also assuaged his host family’s deep disappointment.“He was sad but certainly not devastated,” recalls Mary Dulle. “It was really hard for me because not only did I think he was absolutely wonderful, but most of my piano-loving friends thought he was easily semifinals material. He kept reassuring me that he was only starting his career and this happens in life. He actually ended up calming me down.”
In a further attempt to make the 30 mostly 20-something competitors feel welcome, the Cliburn Foundation has continued the popular “social host” program it launched at the 2009 event — only this time, a good portion of the “socializing” is done online.
Approximately 20 social hosts, most of them young professionals in their 20s and 30s — and most of them core members of the Cliburn’s young-professional classical music awareness group known as Cliburn 180 — have each been assigned at least one competitor to stay in touch with while they are in Fort Worth.
According to Townes Clemons, a 29-year-old project manager for the Projects Group and one of this year’s lead social hosts, the newest wrinkle is a not surprising one: the added use of social media to cement the fresh ties between the competitor and his or her social host.
“The competitors really enjoy gravitating to people their age, so the big thing this year is to create some of that contact on all kinds of social media, from Facebook to Twitter,” says Clemons, who along with his girlfriend were social hosts to Ruoyu Huang of China and Alessandro Taverna of Italy. “This time around, it’s not so much about taking them out to bars or to the Stockyards, but, again, conversing online, sending each other a tweet or friending them.”
Outside the virtual swirl, the social hosts have invited competitors who could spare the time to meet them at the draw party at the Worthington Hotel, a get-together at downtown’s Grace restaurant, a party at the Fort Worth Zoo or a private event at Clemons’ grandmother’s house.
“What is cool about the social host program,” says Janann Cowden, a social host coordinator, “is that you can stay in touch with the competitor, and his or her host family, on any level you want. It can be as little as checking in with the player to see how they are doing — which actually can offer them a strong bit of encouragement and a morale boost.”
Clemons in particular reached out to Taverna and, though he was intensely focused on practicing for his first recital, still managed to get him out of the house for a meal at Bella Italia West in Fort Worth.
“Me and my girlfriend asked Alessandro if he wanted an authentic Texan meal, and he said that might be a bit of a shock to his system that early on in the contest, so we chose Italian instead,” says Clemons. “Often when a host family just isn’t available for some reason, that’s when the social host can step in.”