In his pursuit of outstanding musicians, conductor Robert Carter Austin is not above resorting to a little spying. This is how his organization came to be presenting three former Van Cliburn International Piano Competition contestants as soloists in upcoming concerts, beginning with Stephen Beus on Thursday at Arlington Music Hall.
“It’s a combination of foresight on the part of the Cliburn people, and what I would call artist espionage,” said Austin, music director for Symphony Arlington, an orchestra that also performs as the Las Colinas Symphony Orchestra and Garland Symphony Orchestra. “The Cliburn folks are kind enough to invite area conductors to attend not just the big final round but also the preliminaries.”
But Austin was working in Europe during the 2013 competition, he said, so he enlisted the aid of a “spy”: Marcy McDonald, mother of 2013 Cliburn competitor Alex McDonald.
“I wanted to give a second chance to some of the very best talent that came through the Cliburn,” he said.
So it may not be surprising that one of the competitors performing with Austin this spring will be Alex McDonald (May 8), a Dallas resident who has a history with Symphony Arlington.
“This will be Alex’s third or fourth appearance with us,” Austin said. “He’s a treasure. I was very disappointed that he didn’t make the medal round. I have heard few pianists who exhibit the sensitivity and musicianship that Alex does.”
Another of Marcy McDonald’s recommendations was Sara Daneshpour, who also competed in the preliminary round of last year’s competition. Austin said he contacted her agent, who sent DVDs of various performances. He particularly liked her playing of a Mozart work — “and I am very picky about Mozart,” he said.
Daneshpour will perform Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 with Symphony Arlington on March 13.
And Austin adds that more Cliburn competitors will be featured in his orchestra’s 2014-15 season.
Symphony Arlington, like many North Texas classical music ensembles, is filling concert rosters with Cliburn alumni with whom local audiences are familiar, and for whom they’ll buy tickets to see again. Which might raise the question: Is the organization ignoring other talented pianists around the world who might be just as good, or better, but didn’t happen to compete?
“Not really,” Austin said. “If somebody doesn’t win the gold medal and make headlines, even the classical music audience tends not to know who they are.”
Austin said that the true benefit of the Cliburn is giving conductors like him the chance to hear (and book) superior talent.
“There are a lot more fine pianists than there are opportunities,” he said. “I would love to be able to roam around the world and go to concerts to find great soloists. But it is not possible at my level. I wanted to give a second chance to some of the very best talent that came through the Cliburn. I can’t say it is selling extra tickets, but these people are good enough that the audience begins to get the idea about what we are doing [to raise the orchestra’s artistic level].”
Thursday’s performance will feature Beus performing Franz Liszt’s Totentanz, or “death dance” — a piece that reflects the orchestra’s theme for this season, “Shall We Dance?”
“It is perfectly possible to have a fine symphony season just by picking pieces at random,” said Austin, who will turn his baton over to guest conductor Alberto Correa of the Medellin (Colombia) Philharmonic Orchestra for Beus’ concerts. “But having an overriding theme gives a certain unity of purpose to the season. I think examining some aspect of music throughout the season, whether it’s a theme or a composer or a geographical location, whatever it may be, kind of lights things from a different angle, as a Hollywood director might put it.”
Austin said Totentanz is an ideal piece to showcase Beus’ skills, in a program that will also include Weber’s Invitation to the Dance and Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique (which, Austin points out, has two dances in it).
“He has a really puissant technique and I wanted something that would show that off,” Austin said. “He has a particular gift for the grand gesture. So this piece is like fresh meat to a hungry lion to him.”
Beus competed in the 2005 and 2009 Cliburn competitions; he did not advance past the preliminary round either year. He became an audience favorite in 2005, however, for his striking resemblance to Van Cliburn.
Since the competitions, Beus has continued his performing career. In addition to American cities stretching from New York to Seattle, Beus has played across Europe (he will be returning to the Czech Republic in March), as well as in China. The Washington state native is also on the music faculty at the University of Oklahoma.
Looking back, Beus said that his Cliburn efforts were two steps in a long process. But he does credit those piano contests with hardening him for future battles — on and off the stage.
“It helped me a lot in terms of learning how to juggle a huge amount of music and deal with stress,” said Beus, who, with his vocalist wife, Alainna, has two young sons and a daughter expected soon. “That’s a real preparation for a concertizing life, because that is what it is really like.”
Austin said he sees this performance, featuring an internationally seasoned soloist and a Colombian conductor, as indicative of the growth of the ensemble his musicians call the “Lasgarlington Symphony.”
“We try to give as much opportunity as possible to talented folks from North Texas,” Austin said. “But I will have to confess that we have begun hiring more and more soloists from New York, California, Europe and South America. Word is gradually getting around that [playing here] is a terrific experience, and, the all-important thing for any soloist, the checks clear.”