Claire Huangci slept well, woke early, Skyped with friends in Europe and ate a Friday morning breakfast of strawberries.
If she was nervous about playing first in one of the world’s most prestigious piano competitions, she hid it well.
“She was very confident and ... not at nervous about drawing No. 1,” said Huangci’s Fort Worth host, Tim Matheus.
Just after 11 a.m. Friday, the 23-year-old American took the Bass Hall stage and struck the first notes of the 14th Cliburn International Piano Competition — the opening chord of a Beethoven sonata, played with her right hand.
“I honestly don’t know what the big deal is,” Huangci said of having to play first. She stood backstage after her recital, holding a bouquet of flowers presented to her by an audience member. “Actually, it was pretty exciting. I prefer it. I don’t like to go backstage and hear somebody else performing. So it was really a good way to stay focused on myself.”
Huangci’s performance was the first of nine on the Cliburn’s first day, culminating years of preparation for the competition that occurs every four years. A crowd of several hundred witnessed the preliminary recitals at Bass Hall, joining a large audience around the world watching and listening to the performances on the Internet.
“It was very thrilling, very exciting,” Cliburn CEO Jacques Marquis said of the opening notes. “We’ve worked a long time — the jury members, the staff, all the volunteers, the webcast. There is a ton of work to get to this moment, to the music. The first candidate, the first note. That’s it. Let’s do this.”
He said the first day went off without a major hitch, though the webcast experienced some difficulties early in the day. Those were quickly resolved.
“This is a troubleshooting day,” he said.
The preliminary round continues through next week, one of the most grueling classical music tests in the world Each competitor will play two recitals in the first round. Twelve semifinalist will play a third recital and perform chamber music with the Brentano Quartet.
Six finalist play two concertos with the Fort Worth Symphony before the new gold medalist is named on June 9.
Reunion for audience members
As it does every four years, the first day had the feeling of a reunion for many who have worked at the competition for years, or attended it from around Texas and the nation. Dr. John Paul Wood, from Arlington, has attended every session of the competition since 1985.
“Because I love it. It touches my soul,” Wood said. “That may sound kind of hokey, but I’m just in awe of what those kids can do. I love the music and this is the best in the world.”
Wood sees many of the same people, sitting in the same seats.
“It’s fun. We pick up where we left off,” he said. “We take notes. We root. We judge. We don’t know what we’re talking about, but we think we do.”
After a few recitals, Wood said, he and his fellow listeners regain their “Cliburn ears.”
“Even a novice or a layman can tell the difference” between the quality of the performances, he said.
Several in the audience Friday had come to hear Dallas resident Alex McDonald, one of seven Americans in this year’s field. Bob Watson of Dallas, an adult student of the piano, was one of them.
“But just to be part of the excitement,” he said. “And to be inspired to practice more as an adult student.”
Among the familiar faces was Steve Cumming, the local radio personality and the Cliburn’s Bass Hall announcer since 1989.
“Yes it’s a marathon, but it makes us feel good,” Cumming said. “We’re doing something that makes the planet greener, as they say. When you are here for the Van Cliburn, the world has its priorities in a little better order.”
Cumming remembered the competition’s namesake, who died in February from cancer.
“That’s what Van Cliburn was all about,” Cumming said. “He was a musical missionary”
For the first time Friday, the young artists experienced playing in Bass Hall, and for the famously knowledgeable and supportive Fort Worth audiences. The young musicians aged 19 to 30 come from 13 countries.
“It was such a wonderful thing on the stage,” said 20-year-old Italian Beatrice Rana. “Every time is a bit scary, going on with this piano you don’t know very well. But the audience is warm and the acoustics so wonderful that after 30 seconds you get used to everything.”
Rana’s performance was a highlight of the first day, particularly her exquisite sonata composed by Muzio Clementi, an Italian who was a contemporary of Beethoven’s. The piece featured slow, pianissimo passages requiring a delicate touch, interspersed with fast music that allowed Rana to showcase her speed and dexterity at the keyboard.
“I love it. I wanted to play an Italian piece for the competition,” she said. “It is also difficult to present. There is so much difference between the slow and the fast movements.”
But Rana seemed pleased with her performance, which was followed by lunch with her mother, Maria, who had accompanied her from Italy.
“She keeps me very normal,” Rana said, laughing.