As Francois Dumont emerged from the backstage labyrinth of Bass Hall following his first recital in the Cliburn Competition on Monday, a jolly man with a smile as bright as a Broadway marquee scurried to wrap the 27-year old Frenchman in a congratulatory hug.
William Grant Naboré, who at 71 packs the hyper-caffeinated, whirling dervish energy of someone 30 years younger, has been Dumont’s primary music teacher since 2007.
“I simply told Francois, ‘You did just great,’” Naboré said later.
Dumont is one of five Cliburn contestants — along with Italians Alessandro Deljavan, Alessandro Taverna and Luca Burrato, and Japan’s Tomoki Sakata — who is his pupil.
Naboré, head of the International Piano Academy Lake Como in Italy, is widely acknowledged as one of the most successful piano teachers in the world — a keyboard “Yoda” — who, during the quadrennial Cliburn competitions, is often seen roaming the hall, dapper and distinguishable, morning and evening, in a pin-striped suit.
Naboré makes the trek from Rome, where he lives. And although it is not uncommon for competitors’ teachers to be present if they make it to the later stages of the competition, Naboré usually arrives at the beginning and stays for as long as his students compete in the three rounds of the 17-day competition.
Over the years, the Cliburn and Naboré have been a match made in piano contest heaven: Since his first Cliburn in 1997, Naboré has brought a total of 19 students to the event; eight have advanced to the semifinals, four to the finals and one — Stanislav Ioudenitch, in 2001 — has been a gold medalist.
“When I came to the Cliburn for the first time in 1997, my immediate impression was — and remains — how nice and friendly everyone in Fort Worth is,” said Naboré. “All these years later, I still think it’s such a superbly run competition. It remains my favorite — and, trust me, I pretty much know them all.”
Once he arrives at the Cliburn, Naboré helicopters over his students, supervising their preparation for each round of the competition.
To perfect a Schumann fantasy that Deljavan will play in his phase two preliminary recital Wednesday, for example, Naboré labored with him for more than three hours on the first movement alone at the home Deljavan’s Fort Worth host family.
“We worked on every detail of that piece because we were seeking real artistry and imagination in the sound,” Naboré said. “One of my mottos is that while practice is the laboratory, performance is where you give of yourself.”
Deljavan, the only returning pianist from the 2009 Cliburn, first entered International Piano Academy Lake Como in 2005.
“Professor Naboré always has new ideas to keep all his students alive,” Deljavan said. “It is so I can play something that the people listening simply won’t expect.”
It is not unusual for the teacher to take students under his wing in more personal ways, too. In 1999, when Deljavan was 12 years old, his father died. For as long as he has known his teacher, he said, “Professor Naboré has been like a father to me. We can talk about anything, from politics to anything happening around the globe — and for that I’m very grateful.”
A hallmark of Naboré’s teaching technique is not to bulldoze his interpretation of the repertoire on his students. Rather, he allows his pupils to put their own stamp on the work.
“He really wants to get the best of your concept of the piece,” Dumont said. “Of course, he expects that I have done the research on a particular piece, but then he really listens to me, wanting to know what my ideas are.”
Naboré approaches the technical potential of all of his students as if he were a doctor examining a new patient. First, he will closely look at any new pupil’s hands.
“I want to see how their hand muscles have developed,” Naboré said, “so I can adapt my teaching to their individual strengths.”
Another facet of Naboré’s teaching regimen is making his students produce a tonal beauty that is often elusive.
“In my school, we don’t tolerate ugliness when it comes to producing a piano sound,” he said. “What we very much seek out, however, is a spectacular virtuosity.”
And in order to do that, Naboré will often prod his students into singing a passage before actually playing it.
“And then I would ask my students what a particular passage suggested emotionally, be it love or hate or anger,” he said. “And then we’ll find a way to express that.”
William Grant Naboré was born in Roanoke, Va., to a father of French and Cuban origin, and a mother who was part Jewish, Scottish, and Native American. He lived in Virginia through age 16.
Considered a classical piano child prodigy, Naboré, at 16, was one of the youngest students admitted to the prestigious Aspen Music Festival and School.
“But I was really an unexploited child prodigy,” Naboré said. “My parents were not that keen for me to play in public.”
In fact, Naboré only competed in a few piano contests, and never in the Cliburn.
Naboré first arrived in Italy in 1959, to study with Carlo Zecchi, one of the great piano teachers of the day. Naboré embarked on a new life in Europe, first in Rome where he studied at the famed Accademia di Santa Cecilia.
From Rome, he moved to Geneva to enroll at the city’s main conservatory. Over the next 25 years, he became a full professor of music in Geneva’s prestigious conservatory system.
In 1993, Naboré was recruited to head a newly created piano school, the International Piano Foundation on Lake Como. And by 2002, he launched the International Piano Academy Lake Como, which has an average enrollment of seven students.
Naboré’s schools are famous for being tuition-free to the lucky few who are accepted.
“No student has ever paid any tuition at any of my academies,” Naboré states proudly. “I’ve always wanted to keep it free because that means it’s an honor for those chosen students to be here. The minute you start paying for something, it is not quite the honor it used to be.”
Naboré said Van Cliburn’s recent passing deeply affected him and his students.
“After his death,” Naboré said, “My students were profoundly sad but they also were revved up to come to Texas and pay Van Cliburn great homage and respect — and also to show the world what we can do. More than ever, it is our favorite competition to be a part of and, hopefully, to win.”