Cliburn composer goes for comedic value with ‘Birichino’

06/02/2013 4:20 PM

05/31/2013 6:40 PM

There is more than one way to score big at the Cliburn.

“Since I would have never made it to the Cliburn competition as a pianist, I had to get there as a composer,” said Christopher Theofanidis, the composer of Birichino, a new work commissioned by the Cliburn that all 12 semifinalists must perform as part of their solo recitals.

But that is not to say the Dallas native, who grew up in Houston the son of a professional pianist, was not a talented keyboard artist. He just had some bad luck.

“I started my undergrad work as a piano major at the University of Houston,” said Theofanidis. “But I developed this benign tremor in my hand and the doctor told me, ‘There are two things in life I don’t recommend you do: one is being a concert pianist and the other is being a brain surgeon.’”

But the concert stage’s (and medicine’s) loss has turned out to be music repertoire’s gain. The 45-year-old composer has amassed a dazzling compositional résumé that includes a large and diverse body of works; a long list of prestigious commissions that include writing a violin concerto for Sarah Chang, an opera for the Houston Grand Opera and a ballet for the American Ballet Theatre; performances of his works by orchestras in this country and abroad; prestigious teaching positions at Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory, Juilliard and, currently, Yale; and even a Grammy nomination.

This is not the first time he has composed a piece to be debuted in Bass Hall. His Fanfare Shining was commissioned and presented in 1998 as part of the opening ceremonies for that venue.

But just because a commission like the one he did for the Cliburn is not unusual does not mean it is not special to Theofanidis.

“I grew up in the shadow of this competition,” said the composer, who recounted fond memories of watching a few Cliburn finals with his pianist father, who performed under the name Theo Fanidi. “So this has meant a huge amount to me personally.”

The commissioned work performance at the Cliburn, a unique aspect of the Fort Worth competition, dates back to the inaugural event in 1962. Theofanidis joins a prestigious list of composers who have contributed works, including Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, William Bolcom, Morton Gould and John Corigliano.

With this new work, the Cliburn pianists are working without a net. Even after it has been committed to a page of sheet music, there is always room for personal interpretation and nuance. So this portion of the competition puts these pianists to a test that few others are ever likely to face. It shows the audience and the judges how adept these young players are at absorbing a new score and making it their own.

The commissioned work

The semifinals of the Cliburn competition began Saturday and continue through Tuesday. Each of the 12 pianists must perform the Theofanidis piece. All 30 competitors who came to the Cliburn had to learn it in case they made it to the second round; they received it in early March.

“I wanted to compose something that was going to show a particular side of the players’ personalities,” said Theofanidis about Birichino, which means “little prankster” in Italian. “So I decided to start from the standpoint of humor. Not everybody has a real strong sense of comic timing in their musical personality.”

Theofanidis said the piece, which was inspired in part by Richard Strauss’ tone poem Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, intends to do more than just bring smiles to the faces in the audience.

“A lot of these kind of patterns and things I set up in the piece are also meant to make the players themselves laugh a little. Because they are so funny, they feel funny when you play them,” he said about the approximately 8-minute work, which Theofanidis describes as “highly virtuosic.”

“It has a very bright, sparkling kind of surface. And super-fast kind of patterns that go up and down all over the keyboard, and stride piano leaps back and forth from opposite ends, things like that,” said Theofanidis, whose hobbies including cooking, scuba diving and collecting memorabilia of the great composers.

Audience members know from experience that the 12 performances of this new piece are likely to sound quite different. And, in the case of Birichino, that is especially likely because of some freedom Theofanidis has written into the piece.

“One aspect I have left completely open to the player is peddling,” he said, adding that he did provide detailed guidance about tempo in his score.

So the interpretations can vary, but Theofanidis said he thinks that all the performances should focus on one particular end.

“The most important aspects are character and comic timing. All interpretive decisions should be made with that as a guide.”

Theofanidis recommends that the audience listen for the performances in which the pianist seems to be “having a good time with the piece” as a measure of who is best realizing his goals.

But, again, the composer was thinking of the players as well as listeners when he wrote this smiling work, which is dedicated to Cliburn jury chairman and former Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra music director John Giordano.

“Everybody’s nerves are going to be so high, I figured they could use this,” he said with a prankster’s laugh.

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