At 2 a.m. on Wednesday, June 5, Italian pianist Alessandro Deljavan sinks deep into a living room sofa and sips from a tiny glass bottle of Coca-Cola.
While others in the room have long since shed their dress clothes, Deljavan still wears a crisp white shirt tucked into dark suit pants, and he hasn’t yet taken off his shoes — as though there might be a chance to do the night over.
To experience a different outcome.
To hear his name called from the Bass Hall stage as one of six finalists in the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.
But while friends now talk in these middle-of-the-night hours with outrage and condemnation of the jury’s decision to eliminate Deljavan after the semifinal round, the 26-year-old pianist stays mostly quiet. His face radiates Zen-like calm mixed with a resigned “I told you so.”
Because, he did. Three hours earlier, as the semifinalists had assembled backstage before the announcement, Deljavan said quietly to a reporter, “I am out. I know I am out.”
This is the way piano competitions go for him, he says. It’s the way it went at the 2009 Cliburn Competition.
But then, when he was four years younger — not making the finals didn’t mean as much.
It didn’t hurt as much.
He had come back to the Cliburn, at the urging of his mother, with his star hitched to the final round. Those who make the finals get three years of commission-free management by the Cliburn and a bevy of U.S. concert engagements.
Those who fall short of the finals go home with the hopes that the exposure from the Cliburn has sparked interest in them from someone, somewhere, who might help them launch a career.
“Everyone close to me knows that I really don’t like to compete in competitions,” Deljavan says. “But with the absence of concerts to play, it is what I have to do in order to try to get some kind of recognition so I could play concerts.”
In the four times Deljavan played at this year’s Cliburn — twice in the preliminaries and twice in the semifinals — critics both praised and nitpicked his playing.
But among fans of this year’s only returning competitor, a mini “Delja-mania” was sweeping through Bass Hall and across social media.
Audience members praised his artistry and the emotional connection they felt when he played. Some were seen weeping during his performances, and so many gathered at the stage door for autographs and photos after his recitals that they willingly missed the performer after him.
“Sure, I felt the audience seemed to like what I was doing,” Deljavan says the night he is cut. “But the audience is not the jury.”
Later, he digs deeper to decipher what might have led the Cliburn jury to bar him from the final round. He furrows his brow in confusion, as he feels he played “much better this time around” than four years ago.
“I know I was very honest in my playing,” Deljavan says. “And now it seems strange if someone is honest in a competition.”
‘The weird one’
Variations of the words “honest” and “strange,” in fact, came up a lot in the critics’ reviews of Deljavan’s playing during the competition, which began May 24 in Fort Worth.
When Deljavan plays, he becomes so involved in the music — contorting his face into grimaces, squints and other expressions, and sometimes humming or singing along — that it earned him the distinctive but pejorative label of “eccentric.”
“Just when you thought that eccentric pianists were out of style, other than hairdos, Alessandro Deljavan took the stage to give a highly individualistic performance that caused eyes to pop open,” wrote one critic.
“Deljavan continued his eccentric expressions in his recital of Mozart, Schumann and Schubert, but it was easy to forgive him considering the musical pleasure his playing produced,” wrote another.
Although they also praised his clean playing of Bach, his virtuosic Chopin etudes and his balance with the quartet in the chamber performance, it was his face-making that people seemed to notice the most.
And Deljavan knows that.
“I’m always the eccentric one, with my face problems,” he admits.
He is self-effacing when he wonders if the Cliburn chose him to play a particular “character” in this year’s competition “show.”
“In the earlier screening auditions, they picked me as the weird one that they can always use, knowing full well I would never reach the finals,” he says. “Everyone is watching for weird things in my performance, yet no one is listening.”
Except, his fans were.
In the hours and days after his ouster from the competition, Deljavan was deluged with hundreds of emails, texts and Facebook and Twitter messages — mostly from people he’s never heard of — all expressing their great affection for his Cliburn performances. Exultations like: “Deljavan, I think is the greatest living pianist ... Is another world!” and “To all music & piano lovers: I don’t want to exaggerate, but in the 40 years (or so) I’m listening to piano music & attending piano concerts, never has a pianist touched me more deeply than Alessandro...”
“It’s amazing that I’m receiving, nonstop, more than 200 supportive messages from Russia, Brazil, Australia and Colombia — so many saying, ‘Mr. Deljavan, your artistry was so moving to me,’” he says, looking at his cellphone, a few days after being cut. “Here’s another: ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you again for all the emotion you gave me.’”
The Cliburn webcast crew, filming for a future documentary, didn’t stop shooting him when he stopped playing. About 12 members of the film crew arrived at his Fort Worth host family’s home the evening after Deljavan was eliminated to continue to interview him — and to enjoy a final plate of his signature risotto.
The charismatic pianist, though deeply intense when he’s playing, is lighthearted offstage, with a sense of humor that’s equal parts wicked and good-natured.
Members of the film crew said he was the most interesting person in the competition. Deljavan, after all, became the Cliburn’s ultimate “what-if” story.
And, at the same time, in some quarters, he became a poster child for the confoundingly subjective nature of who succeeds at piano competitions.
William Grant Naboré, founder of the International Piano Academy Lake Como and Deljavan’s longtime teacher, reacted with such anger to Deljavan’s elimination that he returned home to Italy well before the competition’s end — even though another of his students, Tomoki Sakata, would play in the final round.
“I found what the jury did utterly appalling,” he says. “We don’t need cookie-cutter pianists. We need artists, we need personalities. So few competitions actually launch talented pianists who are also huge personalities — and Alessandro is surely one of the biggest talents with a personality that people like. Someone like Deljavan would have done a world of good for the Cliburn.”
The Cliburn does not disclose competitors’ scores, and jury members are not allowed to give the pianists feedback or to discuss them among themselves, or with others.
It was rumored that at the 2009 Cliburn, Deljavan came in seventh in voting after the semifinals, just barely missing the finals. He received a jury discretionary award that year.
He received another jury discretionary award this year, leading many of his supporters to wonder if he came up just short in the voting again. Some say they think the jury was turned off by him, stylistically.
In an interview with the Star-Telegram before the competition, jury chairman John Giordano said, “When you get to the level of play we are talking about, the judgment becomes more and more subjective. We must look and listen for the little things.”
Deljavan admits he didn’t play perfectly.
“Technically, I was not 100 percent with a few wrong notes,” he says, “and maybe the jury thought I was vomiting up those feelings rather than expressing them cleanly, but can anyone really be perfect?”
He can’t help but wonder if his facial expressions distracted the Cliburn jury, as they distracted the critics.
“In the old days, you could be Glenn Gould and play Bach naked and if it was working well, what is the problem?” he wonders. “If everyone is speaking only about my faces and only a few are speaking about my playing then it’s not about the music anymore.”
Finding his way
Less than 48 hours after Deljavan missed the finalists’ cut, he’s the picture of late-morning relaxation, padding around his host-family’s kitchen in his pajamas. Deljavan loves to cook almost as much as he loves his favorite composer, Bach, and he has decided to improvise a penne in tomato and whiskey sauce.
Over lunch, he admits that he feels a bit confounded about the future.
After the 2009 Cliburn, Deljavan went home to Italy and settled into a quiet but busy life of teaching. He is a piano professor at the Egidio R. Duni Conservatory in Matera.
An accomplished chamber musician, he also plays in a duo with violinist Daniela Cammarano; together they gave eight concerts last year.
“I could not be sad with that kind of life,” he says.
But his goal is to share his music on a much larger scale; he’d like to play 60 concerts a year. He can’t book those without a manager. And the way the business works, he can’t book a manager without concerts, he says.
“So many pianists are so good at promoting themselves in order to get a manager or agent, even if they aren’t that good at playing the piano,” Deljavan says. “I just have so many problems promoting myself. What I really need is a wife who loves me so much that she would also be my manager as well.”
Joel Harrison is president and artistic director of the American Pianists Association, an Indianapolis-based organization that hosted a competition which this year’s Cliburn crystal winner, Sean Chen, won in April. He now helps manage Chen’s U.S. concert engagements. Harrison says he avidly followed Deljavan’s Cliburn performances this year, and greatly admired what he calls his “obvious charisma.”
In fact, he predicts Deljavan will grab a manager’s attention without having been a Cliburn finalist.
“Because the entire Cliburn has been webcast,” says Harrison, “a lot of people, including potential managers, have seen and heard Deljavan. Visibility is important and Deljavan has already achieved that.
“What those managers, who are all running a business, are looking for is a pianist with charisma, musical growth potential, and marketability — someone as charismatic as Deljavan,” he says. “The trick is for Deljavan to get a manager to take his call.”
A friend’s perspective
On the front lawn of a home in Fort Worth’s Rivercrest neighborhood three days into the Cliburn finals, Deljavan is distracting himself in the best way he knows how: playing goalie on an improvised soccer field as one of his dearest friends, fellow Italian Davide Cabassi, tries to blast a soccer ball by him.
Cabassi was a finalist in the 2005 Cliburn. Shortly after, he met Deljavan at Naboré’s piano academy.
Today, Cabassi is a highly respected teacher in Bolzano, Italy; one of the other Cliburn competitors, Luca Buratto, is his student. Cabassi, on a long-planned visit to Fort Worth, is now offering much needed distraction and levity to buck up Deljavan.
It seems to be working. Deljavan, sporting a freshly shaved head and aviator sunglasses, doubles over with laughter at Cabassi’s string of Italo-English one-liners.
“If we were to do our own Beauty and the Beast,” begins Cabassi, Deljavan immediately responds: “Well, I would clearly be the beast and you the beauty.”
“As for tonight,” Cabassi enthuses, “we will go to a Mexican restaurant to eat, drink lots of margaritas, and finally listen to some good music — mariachi.”
Cabassi then joins Deljavan in a playful bit of four-handed piano, at a Van Cliburn signature Steinway. From this perch, Cabassi suddenly gets very serious when discussing his friend’s semifinal round finish.
“Every time a jury makes a decision like this one, involving Alessandro,” Cabassi says, “I feel these gods of culture should be required to go in front of the public and justify their decision. Alessandro is a truly special artist, so the jury needs to say why exactly is he out. Really, they need to be asked, ‘What exactly are you looking for in a Cliburn finalist?’”
In talking about his own post-Cliburn musical life, Deljavan’s mood swivels toward wistful.
“I do think back,” he says, “to when I was 11 years old, traveling seven hours to Milan from Pescara to study the piano, and always dreaming about being the winner of the Cliburn Competition. And now I’m realizing that it is just not possible.”
Technically, it is still possible. In four years, Deljavan will have just turned 30, the maximum age for a Cliburn competitor.
In the short term, he has been accepted into the prestigious Cleveland International Piano Competition, which begins in late July; its top prize includes two years of management. But as of midweek, he had not decided whether he was up for the physical and emotional stress of another competition so soon.
For now, Deljavan is in need of useful role models like Cabassi, who has carved out a life that includes teaching at a prestigious music conservatory and playing about 40 concerts per year.
“I think Davide has a wonderful life,” Deljavan says. “His students are very good. He’s got a wonderful wife, a lovely child, he teaches great classes, and he gives many concerts. Oh, and he cooks very well.”
Deljavan boarded a plane home to Italy on Monday. And while he didn’t return to Bass Hall after his elimination from the competition, even for the awards ceremony Sunday, he is at peace, he says, with the realization that maybe he doesn’t need a Cliburn medal as validation of a rich musical life.
“If I’m not on the top,” Deljavan says, “that’s OK. I can be on my street, just walking. If that’s my life, I truly have no problem with it.
Of a potential return to Fort Worth in four years, the lighthearted pianist quips, “I will return to Fort Worth and play Central Market,” adding, “I want to be the new [Cliburn webcast host] Jade Simmons, who I also firmly believe is really Italian.
“Honestly, I’m so happy it’s over,” he says. “There is no more pressure. No one will have to deal with any more of my faces. If they want to see my face now, they must invite me back and they must say, ‘Please, do some faces.’”