Sometimes it pays to play something different.
In a final round that saw four of the six pianists play Beethoven pieces Saturday, Canadian Thomas Yu wowed the Bass Hall audience and judges with an impressive Saint-Saëns piano concerto movement, earning him first place in the Seventh Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition.
Yu, a 38-year-old periodontist, received a $2,000 cash prize and a pair of tickets to the Fifteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition next year.
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“I had thought about this competition for so many years and wanted so much to do my best at it,” Yu said afterwards. He said he had attempted to petition the Cliburn to lower its minimum age requirement of 35 before the 2011 amateur competition; this was the first year he was eligible to enter.
For the first time in a Cliburn Amateur, the finalists performed a single concerto movement with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, under conductor Damon Gupton. Saturday was Yu’s first time to play the fast-paced third movement of Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No. 5 in F Major.
“I thought, ‘You have six minutes to do this, so put your whole life into it. Don’t turn back,’” Yu said.
The oldest finalist, Michael Slavin, a 65-year-old retired ophthalmologist from New York, won second place, receiving a $1,500 cash prize. Xavier Aymonod, a 40-year-old strategy consultant from Paris, placed third, receiving a $1,000 cash prize. Both played the first movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor.
The other finalists were Gregory Knight, 53, of North Carolina; Ken Iisaka, 47, of Foster City, Calif.; and Matthias Fischer, 42, of Germany.
$2,000prize money awarded to winner Thomas Yu
Slavin, who won Concours International des Grands Amateurs de Piano in Paris in 2015, joked that he was disappointed that he didn’t win, calling Yu “a terrific pianist.”
“Being a perfectionist, you look for the first prize, but other than that, it was a wonderful experience,” Slavin said of his time in Fort Worth.
The weeklong competition, which is open to adults who do not have a professional music career, started on Sunday with 68 pianists. Competitors performed solo piano pieces during the preliminary, quarterfinal and semifinal rounds.
There’ve been some moments today that will be memories of mine for my lifetime.
Thomas Yu, winner of the Seventh Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition
Yu was an early favorite among critics with his preliminary round choice of Butterflies and Bobcats by contemporary Canadian composer David McIntyre. “Yu gave it a strong performance and probably assured himself of a place in future rounds,” wrote Star-Telegram critic Olin Chism.
Yu also won the Audience Award, which comes with another pair of tickets to the final round of next year’s competition and the Press Award, for which he took home a cowboy hat and tickets to Billy Bob’s Texas. Yu said he is excited to be able to return to watch the Cliburn’s flagship competition for professionals.
“Fort Worth is a lot like Calgary,” he said of his hometown. “So I feel very welcome here, and I can’t wait to come back again.”
For Yu, who has won several other amateur competitions, the Cliburn had special meaning. His mother died within the past year, so he chose competition pieces that she enjoyed listening to him perform.
“She’s the one that drove me to all my piano lessons,” he said. “She’s the one who pushed me and encouraged me to keep playing and never stop.”
After each performance, he would bow with his hand over his heart and think of her.
“Her presence is everything,” he said. “Every note I give to her.”
Yu plans to return to his periodontist practice on Tuesday, giving himself the day off to savor his Cliburn win.
“There’ve been some moments today,” he said, “that will be memories of mine for my lifetime.”
This article contains material from the Star-Telegram archives.
Cliburn Amateur Special Awards
Jury Discretionary Awards: Deirbhile Brennan, 46, Ireland, and Lana Marina, 47, New York
Creative Programming Award: Gregory Knight, 53, North Carolina
Outstanding Performance of a work from a the Baroque Era: Clark Vann Griffith, 52, Fort Worth
Outstanding Performance of a work from the Classical Era: Ken Iisaka, 47, Japan/Canada
Outstanding Performance of a work from the Romantic Era: Matthias Fischer, 42, Germany
Outstanding Performance of a Post-Romantic Work: Jasmin Tiodang, 44, Indonesia
Audience Award: Thomas Yu, 38, Canada
Press Award: Thomas Yu, 38, Canada