Van Cliburn

Arlington music fans open their homes, hearts to Cliburn contestants

First-time Cliburn hosts George and Kay Duggan and their contestant, Yekwon Sunwoo, at home in Arlington on Monday.
First-time Cliburn hosts George and Kay Duggan and their contestant, Yekwon Sunwoo, at home in Arlington on Monday. jlmarshall@star-telegram.com

Fort Worth will always be home to the iconic Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, but more and more of its young pianists are meeting and greeting new Arlington host families this time around.

It began with the 2013 competition, when four host families were the first in Arlington. Two of those families have repeated as hosts this year, and two new ones have come aboard.

“People here are really talking about this and wanting to get involved,” said John Pokrifcsak. He and his wife, Peg, are the Arlington pioneers.

They have been recruiting and organizing friends and others who might be up for the three weeks of sheltering, feeding, chauffeuring and bonding with young people who fill homes with world-class music.

The couple likes to show off a photo album of their 2013 competitor, Russian Alexey Chernov, and already have snapshots of their 2017 competitor EunAe Lee, 29, of South Korea, whom they call “our girl.”

“She is a really social and sunny person,” Peg Pokrifcsak said. Lee left Texas to take an exam at Northwestern University when she didn’t make the semifinal cut, and is scheduled to perform soon at the Santa Barbara Music Festival in California.

The early exit was tough on the couple and their guest.

“When she was passed over, we looked all over Bass Hall, before we found her,” Peg Pokrifcsak said. “The ride back home was very, very quiet and she went on to her room.”

Lee’s spirits were better before she left, and the Pokrifcsaks hope to see her again.

They and the other Arlington hosts all have yard signs and large orange flags to let the world know they have very special house guests.

“The whole neighborhood is involved in this,” said Cindy Will, an Arlington teacher who has hosted before. Friends in casual clothes settled into the couches and chairs in her central Arlington home on Friday to listen to Han Chen, 25, of Taiwan, practice his semifinal recital program. Chen studies at the New England Conservatory in Boston and lives in New York.

Sharing cultures

Will hosted Guiseppe Greco of Italy in 2013, along with his father. Now, her attention is focused on Chen. She is already hoping to have him and his sister back for a Christmas visit.

“It’s a learning experience, sharing cultures and it’s like having another family member,” Will said. “I’m going to cry when he leaves.”

Chen studied at Julliard as a child, and has enjoyed participating in competitions from Fort Worth to Israel and The Netherlands.

“I enjoy how much time you have here at the Cliburn,” he said. “Usually it’s a much tighter schedule. This competition is generous, you have time to compare and to settle down.”

He is excited about playing a venue as “beautiful” as Bass Hall, and at the same time playing for an audience online that numbers more than half a million.

“The audiences here are so friendly and so passionate about the music,” he said.

The Arlington hosts said they enjoy the non-stop music most of all. Contestants routinely practice five hours at a time, with a break for fruit and water, according to the Pokrifcsaks..

“This is exhilarating, and one of the most rewarding experiences of my life,” said Sharon Godwin, a first-time Cliburn host. Her guest is Daniel Hsu, 19, of Philadelphia.

That sentiment was echoed by George and Kay Duggan, also first-time hosts, to Yekwon Sunwoo, 28, of South Korea. Sunwoo is not a first-time guest, though. He participated in the Cliburn in 2013 and holds a master’s at Julliard. He is studying with Bernd Goetzke in Hanover.

“We were attracted to hosting because of the rare opportunity to listen to the masters played by Yekwon, and support an individual participating in the most prestigious competition in the world,” Kay Duggan said. The Duggans have an appreciation for classical music, though they do not play.

“Observing and listening to the five-plus hours of Yekwon playing a day, you quickly understand his dedication and commitment to excellence,” Kay Duggan said. “He is not only a brilliant pianist, he is a warm, thoughtful, generous person that we have come to adore.

Their Labrador retriever, Luke, has likewise become fond of Sunwoo, and lies under the piano at his feet while he practices.

Life-changing experience

Arlington residents since 1990, both George and Kay say they are longtime fans of the Cliburn competition.

“As a child, our family learned about Van Cliburn and the competition through PBS specials,” Kay said. The experience of hosting a Cliburn competitor “has been life-changing,” she said.

Godwin, the other first-time host, has one grown son and elderly parents nearby who have enjoyed dining with Hsu.

“It’s so nice to have vitality in the house again,” Godwin said. Hsu’s mother accompanied him and has become Godwin’s eager shopping partner.

The outlook is good for more Arlington families to host Cliburn contestants, Godwin said.

“Two of the host committee members who came to look at the house and talk to me, were curious about how to broaden their base,” she said.

Godwin, who arrived in Arlington in 1980 for commercial flight training at Meacham Field, was a piano major in college. She had never attended a Cliburn performance until this year and now she is a fan.

“It’s amazing to watch,” she said. “He goes around the house like my son did as a teenager, but then he goes to Bass Hall, puts on that tuxedo and tie, and he’s a mature musician, performing this incredible music onstage.”

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