At a black-tie dinner in downtown Fort Worth on Wednesday night, the late Van Cliburn was honored in a video tribute.
Then the prestigious quadrennial piano competition that bears his name got down to business: determining the order in which 30 young musicians from around the world will play, beginning Friday.
At what is known as the draw party, Fei-Fei Dong of China was the first name selected from a silver chalice held by the 2009 co-gold medalist, Haochen Zhang. In a new procedure at this year’s Cliburn, Dong was allowed to choose her playing slot. She opted for 24.
“I was too nervous,” Dong said immediately afterward. “I forgot which number I had in mind. I was thinking 21 to 25, but not as the first. It was a miracle.”
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By deadline Wednesday, numbers 22 and 15 were spoken for. Each pianist was hoping to avoid playing first Friday morning when the competition opens at Bass Hall.
Otherwise, for the young musicians, Wednesday was a day of renewing acquaintances, and surveying the concert hall. Italian pianist Beatrice Rana was in the Cliburn audience four years ago, marveling at the grand building and the artistry at the competition. Her visit to the same hall this week was something quite different.
“I was here four years ago because I was in the PianoTexas Academy,” said Rana, 20, one of 30 young musicians selected for this year’s Cliburn. “Yesterday when I went on stage, I looked at the place where I was sitting four years ago. I was feeling how different it was for me to be on the stage, with the piano.
“It’s something you cannot describe.”
Wednesday was the first time the young artists from 13 nations convened, first gathering at Bass Hall for a brief orientation, a group picture and to be measured for a pair of complimentary cowboy boots.
As they mingled in the lobby with Cliburn officials, the media and their host families, it was clear that the pressure of one of the world’s most prestigious music competitions had yet to set in.
“My mother came with me. I think she is enjoying the state of Texas,” said Tomoki Sakata, at 19 the competition’s youngest pianist and the only representative of Japan. “She likes to use her English, and this is our first visit to the United States. This country is very nice. I mean, friendly people, very nice weather, but sometimes thunderstorms.”
The competitors were welcomed by Cliburn CEO Jacques Marquis and jury chairman John Giordano, who both urged the musicians to try to forget the jury when they play. That’s a tall order in a competition that guarantees its winners three years of management and engagements around the world, a huge jump-start to a performing career.
“Play with your heart,” Marquis said. “You have a voice. What we’d like to hear is your voice. Don’t change your voice because a jury is there, or don’t change you voice because you just heard someone else.”
Wednesday’s gathering had elements of a reunion. Alessandro Deljavan, 26, the only returning competitor from four years ago, exchanged hearty hugs with several other Italians in the field. Others had met at previous competitions.
“I enjoy the variety of cultures that are here — people from Russia, from Italy, from China, from Japan,” said Gustavo Miranda-Bernales, 22. “I’m very excited to represent Chile.”
The pianists visited Bass Hall earlier in the week to select one of several Steinway pianos available for the opening round.
“I had a chance to see it before on the Internet for the last competition,” Miranda-Bernales said of Bass Hall. “I was looking forward to seeing it live. I stay in New York because I’m studying there. I get a chance to see very nice halls there like Avery Fisher and Carnegie Hall. Bass Hall is definitely at that level. It’s really good.”
Sara Daneshpour, a 26-year-old American, stood on the stage after the group photograph, looking into the balcony.
“It looks a little bit like Carnegie Hall. It has that aura about it,” she said. “Even though it’s huge, it’s very intimate, very warm. You kind of feel like the audience is all around you. It’s not too removed.”
When asked about the draw party, most competitors expressed a desire to play somewhere in the middle. Some feel that having to play first is the figurative kiss of death.
“Normally No. 1 will never win,” Deljavan said. “No. 1 is beginning a competition, and it’s much more pressure.”
Others were more sanguine.
“I’ve played first twice so I’m totally cool with that,” Daneshpour said. “I’ve gotten over that fear.”
Someone has to play first, Rana said.
“If it’s me, then I will try to give my best,” she said. “You just feel very honored to be chosen with these 30 competitors. Now the most important thing is to get focused on the music.”
Was she nervous?
“A bit,” she said, smiling. “Let’s say, excited.”