Van Cliburn

For Fort Worth pianist, third time might be the charm at Cliburn Amateur

Clark Daniel Vann Griffith’s earliest musical memory has him at 4 years old, enjoying a steamy July day at his grandmother’s home in Levelland, in West Texas.

With lunch barely done, his mother dried dishes while he banged on the ivories of the family piano. Suddenly, he hit the first notes of Mary Had a Little Lamb in perfect rhythm.

It provoked the boy’s mother — a formally trained musician — to drop her dish towel and scamper out from the kitchen.

Anna Marilyn Dupre Griffith sidled up to her son and got him to play those notes again, while singing along with them.

And 48 years later, he will be tackling a somewhat more complex program during the Seventh Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition, taking place Sunday through June 25 in downtown Fort Worth.

It will be Vann Griffith’s third Cliburn amateur competition; this year, he is the only contestant from Fort Worth.

“I’m very proud to represent my adoptive city,” he says.

The Cliburn is one of the pre-eminent amateur piano competitions in the world. It is open to competitors at least 35 years old who don’t derive their primary source of income as professional pianists; the field of 69 entrants includes attorneys, doctors, homemakers, teachers and scientists. More than 20 of this year’s contestants are returning from previous years.

Vann Griffith, a retired database programmer, made his Cliburn Amateur debut in 2007, and again competed in 2011. Each contest has brought him closer to the top. In 2007, he finished third, while in 2011 he came in second. Both times, he won the award for best performance of a piece from the Baroque era, and in 2011, he also took home a “most creative programming” prize.

Both times, he competed as Clark Griffith. He and husband Marvin Vann Griffith — a French and German teacher at Southwest High School — took each other’s surnames when they married last November.

“I have a distinct memory of my first competition, of most importantly getting a chance to shake hands with Van Cliburn,” he says of the competition’s namesake, who died in 2013. “It made me so proud to stand on that stage and shake his hand. Shaking Van Cliburn’s hand is a bit like shaking hands with history.”

Young talent

Vann Griffith’s lifelong trajectory toward — and away from — music isn’t unlike that of other competitors in the Cliburn Amateur.

His mother is a retired percussionist who played with the Phoenix Symphony. “Though we didn’t have a piano during Clark’s earliest years, it is safe to say that he had a lot of musical exposure before and after he was born,” Griffith’s mother recalls. “His dad plays the guitar beautifully and I would be practicing, so Clark just heard a lot of music.”

In fact, Vann Griffith showed such musical promise that his parents invested in his first baby grand piano when he was only 4 — with his mother supervising his first lessons.

“And by the end of that first summer with our new piano, Clark was already playing television commercials — as the commercials were on TV,” she recalls.

Through high school, he took weekly piano lessons (in fact, his ties with the Cliburn go back to his student days when he was a pupil of 1977 gold medalist Steven De Groote). He also accompanied local theater and school choral productions, competed in music competitions and won scholarships to attend music camps.

He was one of only three high school pianists accepted into the summer chamber and orchestral music program at the prestigious Tanglewood Institute in Massachusetts.

After his public school years in Phoenix, Vann Griffith matriculated at Philadelphia’s prestigious Curtis Institute of Music.

Despite earning a degree in composition from Curtis, he never launched himself into any full-time professional musical career.

“I always assumed I would end up doing something musical somewhere,” Vann Griffith now says. “I never felt like I had the teaching gene in me.”

At that point, Vann Griffith reached a pivotal crossroads of whether to get on the professional classical-pianist track or to back away.

“I went to school with people who were on the professional piano player track,” he says. “They were doing competitions and repertoire and intense amounts of practicing. I think of myself as the laziest man alive. I’m just not as intensely devoted to something like that. Meanwhile, there are other things they can’t do that I can, so I decided to concentrate on those.”

His career path would take him to Albuquerque, Las Vegas and the San Francisco Bay Area before he moved to Fort Worth in 2003, near his parents, who live in Colleyville.

Returning to competition

Well before Vann Griffith entered his first Cliburn Amateur in 2007, he would listen to the radio broadcasts of the quadrennial competition.

With two now under his belt, he takes a practical approach to why he keeps coming back to the Cliburn.

“If you can get past the application, it is really great fun,” he says. “They throw a great competition. It’s as much like music camp as you want it to be.”

The Cliburn Amateur has also made Vann Griffith a minor celebrity, especially after his appearance in the documentary They Came to Play, about the 2007 contest. He recalls being at the Flying Saucer in downtown Fort Worth and having a gaggle of classical-piano fans approach him, showering him with praise.

“I even got a fan note left on the windshield of my car,” he says. “It’s fun to be recognized.”

Among his fans is Theron Ice. Ice and his wife run Pianotex, an Arlington-based company that sells, restores and repairs pianos. Ice has worked on pianos for Elton John, Chick Corea, Joni Mitchell and John Legend.

Ice recalls Vann Griffith settling in to a 1929 Honduran mahogany Baldwin grand piano and moving his fingers across its ivory keys, “playing all the parts of Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen, just like that off the top of his head,” he says. “The music just comes flying from his heart with such ease.”

Five years ago, Christopher Shih, a gastroenterologist currently based in Lancaster, Pa., beat out Vann Griffith for first place in the Cliburn Amateur. Shih says he particularly admires the touch his old competitor brings to Bach.

“Clark is a very intelligent person and I think there is something about Bach that just draws intelligent people and those who can play very lyrically,” Shih says. “ And then on top of that, he’s this very gracious, warm and humble guy. Just the guy you’d want to sit down and have a drink with and get to know better.”

For this year’s contest, Vann Griffith — who has planned a program that will include works by Bach, Chopin, Schumann and Mendelssohn, along with a piece he wrote — is particularly excited about the final round, in which six pianists will share the Bass Hall stage with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra under the baton of actor-conductor Damon Gupton. Should he make it that far, he plans to play the first movement from Shostakovich’s second concerto.

First he’ll have to make it past the preliminary round solo recital, in which he’s playing Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in F-sharp Minor and Brahms’ Intermezzo in A Major. The performance take place 7 p.m. Monday in Van Cliburn Recital Hall. (Quarterfinalists will be announced at the conclusion of the evening’s playing, about 10 p.m.)

Vann Griffith doesn’t dare vow that the third time will be the charm for him winning first place. He hesitates to make any brash predictions because he has seen the quality of his fellow competitors’ playing improve every year, and he isn’t obsessively yoked to the amateur circuit, playing the other competitions scattered throughout the country in the years between the Cliburn.

“I just don’t do those other competitions that many of the other players do,” he says. “I am happy to stick to this one. Sure, I give local recitals and get together monthly with fellow players — we call ourselves the Kindred Keys — but that’s about it for my local playing.”

The pianist admits to a somewhat ambivalent emotional relationship to the Cliburn.

“The competition is gratifying and a bit annoying at the same time,” Vann Griffith says. “I really don’t like the notion that what I do is better than what someone else is doing. I honestly learn from every person I hear on that stage.

“I’m ambivalent about being pitted against one another artistically because the camaraderie aspect of the contest is so rewarding.”

Still, he says he genuinely looks forward to playing for an appreciative Cliburn audience.

“Honestly, having the full attention of music lovers is just exciting,” he says. “I don’t want to say that it’s a religious experience, but our concert halls do look an awful lot like churches.”

Seventh Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition

  • Sunday through June 25
  • Van Cliburn Recital Hall and Bass Hall, Fort Worth
  • $10-$60
  • 817-212-4280; www.cliburn.org
  • Each performance will be webcast at Cliburn.org and Star-Telegram.com.
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