As the preliminaries of the seventh Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition neared an end, Monday afternoon’s session in Van Cliburn Recital Hall seemed the most satisfying overall. Eight of the 11 participants, including six in a row, seemed reasonable candidates to advance.
The field of 68 was reduced to 30 after the final preliminary session Monday night.
One of the most impressive contestants in the afternoon session, in my view, was John Gutheil, a doctor from the U.S.. His performance of the opening movement of Beethoven’s first piano sonata was cleanly played, stylish and full of life. Two Chopin etudes were another stylish group.
Yusuo Kurimoto of Japan and David Caldine of the U.S. impressed with music a little off the beaten path — Kurimoto with music of Enrique Granados and Caldine with pieces by Charles Griffes, Felix Blumenfeld and (not so offbeat) Rachmaninoff.
Xavier Aymonod of France, Eberhard Zagrosek of Germany (the competition’s oldest contestant at 73) and Lawrence Hsu, David Swenson and Jane Gibson King of the U.S. were other standouts.
In the morning session, Hajime Kobayashi and Shinji Wada of Japan, Sean Sutherland of Canada, and Debby Pearlberg and Brad Dunn of the U.S. scored points.
The afternoon’s session was the setting for one moving episode. Lana Marina of New York, who has multiple sclerosis, was helped onstage to play music of Horowitz and Liszt, which she did with amazing effect despite her handicap. She received a sustained standing ovation, rare in the competition.
One area in which this edition of the Cliburn Amateur seems to be breaking new ground is in the professions represented. In the past doctors have always seemed dominant among the competitors, but this time entrants from computer-related fields are leading the pack, at 14 out of the 68.
Physicians are still well represented. There are 11, and if you add in other health-related professionals — six — they are still dominant.
As usual, there are homemakers: seven this time, including four self-styled “stay-at-home mothers.”
There are some unusual professions as well. Included are one actuary, one sommelier, one international civil servant, one co-owner of a tire store and one voice actor.
The composers whose music is played are one point of resemblance between the amateur Cliburn and the big one. Chopin leads the pack in the current competition, with 98 of his works named by contestants for potential performance. Not all will be played, of course, because the elimination of competitors begins at the end of the prelims.
Beethoven, at 63 overall, is No. 2 on the composer list, though there was little of his music heard in the early rounds.
Liszt, Bach, Schumann, Rachmaninoff and Mozart, in that order, were other multiple choices, with Rachmaninoff especially popular early on.
There were a few slips in the evening session, but it also had its share of strongly positive performances.
One of them was by Fort Worth resident Clark Vann Griffith, whose Bach prelude and fugue and Brahms intermezzo were stylistically on the mark and sensitively played.
Ken Iisaka of Japan, a past Cliburn Amateur finalist, gave a remarkably atmospheric performance of Ravel’s Sonatine. Another winner was American Gregory Knight’s unlikely combination of Earl Wild’s arrangement of Gershwin’s Embraceable You and the opening movement of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 7. Both worked.