Van Cliburn

Meet the six Cliburn amateur finalists

Cliburn Foundation

Six amateur pianists will get to fulfill their dreams of playing with a professional orchestra in a great concert hall.

On Saturday, the six finalists in the Seventh Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition will take the stage at Bass Hall to play a concerto movement with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra under conductor Damon Gupton.

Here’s a look at the six men who will be playing for the $2,000 first prize.

Xavier Aymonod, 40, Paris

Xavier Aymonod q2
Ralph Lauer Cliburn Foundation

Represents: France

Day job: Strategy consultant

With his job and family, Aymonod said, he only has time to play piano on the weekends. But he is enjoying teaching his 6-year-old daughter the instrument he has played since he was a child.

“My daughter is beginning, so we will see if she likes it,” he said.

He has competed in several amateur competitions but expects that onstage at Bass Hall, “I will be nervous for sure.”

Final round repertoire: Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Opus 37, first movement

Matthias Fischer, 42, Wurzburg, Germany

Matthias Fischer q3
Ralph Lauer Cliburn Foundation

Nationality: Germany

Day job: Physician

Fischer works at a university hospital and conducts research on a rare genetic disorder, Coffin-Lowry syndrome. He says he practices piano about one to 1.5 hours every evening after he finishes seeing patients.

“Last year, I moved to a small house so I can practice late and now neighbors are not disturbed,” Fischer said.

Final round repertoire: Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Opus 15, first movement

Ken Iisaka, 47, Foster City, Calif.

Ken Iisaka q6
Ralph Lauer Cliburn Foundation

Nationality: Japan/Canada

Day job: Software engineer

This is Iisaka’s third consecutive time in the finals of the amateur competition. The first time he said he had no expectation that he would make the finals. This time he focused on his repertoire and was excited about the prospect of playing with the orchestra if he made it to the last round.

“I will be honest. It is a thrill of a lifetime. I have my name on the door. I get to be a rock star,” Iisaka said.

Final round repertoire: Mozart, Piano Concerto No. 9 in E Flat Major, K. 271, third movement

Gregory Knight, 53, Morganton, N.C.

Gregory Knight q7
Ralph Lauer Cliburn Foundation

Nationality: United States

Day job: Software engineer

Knight writes software to help companies manage their fleets. He almost entered the Cliburn Amateur 10 years ago.

“I researched the competitions online … but I could never find the time to work out the repertoire and practice and do my job,” Knight said. Now that his children are older, Knight figured he had better do it now since “it’s not getting any easier to move my fingers.”

Final round repertoire: Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Opus 37, first movement

Michael Slavin, 65, Manhasset, N.Y.

Michael Slavin q7
Ralph Lauer Cliburn Foundation

Nationality: United States

Day job: Retired ophthalmologist

Slavin is the oldest competitor in the final round, and he is amazed, he said, at the amount of time and preparation his younger competitors are capable of while still working in their profession.

“My advice is do what you’re meant to do, what your calling is and do it well,” Slavin said. He kept up with his piano playing when he was a doctor, he said, but now that he is retired, he believes he can focus on his hobby.

Final round repertoire: Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 3. in C Minor, Opus 37, first movement

Thomas Yu, 38, Calgary, Alberta

Thomas Yu q5
Ralph Lauer Cliburn Foundation

Nationality: Canada

Day job: Periodontist

Yu’s mother died within the past year, he said, and he chose pieces for at the competition 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.”

When he bows after each performance, he holds his hand to his heart for her. “Her presence is everything. Every note I give to her.”

Final round repertoire: Saint-Saens, Piano Concerto No. 5 in F Major, Opus 103, third movement

Andrea Ahles: 817-390-7631, @Sky_Talk

Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition finals

  • 3 p.m. Saturday
  • Bass Hall, Fort Worth
  • $10-$60 (includes admission to awards ceremony)
  • 817-212-4280, www.basshall.com
  • Winners will be named at the conclusion of play, about 6:30 p.m.
  • The final round will be broadcast on classical radio station WRR 101.1 FM and webcast at Cliburn.org and Star-Telegram.com.
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