Van Cliburn

Critic: Cliburn Amateur playing strong enough for six-way tie

Saturday was the kind of day when being a judge in a piano competition was an especially unenviable task. How about a six-way tie for first place? Sorry, the rules don’t allow it.

But such an outcome would have been understandable in the finals of the seventh Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition, which drew a large audience to Bass Hall to hear six pianists vie for first place.

The six were all strong, and the audience response was consistently supportive. So was the work of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra and conductor Damon Gupton, who played single movements of piano concertos — the first time that the Cliburn Amateur has brought an orchestra into the competition mix.

For some of the contestants, the chance to play with an orchestra was one of the big draws of the competition. Matthias Fischer of Germany, one of the finalists, said as much in his program bio.

The confidence that the finalists displayed didn’t suggest that they were overawed by the innovation. They all got through with no sign of distress.

One remarkable thing was that three of the six chose the opening movement of the same concerto: Beethoven’s No. 3 in C minor. Their playing order seems to have been arranged so that the audience (and the orchestra) didn’t have to sit through two or three of the same concerto in a row.

Another Beethoven concerto, No. 1 in C Major, and a movement of Saint-Saëns’ Concerto No. 5 in F and Mozart’s No. 9 in E-flat, also worked against the possibility of tedium.

My bet was on Thomas Yu of Canada to take first prize, with Matthias Fischer of Germany close behind. But Gregory Knight of the United States, Ken Iisaka of Japan and Canada, Xavier Aymonod of France and Michael Slavin of the United States each had their partisans, and understandably so.