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2011 Cliburn amateur competition: meet the contenders

Posted 10:23am on Sunday, May. 22, 2011

For seven days, starting Monday, TCU's Ed Landreth Auditorium will be filled with music, excitement and the tension of high-stakes competition. It's time for the sixth Cliburn International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs, and more than 70 pianists from around the world have come to play.

This year's group of competitors features several doctors, a handful of lawyers and one Formula One race car designer. There's a Japanese kindergarten teacher, an Italian dentist and a retired physicist from Germany.

Several of this year's competitors have returned to the piano after circumstances -- a busy career, a personal loss, caring for a child with autism -- led them to abandon music for many years. Others have trained for careers in music before choosing another profession. But they all have at least one thing in common: They play because they love music, and they compete because they want to share their talents onstage in front of knowledgeable, appreciative audiences.

Here are the stories of some of those pianists.

James Raphael

Fort Worth and Palm Desert, Calif.

Sometimes you win; sometimes you lose. Sometimes you do both.

James Raphael didn't go home with the big prize four years ago at the International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs. He did, however, meet his wife-to-be while attending a concert during his Fort Worth visit.

"We saw each other from across the room," Raphael says. "There was a great pianist playing. It was like Some Enchanted Evening."

A lifelong pianist and would-be concert artist, Raphael was good enough to compete in the 1977 (professional) Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

Steven De Groote won that contest, and Raphael soon after came to the painful realization that he was not going to stroll out with the gold every time he sat down at a keyboard, despite formal training that included lessons with the likes of the great Arthur Rubinstein.

"It was so hard. It was a big shock," says Raphael, 58, recalling his realization. "I thought I'd win first prize, no problem."

He entered the jewelry business, but never stopped composing, practicing and playing benefit concerts.

"It's like flying in the sky when you play at a certain level," Raphael says. "In fact, the arms have to fly when you play piano."

He now owns homes in Fort Worth and in California, as well as several properties near Texas Christian University. Among his current projects is opening a spa/beauty shop called Hollywood Stars near TCU. He was interviewing prospective employees as he talked on the phone about his wife and fellow pianist, Satenik Muradyan, their two young children and his 2007 amateur contest appearance in Fort Worth. He recalled jumping off the bench at the end of de Falla's Ritual Fire Dance.

"Somehow it cracked," he says. "The public loved it.... I'm not playing it this time."

-- John Austin

Judy Darst and Seth Darst

Bend, Ore., and New York

On this year's list is a first for the Cliburn: a mother and son competing against each other.

This is the first Cliburn for Judy Darst of Bend, Ore., the second for her son Seth.

Both have played piano since childhood. Judy Darst earned a degree in piano performance from the University of Colorado; her son chose science instead, earning a doctorate in chemical engineering and running a research lab at The Rockefeller University in Manhattan, where he's now a professor of molecular biophysics.

Seth Darst took piano lessons first from his mother at age 7 or 8. "He was probably the best beginner I've ever had," she says -- but they fought so much, she soon sent him to another teacher. He studied piano seriously until years of school got in the way, followed by marriage, two daughters and a busy career. A few years ago, however, he started to perform again and decided to start entering piano competitions.

"When he said he was going to do this, I thought, 'Oh, for crying out loud, you're crazy,'" Judy Darst says. But she and her husband had just moved to Bend from Seattle, and she felt cut off from the cultural opportunities she was used to in the big city. She decided to get serious about being a musician again and spend her time preparing for competitions, too.

For Judy Darst, entering a competition means taking a bit of a risk.

"You never have any guarantees when you perform, no matter how carefully you've prepared," she says. "It's kind of exposing yourself.... You have to be kind of a risk-taker to want to do this."

In an e-mail, Seth Darst also talked about the pressures of being onstage.

"I've always been very frustrated by a large gap between what I can do at the piano when I'm alone in my living room and what I'm able to do performing in public," he says. "I hope by entering competitions and gaining experience playing in public 'under pressure' that I'll learn to close that gap a little."

So not only will they have the pressures of an attentive audience and a critical jury, but mother and son will be competitors at something they both do extremely well.

"I don't think we feel competitive against each other at all," Judy Darst says. In fact, she supports her son so much, she's not sure she can stand to attend his performance. "I get so nervous when he plays," she says, sounding more like a mom than a steely competitor.

-- Alyson Ward

Ken Iisaka

Mill Valley, Calif.

Ken Iisaka was a finalist in the 2007 Cliburn amateur. Since then, life has not been particularly kind to the 42-year-old pianist. But after a rough few years, Iisaka sees this year's Cliburn as a way to start fresh.

Iisaka, who represents both Japan and the United States in this competition, was born in Tokyo and grew up in Japan, Washington, D.C., and Ottawa, Ontario. He was playing a toy piano at a year old. At age 3, a family friend discovered that Iisaka had perfect pitch, and when he was 4, Iisaka started piano lessons and developed into an accomplished musician.

In college, though, he earned a degree in computer science and got a Wall Street investment job after graduation. He spent 15 years in the world of global finance. It was, he says, a "high-strung, intellectually demanding" career. In 2007, he came to Fort Worth as a successful professional and made it to the finals of the competition.

Then came the downturn. In 2008, Iisaka was laid off -- a casualty of the economic meltdown -- and everything changed. He has been without an income since then.

"It's been extremely stressful," Iisaka says. The depression that began when he was a teenager, when he attempted suicide at 16, returned. He has struggled to find a new career. He and his wife are moving toward divorce.

But in the process, he has held onto music.

Now Iisaka is working on an Internet startup company from his home in Mill Valley, Calif., that will combine his three strengths: music, computers and the marketplace. He wants to help create a platform for performing artists to get their music out to an appreciative audience.

In his Wall Street days, Iisaka says, he bought a Steinway grand piano made in Hamburg, Germany, that was played by Vladimir Horowitz. He still has that piano, and considers it "the most wonderful luxury" -- more valuable than anything else that money could buy.

Preparing for the Cliburn has given him a chance for a fresh start.

"Having a goal gives me structure, gives me vision, gives me energy," he says, "and it's about something that I love the most."

-- Alyson Ward

Dominic Piers Smith

Middle Barton, England

Some people dream of life in the fast lane.

Dominic Piers Smith lives it, having designed cars that won the Indy 500 and the 2009 Formula One World Championship.

Now, the 35-year-old resident of Middle Barton, England, is changing gears and trying his luck at the Cliburn amateur.

"I started [playing piano] when I was 6," Smith says. "I continued till 18 or 19. Studies and work basically took over. I had to make a conscious decision. I had to do music or something more technical."

Despite having perfect pitch and a strong ability to memorize and visualize scores, he took the technical route because, Smith says, he hadn't really picked up the formal qualifications to enter a conservatory. He also figured it would be easier to pick up music later than develop the kind of knowledge he uses to design cars.

"I have considered a concert career," says Smith, who is team leader in aerodynamics for the Mercedes Formula One Team. "But the music's never been anything other than a really serious hobby."

After a decade away from the piano, he resumed playing and tries to squeeze in about an hour of practice at the end of the working day.

Smith plays from memory, and he handily ticks off his planned repertoire for the amateur, with commentary on tonality, technical challenges and musical history along the way.

He likens coming to the competition to a musical holiday. As for playing in general?

"For me, it's having the ability to share what I believe is a special gift with other people," Smith says. "I almost feel that it's a duty."

-- John Austin

Madalyn Bingham Taylor

Ogden, Utah

Madalyn Bingham Taylor, a first-time competitor, and her husband will arrive in Fort Worth on their 42nd wedding anniversary. The 61-year-old pianist has raised six children, loves her 23 grandchildren and lives a busy, full, often difficult life. Her reason for entering the competition "at this age," she says, "is certainly way different than it would have been in my 20s."

Recently, Taylor has come to see music as an outlet, a saving grace and "a gift from God." She and her eight siblings took piano lessons from the time they were small. She continued playing into adulthood, and now, when she's not working at the Utah tire business her family owns, Taylor teaches about 25 piano students at home. But in recent years, she has found a refuge in music that she'd never felt before.

A decade ago, Taylor lost her youngest son when a customer at the tire business accidentally ran over him. Losing him upended her world. She barely touched the piano for several years. But a few years ago she connected with Eugene Watanabe, an accomplished pianist and violinist who directs a conservatory in Salt Lake City.

"I thought, 'This is something I'm going to do for me,'" Taylor says. "'I'm going to do this,' I said -- well, to keep me sane."

She drives an hour each way for her lessons every week, but Taylor has discovered how much music helps her.

"I think it's a very healing process," she says. "The practice is where I put the fear, the sadness, the everything."

A few years ago, when another son went to Iraq to serve in a convoy seeking roadside bombs, Taylor turned to music to work through the worry she felt. When playing the piano, she says, "that's all you think about. It kind of focuses you to think about something positive, put all your emotions into something positive instead of the sadness or the worry." (Her son was wounded and received two Purple Heart medals, but he made it home.)

Now that she's in the competition, Taylor says, "just being somewhere with the name 'Cliburn' in it makes me nervous." But she has lived enough to know that the music will come through for her. A couple of weeks ago, she says, "I did a practice recital with 55 people in my house. It occurred to me: I was too old to be nervous."

-- Alyson Ward

John DeRuntz

Tigard, Ore.

Math and music have always added up for John DeRuntz.

"Music and mathematics are both studies in space and time," says DeRuntz, a retired math professor and lifelong pianist. "I think there's a linkage there."

Although he began playing piano at age 6, composed his first song at 10 and aspired to take the concert stage professionally, math came first when the former Lockheed researcher and University of California, Berkeley, professor chose a career.

He says he grew up in a lower-middle-class family in Illinois.

"I thought I was going to end up in a steel shop, but I won a math scholarship in high school," he says. "That was a ticket to a better education. So I followed that. But I never let the music die."

DeRuntz not only kept playing, but had the chops to become -- at age 73 -- a contender in this year's Cliburn amateur.

"I told my wife I'd regret it if I didn't try it at my age," the largely self-taught Portland, Ore.-area resident says. "I did it as an exercise to prove to myself that I tried.

"It was quite a shock to learn that I was accepted," he says. "I auditioned with all my own music."

He not only won a place in the event with his own material, but plans to play more of it in the competition. He says he's trying to gain wider recognition for his compositions; he even has recorded a couple of albums featuring his music.

"It's perfectly OK to bring along sheet music and give it to Van Cliburn," he says.

DeRuntz still owns a 45 rpm recording of a Chopin composition that he bought as a youngster, and continues to find inspiration in it.

"There's some Chopin pieces I've never mastered," he says. "I've got limitations, but the things I can do, I can do pretty well."

-- John Austin

Leticia Martinez

Fort Worth

Life at the keyboard can be lonely.

"It's just you [and] the instrument," Leticia Martinez says.

Despite earning her undergraduate degree in music from Baylor University, Martinez didn't know if she had what it took for a piano profession and couldn't see herself teaching, either, she says. So, she opted for law school and eventually became a Tarrant County prosecutor.

Now, two decades later, the 43-year-old mother of twins will take the stage again.

She only started practicing in February.

"The deadline [for the Cliburn amateur] was March 1," she says. "I was surprised that I was accepted to compete, but happy."

Martinez was good enough to play with the local orchestra in San Antonio as a youngster, but doesn't regret choosing a different life. She compares the routine of practice and playing to the work her parents did as owners of a San Antonio bakery for 50 years.

"If I had to bake, it might not be quite so enjoyable," Martinez says. "It's the same thing with piano."

After playing only occasionally for 20 years, Martinez brushed up on her phrasing, memorization techniques and practicing strategies with a local piano professor.

"Once I had a couple of lessons," she says, "I realized how much I'd forgotten. It made all the difference for me."

But other than those pointers, it has just been Martinez and her old companions, Haydn and Debussy, at 4 a.m. pre-work practice sessions, followed by another hour at Steinway Hall during her lunch break, followed by a two-hour rehearsal before bed. Despite the grind, it has been a welcome break from the law and the challenges that rearing a child with autism can bring, she said.

"There's just an experience of expression you don't get any other way" except at the keyboard, Martinez says. "It's nice. It's nice."

-- John Austin

Angela Lee Tien

Winchester, Mass.

When Angela Lee Tien performs Tuesday, it will be for the joy of playing the piano. But to find that joy, she had to stop playing for 13 years.

Tien, 40, was 4 when she started piano lessons with her mother, who saw immediately that she had talent and put her on track to become a serious pianist.

At 9, she was performing with the Boston Pops and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. After high school, she earned a degree from Juilliard and a master's from the New England Conservatory. She studied with sought-after teachers. Her friends were musicians. Her free time was spent alone in practice rooms. Music was her whole world.

"It was just momentum," Tien says now. "I didn't really think about what else I would be doing. I just did it."

It wasn't until she'd almost reached the end of her education that Tien began to question whether she wanted to become a professional musician at all.

"I can't say there was ever really a time that I felt like, yes, I want to be doing this for myself," she says. "It was just expected of me."

So, as she finished her master's degree, she began to think about whether she wanted -- and could afford -- to spend the next several years struggling, entering competitions and trying to build a career in the cutthroat performing world. The answer was no. She'd had enough, and she walked away.

"It was a bit of rebellion" against her parents for pushing her so hard, Tien says. "I'm sure they were disappointed."

She, meanwhile, felt liberated. For several years, she didn't touch a piano at all. She married in 2000 and had three sons.

But Tien's break with the piano didn't last forever. In the summer of '09, she and her husband were buying a car and Tien struck up a conversation with the salesman, who had a degree in drama but was working at the dealership to support himself.

"It stirred something in me, reminded me of myself," Tien says.

She suddenly realized: She wanted to play again.

The next day, Tien called the New England Conservatory and enrolled in the school's continuing education program. She has been working with a teacher since then, practicing late at night after her kids go to bed.

Of course she wants to do well at the Cliburn. But ultimately, Tien says, "I want to be able to enjoy being up there, enjoy what I'm doing, enjoy the music I'm going to make."

-- Alyson Ward

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