FORT WORTH -- For more than 20 years, Dr. Barry Coutinho has practiced family medicine, enjoying longtime relationships with his patients in Pittsburgh and hoping to have the means to put four children through college.
But when pressed, Coutinho confesses another long-held dream -- stardom as a concert pianist.
On Wednesday in Fort Worth, the physician got a little taste.
In the Van Cliburn Foundation's International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs, Coutinho's performance of Liszt and Ravel was a highlight of the afternoon session at Texas Christian University.
The audience in Ed Landreth Hall roared for Coutinho, a native of India who studied both medicine and music in London before choosing medicine a long time ago.
"It's very rewarding to be at this competition, to get back to this level," Coutinho said in the lobby afterward. "It's a world-class environment. A world-class jury. A world-class piano.
"This competition gave me the goal to achieve the best possible level I could."
For Coutinho and most of the 70 competitors in Fort Worth, that will more than do.
They came from 23 states and 10 foreign countries, each with a story of a musical passion that has survived disappointments and long life detours.
"For some, this is the recapturing of something from their childhoods," said David Chambless Worters, the new president of the Cliburn Foundation. "So many of them were born and raised with the instrument. Many went to conservatory or have advanced degrees."
For others, Worters said, the competition is "bucket-list stuff. Life has thrown them a curve ball ... and they want to prove to themselves they can do this."
Finally, there are those who came to win.
"This is America, and America loves a good competition," Worters said. "While this is ultimately about the joy of music and the instrument, you can see it in their eyes and body language that, darn it, they're here to win it."
'A wider scope'
Under competition rules, the competitors must be 35 or older, and not earn their primary livelihood from piano performance or teaching.
On Wednesday evening, the Cliburn jury whittled the field to 25 semifinalists who will perform recitals on Friday and Saturday. Six finalists will play Sunday for a $2,000 first prize.
"I've heard two days' worth, [and] I think I've already heard five or six who could have been professionals," Worters said. "I think the jury is going to struggle to select a winner."
Among the jurors is Jon Nakamatsu, who was teaching high school German and was about to abandon his piano dreams when he won the 1997 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. He has had a successful performing and recording career ever since, but relates to those in the amateur competition who have not.
"They are people whose passion I understand," said Nakamatsu, who has been a juror in two previous amateur competitions. "There is a great love of music, but at the same time there is a wider scope, a wider field of view for them. Life is more than just the piano. You find some people who are really high quality, and they're all the more remarkable because some are leading lives in double or triple."
As a juror, Nakamatsu said, it is hard not to consider the life stories when deciding who will advance.
"The jury ends up talking about things in an admiring way," Nakamatsu said. "But our job as a jury is to close our eyes and really listen and decide whether we want to hear this person again or not."
Tim Madigan, 817-390-7544