For half a century, the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition has been the dominant event in Fort Worth's musical history.
On Friday night, KERA/Channel 13 will take a stroll through those memorable years with a one-hour documentary, The Cliburn: 50 Years of Gold.
Those who have seen producer Peter Rosen's various Cliburn documentaries will notice some similarities. However, there are differences, the biggest one being that this covers the whole history of the competition, up to the present.
There are clips, in both color and black and white, showing bits of performances, though never a complete work. There are interviews, past and recent, with the winners and their admirers. There are scenes projecting a sense of how Fort Worth responds to the often surprised contestants, some of whom had expected something else.
The focus throughout is on Cliburn himself and the 15 pianists who have won gold medals (there were double winners in 2001 and 2009). Any glimpse of nonwinners is brief.
There are surprises. One of them is that the contestants' stage presence may not reveal what they actually feel.
For instance, Jon Nakamatsu, the 1997 winner, seemed one of the most rock solid in terms of poise and apparent self-confidence of any of the contestants in the competition's history. But he had doubts, he admits. He thought his preliminary performances were not up to par, and he considered dropping out.
His teacher's response: "You never know about juries. You never know what they're looking for. Let's just stay." They did, and Nakamatsu marched to victory with semifinals and finals performances that he felt better about -- though after the finals he still felt he "could have done better."
The fatigued Alexander Kobrin (2005) was another contestant plagued with doubts.
José Feghali, the 1985 winner, says, "I didn't particularly think I had a chance. I was shocked [when I advanced]."
Nobuyuki Tsujii, 2009 co-winner, jumped when he heard his name at the end of the finals, he says. But he wasn't jumping with joy -- it was surprise. "I didn't expect my name to be called," he said.
André-Michel Schub (1981) describes the intensity: "At the Cliburn you feel all the pressure you're going to feel in all your career -- in a two-week period."
Even Cliburn admits to feelings of insecurity when he competed in the 1958 Tchaikovsky Competition. "I was so nervous [at the beginning of the preliminaries performances in Moscow] that I thought my heart would stop. I don't remember the rest of the round. But anyway, I lived through it."
After preliminary scenes establishing the origin and significance of the Cliburn competition, the documentary is structured as the competition itself is structured: in three substantial segments covering preliminaries, semifinals and finals, with a final summation. Black-and-white film clips of Cliburn's Moscow progress are included in the mix.
There is one bit of color film from Moscow, a shot of St. Basil's Cathedral, one of Cliburn's favorite sights and one of the most striking images in the documentary.
The semifinals segments provide a couple of particularly interesting scenes. In one, Stanislav Ioudenitch, co-winner in 2001, says that he chose to play Franck's Piano Quintet even though he had never heard it, much less played it. When he got together with the Takács Quartet to rehearse, he got a surprise: The quartet had never played it either. Still, they all persevered, and at the end Ioudenitch thought he had given his best performance of the competition.
The second scene involves Tsujii, who is blind. Tsujii sits down with the Takács Quartet, ready to play the Schumann Quintet. There's a long pause while the Takács four await a signal from Tsujii, who's new to chamber music. Tsujii waits, too. Finally his mother whispers to him, "Nobu, you have to take the lead." After another slight pause, Tsujii gives a nod and away they go. As those who were there can attest, he's great.
Not everyone is included in the interviews. Radu Lupu (1966) is known for avoiding them, and two of the winners, Steven De Groote (1977) and Alexei Sultanov (1989), are deceased.
Ioudenitch speaks with admiration and sadness of Sultanov's musical gift and his later decline and death. There are some clips of Sultanov performing, impressively.
Schub, who was a friend of De Groote, speaks admiringly of him. There are a couple of brief clips of De Groote playing, but he receives less attention than any of the other winners -- oddly, since he was one of the most gifted.
The documentary has some endearing nonmusical segments. There are shots of contestants getting to know Fort Worth -- Olga Kern (2001 co-winner) is amazed at the price of dresses in Neiman Marcus, the pianists take in Joe T. Garcia's and the Stockyards, and there are interactions between contestants and host families.
There are photos and home movies of contestants in early childhood, with Haochen Zhang (2009 co-winner) as a particularly lively child. And, of course, childhood photos of them at the piano. Some began very, very young.
Excepting Tsujii, who doesn't speak English, all are fluent in the language, with Kobrin's fluency astonishingly good. It's hard to hear even a trace of accent in his speech (he's from Russia).
Overall, The Cliburn: 50 Years of Gold does an excellent job of putting human faces on a revered competition. And it provides some pleasant musical moments as well.