Kristhyan Benitez dreamed of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition since he was a teenager studying the instrument in his native Venezuela. Four years ago came his chance, a Cliburn audition in Fort Worth for the 2009 competition.
"I was extremely nervous," Benitez remembered last week. "And I got in a little trouble. I was about to finish my first piece when the fire alarm went off and we got out of the building. We went back in, but it wasn't ideal."
Benitez, alas, did not advance.
But in the Cliburn there can be second chances. Benitez, now studying at the Boston Conservatory, is 29 years old and thus just young enough to try out one last time. (Cliburn competitors can range from 18 to 30.) He will take the stage Monday in New York City, hoping to convince five jurors in the latest round of auditions that he deserves one of 30 spots in the quadrennial event that begins in Fort Worth in May.
"Compared to the last time, I know how it goes," Benitez said. "I'm feeling really confident and really strong about my repertoire. I'm grateful I get one last chance."
The New York auditions have ratcheted up tension levels at leading conservatories across the country, like the Juilliard School, the Manhattan School of Music and the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Benitez is one of about 30 young pianists scheduled to perform Monday through Saturday at the Caspary Auditorium at Rockefeller University.
Cliburn jurors have already heard 72 others in auditions in Hong Kong; Hannover, Germany; Moscow; and Milan, Italy. The final round of auditions begins at TCU's Ed Landreth Auditorium on Feb. 20.
In all, 133 pianists from 35 countries hope to advance to the final 30 in Fort Worth. The Cliburn competition, generally regarded as one of the top two or three in the world, offers $175,000 in prizes and awards to its winners. More important to the pianists, however, are scores of international engagements and three years of commission-free management enjoyed by Cliburn medalists and finalists.
"It's not a question of whether the prize is $50,000 or $10,000," said Gary Graffman, one of the leading pianists of his generation and a longtime teacher at the Curtis Institute. "That's less important than the orchestras that are going to engage you, the managers that will take you on, the record companies that will take you on."
Given those stakes, it's perhaps fitting that no other competition goes to the same lengths to choose its field. The Cliburn is the only international competition that sends the same jury of five to each of six world venues.
Jacques Marquis, the Cliburn's interim executive director who joined the Van Cliburn Foundation last year, at first wondered whether the expense was worth it. Most other competitions rely on recordings to select their field.
But Marquis, who has traveled with the jurors and listened to each audition, wonders no longer.
"It's fantastic," he said last week. "It's a classical-piano tour in three weeks. You get a feel of what's happening now, the level of the kids, the repertoire played. The technique now is fantastic."
And with many tough decisions to be made, live auditions are clearly the fairest way to cull the field, Marquis said.
"We listen in a concert hall. It's the real thing. It's real life," Marquis said. "You can't do a mistake. You can't repeat it. You have to work with the hall. You have to work with the lights. You have to work with the stress of having six people in front of you, which is not the same when you do it on a DVD or a tape recorder."
With Marquis on the recent world tour were jurors John Giordano, the jury chairman and retired conductor of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra; Veda Kaplinsky, head of the piano department at Juilliard; Richard Dyer, a retired music critic; conductor Andrea Bonatta; and pianist Blanca Uribe.
Giordano said that in the often ethereal realm of classical piano, too much doesn't translate on even the best recording.
"It's a huge expense and it's really tiring," Giordano said of the travel. "You're sitting long hours listening and you're jet-lagged. But it's an awesome responsibility so you really have to be on your toes and listen very, very carefully. There is no question that it is the fairest way to judge.
"When you are in the room, you either have that indefinable something, that certain charisma, that electricity that's generated by an artist that you can't get over a CD or a DVD. You can't ascertain that any other way."
Kristhyan Benitez, in his second chance, is hoping to provide that indefinable something.
"You'll always have butterflies with this type of jury, but my main goal personally is just to please, to play my best," he said. "I want to leave a little seed of my music when I finish."
Hopefully, this time, without the fire alarm.
Tim Madigan, 817-390-7544