FORT WORTH -- When Andrea Bonatta wakes up these days, it can take a while for him to get his bearings.
Is this Moscow? New York? Milan? Hong Kong? In less than two months, he has been to all of those places, plus Hannover, Germany, and now Fort Worth.
Along with four other audition jurors for the 14th Cliburn International Piano Competition, Bonatta has braved jet lag, winter in Moscow and, in his case, a bad back.
But this week, as the auditions concluded at Ed Landreth Auditorium in Fort Worth, he was grateful for the grueling journey.
A renowned pianist and conductor himself, he and the other jurors have enjoyed a comprehensive review of the state of music-making around the globe. They have witnessed the remarkably common masterful technical skill of more than 100 Cliburn hopefuls ages 18-30.
Best of all, perhaps, is the jury's discovery of a handful of young pianists, maybe 10 or 15 artists, whose gifts clearly transcend technique.
Beyond the ability to play all the right notes, Bonatta said, "I try to understand if there is a great personality. If there is great artistic potential. If there is such a personality, you recognize it immediately. It doesn't matter if you are in Moscow or Milan or New York.
"And we've had such personalities. A few. That is enough. I am excited to hear them again."
Bonatta will also be a juror at the competition itself, which begins on May 24 in Fort Worth.
From the 132 who auditioned, 30 will advance, along with 10 alternates. Those names will be announced on March 5.
'It's the real thing'
Jacques Marquis, the Cliburn's interim executive director, is in his first year with the organization. He also traveled to each audition, calling himself the jury's "shepherd."
"It was fun," Marquis said. "It's very demanding for the jury members and for the shepherd, but it's the real thing, not like listening on CDs or DVDs which is the preference of most other competitions. On tape you don't have to manage the hall. On tape you don't have jurors sitting in front of you, taking notes.
"The Cliburn is about real life, about launching them on a career. You will be playing in front of critics. You have to be ready. This is a good, real-life test."
The medalists will divide $175,000 in prize money, but more importantly, three years of guaranteed concerts and commission-free management by the Cliburn foundation. No competition in the world offers more of a career springboard, so important in the intensely competitive world of classical music.
The challenge for the aspiring pianist is to ignore those stakes while attempting to create great music. Some are better able than others. One who auditioned on Wednesday, Tzu-Yi Chen of Taiwan, said she felt she succeeded in that regard.
"I can't say I was completely out of nerves," Chen said afterward. "But I knew I was sharing not only a part of myself, but my love of music."
Her teacher at Columbus State University in Georgia, Alexander Kobrin, helped with that mindset. Kobrin was the Cliburn's 2005 gold medalist. Watching his triumph on the Internet helped inspire her dreams to play in Fort Worth, Chen said.
On her trip to Texas this week, she stayed with the same Fort Worth family that hosted Kobrin eight years ago.
"It's a very big event, and I'm just honored to take part," Chen said. "I dream of coming back to Fort Worth, but if I don't ... this I leave for God. There are a lot of good pianists in the world. A lot of it is chance. If my only goal in learning music was to become famous or earn money, I would have stopped learning music sometime before."
The jury's looming decision will be difficult, in part because they are asked to compare different musical styles from around the world, Bonatta said.
For instance, "The Russian school is very different than the Italian school. The Russian pianist is very athletic, very strong with feelings and with experience. In Italy you have the typical refined elegance of the Italian school. At the end it's a great difficulty trying to compare, to judge such different kinds of artistry.
"I am so happy we have five jurors," he said, smiling despite the weariness. "I don't have to decide myself."
Tim Madigan, 817-390-7544