“What are you doing here?”
I heard the question more than once, wandering around Bass Hall last Friday during the opening rounds of the quadrennial 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.
And to be fair, as someone who spends most of his time at rock clubs and arenas, the sight of me backstage at a high-stakes classical piano contest was probably a little baffling.
But there was a method to the madness.
I was all set to cover the Taylor Swift concert at Cowboys Stadium on Saturday and I wanted to spend some time at the Cliburn the day before to experience the similarities (talented young musicians taking center stage) and the extreme contrasts (formal dress and pin-drop silence vs. spangled T-shirts and screaming teen girls).
As it turns out, the Cliburn and a sold-out Taylor Swift show have plenty in common.
Both are spectacles, steeped in self-expression through music — very different music. And both are fueled by a need for validation, albeit in very different ways.
In fact, after absorbing both experiences, I’d say The Cliburn pianists and Taylor Swift would probably each like a little of what the other has.
What classical musician wouldn’t want even a beam of Swift’s star wattage? Most of them toil away in virtual obscurity, and are lucky to fill a small concert hall, much less a football stadium.
But don’t you think Swift, who has a trophy shelf full of music awards, would trade a few of them for a sliver of the critical respect most classical musicians enjoy? Nobody questions their commitment to the craft.
Generally regarded by critics as pop spectacles, Swift’s songs about serial dating and heartbreak have become well-worn punchlines for music writers. What little substance she has shown in her young career is often overshadowed by her more staggering accomplishments — ticket sales, TV appearances, magazine covers, etc.
The pianists who make it to Fort Worth to compete in the Cliburn have spent years rehearsing and training, working to inject a little of themselves into each classical composition they perform.
The pursuit is almost always about honoring what has come before, rather than explicitly making a name for yourself.
They walk a tricky tightrope — Cliburn competitors are favored for their unique interpretations, but going too far can cost them.
Swift, on the other hand, plays music on her own terms. And, as she said from the stage Saturday night, “55,000 of you have opted in to hear me sing about my feelings.”
Will her songs about messy break-ups stand the test of time the way Liszt, Chopin and Rachmaninoff have? A few hours at Bass Hall should give you the answer to that question.
So even if Alex McDonald, the Plano resident whom I watched perform Friday, and his fellow competitors play to an audience of 500 instead of 55,000, they are pushing a musical genre forward, something Taylor Swift can only hope to do some day.
Is it fair that, in our culture-cluttered world, Taylor Swift is a household name and most of the classical musicians performing this week at Bass Hall will never achieve even a whisper of her success?
And if I had the ability, I might even the score, so to speak.
But if, at its core, music is about expression, virtuosity and dedication first, and validation second, I’d say the Cliburn competitors are as successful as Taylor Swift will ever be.