Hometown hopeful Alex McDonald's audition was one of a few that stood out during the pre-piano competition performance rounds.

A Taste of the Van Cliburn: Carol Shih Sits in on Two Days of Auditions in Fort Worth

Carol Shih spends most of her days sitting in front of a keyboard blogging about food. But she studied classical music for 13 years in Dallas and wasted a bunch of her parents’ money on piano and violin lessons. Last week she sat in on nine of 20 screening auditions for the 14th Van Cliburn Fort Worth competition held in Fort Worth. 

I can’t even begin to tell you how giddy the Van Cliburn competition makes me. Every time it rolls around, I’m reminded of this global, vibrant classical music community that functions without regard to ethnicity, race, or religion. It’s one of the few things that can. Wednesday of last week, the first day of the competition, started off nicely. Anna Bulkina of Russia wore her long Rapunzel hair in a tight ponytail and played with dazzling technique, beginning with the ominous-sounding Gubaidulina Chaconne. It might be too bold of me to make bets, but I have a feeling her precision will take her far, and hopefully, we’ll see her again in May. Tzu-Yi Chen from Taiwan followed Bulkina’s act with less gusto and she was definitely a smidge more nervous. She dug so deeply into the keys in some parts of the three Scarlatti sonatas that the notes – meant to sound feathery light – sounded thick and muddy instead. Less pedal might have helped. I also heard Chen hit some extra notes with her left hand as she climbed to the top of her runs during Franck’s Prelude. In a competition as fierce as this one, there’s no room for obvious mistakes. A couple of accidental notes could easily write you off.

Jiayan Sun (China) recently nabbed third place at the The Leeds in December, and he brought same amount of tremendous energy to this performance. On my program, I scribbled “The Executioner” next to his name. He absolutely killed it. Every single note that Sun played had clarity and backbone to it, which is necessary for Bartok’s bipolar piece, Out of Doors. It’s a composition that interweaves brief moments of respite with sharp, percussion-like sounds. In short, the perfect background music to a movie about a psychotic killer. (It’s deranged in a good way.) Sun really stole the show on Wednesday, and not just because he makes the best faces while he’s playing. The three women who came after him in the evening didn’t have as much punch, but I’ll admit that Ekaterina Gumenyuk (Russia) almost gave Sun a good run for his money as she reached the very end of her repertoire. Her rendition of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12 showed off her technical brilliance.

On Thursday evening, the crowd was sizably larger than the night before. This was probably due in part to the presence of Dallas native Alex McDonald, a tall, All-American man who could easily pass for an Abercrombie and Fitch model. For 13 years, he studied under the esteemed Lois Nielson and probably never even had time to set foot inside a mall. McDonald launched the evening program with an easy-going Haydn Sonata, rounding off all his notes beautifully – a feat that sounds deceptively easy as long as you’re not the one performing. Most competitors choose a first piece that has a bite to it, but McDonald took the alternative route and started off a little soft. Maybe too softly. He chose a repertoire with a slow, but steady buildup to his Stravinsky finale. At least the climax was ultimately satisfying, and the crowd rewarded this payoff by giving McDonald the first standing ovation since the screening auditions began. A couple of young fans met him in the hallway afterwards, and he told them, “Believe it or not, this is the most nervous I’ve been my entire life.”

Immediately following McDonald was the overly vivacious English pianist, Christopher McKiggan. He filled his 40-minute recital with showy crowd-pleasers, like Stravinsky-Agosti’s Firebird Suite. Needless to say, McKiggan banged his way through his pieces with very little of the subtlety exuded by McDonald just minutes before. But we’ll see. Friday’s recitals, which I didn’t attend, concluded the screening auditions. Previously, the judges had visited five other cities in order to hear a total of 133 pianists.

Next Tuesday, March 5, the judges will announce their picks for the top 30 contenders in the 14th Van Cliburn competition.

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