A Surprise in Texas - The 13th International Van Cliburn Piano Competition

Documentary [92:00]; Bonus – concert recordings [48:00]
Director: Peter Rosen
Featuring: Takacs Quartet; Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra/James Conlon
rec. May 2009, Fort Worth, Texas
Sound format: PCM stereo (documentary); Dolby Digital 5.1; DTS 5.1
Picture format: NTSC 16:9
Region code: 0
EUROARTS 2058168 [140:00]

Every four years, several dozen of the world’s best young pianists gather in Fort Worth, Texas, for the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. This documentary shows the 2009 competition, going behind the scenes, lets us see the pianists as they prepare, perform in the three rounds, and as the best are selected. One sees the dedication of those pianists who are good enough to be selected for this competition, and the stress they undergo as they face one of the biggest challenges of their musical lives.

At the beginning, there are 29 pianists, all excellent, but the competition is tough, and in the second round 12 are chosen, and only 6 make it to the final. Competitions like this are held around the world, and in most cases, the winners don’t go on to make any major mark in classical music. The only well-known winner of the Van Cliburn competition is Radu Lupu, who won in 1966. Such competitions do help many pianists make steps and get more concert options. The Van Cliburn also sponsors concert tours and CDs by the winners.

The 2009 competition had two winners, Nobuyuki Tsujii and Haochen Zhang, the former a blind pianist who became quite popular because of this competition. Yeol Eum Son was awarded second prize, and no third prize was given. A number of additional cash prizes were given, and interestingly, the Internet Voter Award went to Mariangela Vacatello, who won no official prizes. Performances from the competition were streamed on the web.

This is a very moving film, which has hints of a reality show, and which shows the trials and tribulations of these excellent young musicians as they face the public and their judges. It’s a shame that you know who won when you watch – their three photos are on the cover of the DVD. It would have been more interesting to have the same suspense as the musicians and the audience at the time of the contest. Nevertheless, I found myself rooting for different musicians, and not only those who won, because there were so many good pianists.

The bonus feature included with the documentary is 48 minutes of solo performances by the medal winners. Given that during the documentary only short bits are shown, it is nice to see and hear these performers at greater length.

Kirk McElhearn

This documentary is moving and interesting, and it’s a fine way to experience a top-class music competition and see tomorrow’s pianists.