Tuesday, June 23, 2009


I am at present in the semi-sweltering Southern metropolis of Atlanta, helping my sister--who has a broken foot, crutches, a three-story house, and a four-month old baby named Scarlett (I swear, it had nothing to do with GWTW). Being chauffeur, cook, personal assistant and babysitter doesn't leave a lot of time for socializing or getting out and about on the town. I do hope to at least make it up to visit my friend Grace and her family at some point. But I feel that I should impart some suggestions for almost any place I might visit, so I'll post a few notes once I figure out all the fun things I could be doing if I were actually here on vacation.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

13th Van Cliburn as Travel Experience

The Van Cliburn International Piano Competition is a three week geek-fest for the music lover, and I mean that in the most loving and devoted way possible. If you have enough vacation time, or even able to make it down to Fort Worth for even one or two rounds, you should mark your calendar now for late May/early June 2013. This is my fifth Cliburn; once you've gone, you're hooked. It's like meth or heroin (or porn?) to a classical music junkie. And yes, Van Cliburn is actually in attendance (left, signing autographs for fans).

After a round-the-world search and live screening jury auditions, thirty of the best young pianists from countries near and far descend on Fort Worth for an intensive three weeks of piano music-making. If a pianist makes it to the finals, s/he will have performed three recitals, each close to an hour; a quintet in collaboration with the Takaçs String Quartet; a chamber concerto; and a large orchestra concerto. And throw in a lot of practice and rehearsals to boot. It's enough to separate the wheat from the chaff, and the concert-career-ready players from the need-to-percolate pretenders.

Because the New Orleans Wine & Food Experience overlapped with the first days of the Cliburn, we missed some of the preliminary-round recitals. We did catch the final few competitors, but our experience and judgment this time was based mainly on the semifinal round. At this point we've just begun the final round, with the second session tonight. Opinions in the press room coalesced around four players (Bozhanov, Son, Wu and H. Zhang), and those four advanced to the finals. But the remaining two finalist spots were a crapshoot. We ourselves predicted the judges would take those four, but our last two picks did not make it; we liked Dank & and chose Deljavan (right) as our "jury wild card"...and I do mean wild. The other two chosen by the jury were Vacatello & Tsujii, the first sightless pianist to advance this far.

But guess what? I'm neither musician nor music critic, just a woman who has been an avid classical music lover and regular concertgoer (both at home and on my travels) for 30+ years. So I won't try to rate the performances. I simply want to create a picture of what it's like to BE at the Cliburn, and leave you with no doubt that it's worth a special trip to Fort Worth for as long as you can be present, be that three days or three weeks.

The music speaks for itself. All in all there are about two dozen three-and-a-half hour sessions of music over two and a half weeks. The caliber of performers gets better with every competition, and the Fort Worth Symphony has significantly matured under its usual guidance of its music director Miguel Harth-Bedoya (though the competition conductor is the distinguished James Conlon).

The music brings out all the geeky marvellousness of the Cliburn and it atomizes into a general atmosphere of camaraderie and shared interest among everyone in attendance, from competitors to volunteers to staff to press to every audience member. It's impossible to put into words, but it's palpable and pervasive. The idea that you all have something so meaningful and deeply enjoyable in common simply bonds everyone, friend and stranger alike, for the duration of the event.

That bond extends to previous gold medalists Stanislav Ioudenitch (pictured with me, left) and José Feghali, 2005 silver medalist Joyce Yang, and former competitors like Frederic Chiu, our favorite from the 1993 Cliburn (he was robbed of a finalist spot). It's nothing short of delightful to see these talented folks again, chat and catch up on their careers. Frederic, the press darling of 1993, always makes sure to visit the press room ;-) We talked again at a party (photo, below right: Frederic with Yoori Marti of Steinway, at the Cliburn's Zoo party) and he told us that, having completed his ten-year recording cycle of Prokofiev's complete piano works (highly recommended, and in my humble opinion, he is the foremost Prokofiev interpreter of his generation), he has undertaken a new challenge. This time he aims to record Lizst's transcriptions of Ludwig van Beethoven's nine symphonies. The first one in the series (Beethoven's Fifth) has been released and is available at his website. My dream is that when he gets around to scaling the the mountaintop that is the Ninth and one that probably requires four hands for a live performance, that he come to Fort Worth and play it together with some other Cliburn laureate (so what if Chiu didn't "win", laureate-schmaureate) on the Cliburn's excellent concert series.

But wait, there's more! Besides all the terrific music and the great vibe, the Cliburn makes sure there is plenty to entertain you when there's no competitive playing. This year there is a symposium series on music and its connection to diplomacy in the 21st century as well as a huge series of films by award-winning documentarian Peter Rosen, covering everything from composers to facilities to the competition to even architecture. Not enough to fill the time of those very few days away from the competition sessions? How about two more sessions of unofficial recitals? On the two "off" days before the finals commenced, there were at least six recitals by competitors who did not advance but who agreed to play some of their remaining recital repertoire for a couple hundred fans, while the finalists rehearsed with Conlon and the Fort Worth Symphony. (Below, finalists with Van. L to R: Yeol Eum Son, Haochen Zhang, Mariangela Vacatello, Nobuyuki Tsujii, Van Cliburn, Di Wu, and Evgeni Bozhanov.)

If you need a break from the competition on those days off, Fort Worth is home to some small museums with impressive collections, each a jewel in its own right: the Kimbell, the Amon Carter, the Modern, the Sid Richardson...it's more than enough to satisfy your craving for visual art along with your more-than-adequate performing arts fix at the Cliburn. In Dallas you can visit the Dallas Museum of Art, the Nasher Sculpture Center, the Crow Collection, Fair Park...and endless shopping, if you see fashion as the perfect souvenir. There's excellent community theater all over the Dallas-Fort Worth area as well. As an aside, the Texas Rangers play in nearby Arlington, and the Colonial golf tournament also overlaps with part of the Cliburn, so if one of you is a golfer or baseball fan, there are also those diversions for the more sportif among you.

There are plenty of convenient and delicious restaurants in downtown Fort Worth to satisfy your baser needs as well (bars, too). The Cliburn is so utterly all-encompassing, though, that you may sit down to dinner and discover that your waiter was a vocal performance major and that the restaurant's cool new piece of art has donated parts from Steinway and was unveiled for the competition (The Vault, quite good food and excellent service), or that the kitchen staff is listening intently to every note live on the radio, as we found at Riscky's BBQ a few years back.

Love the idea of following the entire competition note-for-note on the radio? This year, it's a whole new world (-wide web) and almost everything, including rehearsals, is being streamed live on the internet. Most of it is also being archived (at least everything the Cliburn could get the rights to) and is available at the same site, so if you're not here in Bass Hall, you can catch up anytime. You'll feel like you are right there in the moment, with a backstage pass. Above left, Haochen Zhang and right, Yeol Eum Son, after their final concerto performances. Both played Prokofiev's #2, as did silver medalist Joyce Yang in 2005.

You can read all about the competition at the Cliburn's website.

View blog posts here, here, here, here and here. Pictured at right are two of the Cliburn's "official" bloggers, Ken Iisaka of California and Mike Winter of Idaho.

Look through print and radio news archives here, here and here.

Have fun with the virtual experience, and please contact me to plan your 2013 Cliburn extravaganza! My sixth competition could be your first. If you can't wait that long, ask me about the International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs that will take place in May 2011.

NOWFE, digested

If only wine had no calories! I stepped on the scale and was so frightened that I just fell off without looking. OK, I looked. And I had to avert my eyes. I really should exercise something besides my fingers and my mouth. I was on a walking program with a friend but I think she chose the gym in the end because, unlike walking, it produces measurable effects...

The first day in New Orleans, we shopped. We went to Orleans Coffee Exchange to pick up a grocery bag full of fresh roasted coffee. I always got my coffee from OCE when I lived in N.O.--I was actually one of their early customers back in the old Sandy & Grandma Ruth days. Now Bob runs the place, and the offerings are as delicious, aromatic and diverse as you could wish or dream. I can only drink decaf, and no one else has anything even remotely close to the large selection of decaf coffees that OCE does. We get our coffee via the OCE mail-order program now, but when we are in N.O., we like to make a pilgrimage to their place to get it ourselves.

Our other main shopping goal was seafood. We ended up getting 12 pounds of shrimp and nothing else. And we paid about $35 for them. Fresh (no IQF) shrimp in Dallas--especially shrimp that large--would have cost us 3 to 5 times what we paid. We will be having shrimp for dinner next week, natch.

We weren't able to attend the Royal Street Stroll this year, because we were sharing dinner with our old Dallas next-door neighbors Leo & Bret, who have moved back to New Orleans. They have bought the most incredible 1960's house with a view onto Lake Pontchartrain (ok, onto the levee) and are restoring it to its mod glamor. It's huge--our whole house could fit into the "great room", which is more like the "party room", with Herman Miller built-ins, a wet bar and a koi pond (no new fish yet, but there will be)!! Each bedroom is like a master suite, with a giant bathroom attached. One bathroom has a tub with three steps down into it, my favorite. They even have some of the home's original super-cool HM furniture that was made for the house, and in fact took possession of the home when it was still chock-full of the original residents' belongings. There are so many stories that this house can tell, and it has definitely fallen into the hands of the right couple.

Friday and Saturday we immersed ourselves in the seminars and the Grand tastings of NOWFE. Between us, we heard seminars about 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon, the French bistro craze, Women in the Wine industry, Louisiana-Italian cooking and wine, cooking a whole pig with Donald Link, sustainable production and cooking jambalaya with John Besh, and tête de cuvée champagnes led by Ziggy "The Wine Gal" Eschleman.

A full day of seminars on Friday was followed immediately by the first Grand Tasting, where we had plenty to eat and not too much to drink (this was deliberate). Saturday brought two more seminars and another Grand Tasting. We normally only attend one Grand Tasting but our host and friend Julian decided not to use his own tickets and very generously bestowed them on us. Again, we tried to focus on eating first and drinking second. We have learned from bitter experience that if you don't make sure you get to certain food offerings in the first two (of three) hours, you may just remain empty-handed when you belly up to the booth and there's nothing there but empty pots and pans, and maybe a little pot liquor. Plus it's good to fill up a little bit with food before you dive into the wines, no!? This strategy worked very well for us. I did not feel even tipsy after either tasting, a thing of beauty. It takes discipline to come out standing and smiling rather than staggering and stuffed when there are 75 restaurants dishing up their finest fare and something like a thousand wines being poured. At this point I have it down to a science.

If you've never been to New Orleans, or you have and you are enamored with the fine local cuisine and hedonistic aspect of life there, NOWFE is not to be missed. Of course, it's really a must-do event for wine lovers everywhere. But there are lots of other ways to fill your time there, even if you can't time your trip with NOWFE.

Sunday we crammed in visits with three friends and finally landed at my aunt's house in Baton Rouge, where we spent the last night. It shaves off a bit of the long drive home...

And as soon as we got back, we were in DEEP CLIBURN COMPETITION (see above) with no break in our momentum.