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Cliburn Competition: How to Pick a Piano


by Stephen Becker 22 May 2009

On Friday afternoon, the 29 competitors in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition begin their preliminary recitals. When they do, they will play pianos that they’ve touched for the first time just days before.

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On Friday afternoon, the 29 competitors in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition begin their preliminary recitals. When they do, they will play pianos that they’ve touched for the first time just days before.

Each competitor in this year’s Cliburn Competition has a choice of three Steinway pianos – two made in New York and one made in Hamburg.

Picking one is like choosing between a Ferrari and a Lamborghini.

Ang Li from Fort Worth settled on one of the New Yorks.

li-ang-2001ANG LI: “Of course, I love all three pianos, and I think in Bass Hall, no piano can sound bad. But that one I had a personal connection with it.”

Each contestant tries out the three pianos on the Bass Hall stage, playing a high-stakes game of musical chairs. They also get measured for a bench that fits them perfectly, though they are welcome to adjust it as needed onstage.

So what are they looking for in a piano?

The two major concerns are:

How does the tone fit with the pieces they’ve decided to play? And is the keyboard action too light or tovacatello-mariangela-200o heavy?

Mariangela Vacatello of Italy says she was looking for an instrument that would best allow her to interpret the music in the moment.

MARIANGELA VACATELLO: “I want to feel comfortable to change something during the performance if I like to do so. So I need a piano with many, many colors so I can change character.”

bozhanov-evgeni-2001Ultimately, there was no clear favorite among the three instruments, underscoring, perhaps, that the competition is more about the player than the piano.

Evgeni Bozhanov is a competitor from Bulgaria.

EVGENI BOZHANOV: “If the piano is good, I’m very open to the differences. But it’s very important what I do. It’s much more important than the piano.”

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