Since it began in 1962, the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition held in Fort Worth has become one of the most important music competitions in the world. Winning can launch a performer on to a major career. A new film, A Surprise in Texas, documents last year’s 13th Cliburn competition and airs Wednesday night at 7 on KERA Channel 13. KERA’s Stephen Becker spoke with director Peter Rosen about the challenges of following the contestants:
- Click here to listen to the KERA interview with clips from the performers:
- Highlights from the conversation:
Art&Seek: When the Van Cliburn starts, you’ve got these competitors from all around the world who’ve just landed in Fort Worth. A lot of them don’t speak English, and they’re all super focused on the competition. So, Peter, how do you quickly identify which musicians will be the best to follow for your film?
Peter Rosen: You know, anyone could win, so it is sort of like a crap shoot. I always think of it as a gamble, because you have limited resources in terms of the number of cameras that can be rolling on these people. While we shoot everyone who comes on stage to play their first round performances, the behind the scenes and the times at their homes in Fort Worth – where I think the real drama for our documentary lies – we only can go to three or four of those locations a day. So you just make an educated guess.
A&S: It must have been a dream to have Nobuyuki Tsujii, the blind pianist from Japan, in the competition. What was he like to be around?
P.R.: He communicates through his music. So it’s really a matter of silent communication with him and observing him – the way he got to know his host family. I think it’s very moving. When he first got there, we were there when he first came into their home. He felt the flowers in the front yard and with his hands, he felt the Cliburn flag flying over their door. And then he came to the piano and touched the whole thing – from the tip of it all the way around to the keyboard. And I realized we were going to pretty much shoot a visual style with Nobuyuki because, No. 1, he didn’t do a lot of talking and No. 2, didn’t speak English.
A&S: When you’re on the ground in Fort Worth and you’re out shooting and putting the film together, do you find yourself rooting for any of the competitors?
P.R.: Well, I of course was rooting for Nobuyuki, because if he were to win, we certainly would have a documentary that transcended the usual Cliburn Competition documentary. Because if somebody who was blind from birth like Nobuyuki could win something like the Cliburn, it became a story about overcoming your hurdles and not getting put back by difficulties in life. It had a much broader storyline.
A&S: What is it about these types of competition films that people find so compelling?
P.R.: I think they sort of transcend the usual music performance film, where unless you really love the piano or Beethoven or the ballet or opera, a general audience needs to have a story. You start these with a built in – in the case of the Cliburn – three act structure where you’ve got a large number of competitors in the first act, and it gets narrowed down to 12 in the second act and by the time you’re into the third act, there’s only six left. And I find audiences from the early stages start to root for a particular pianist, as though they’re really relating to that person for reasons personal or the way they played or the way we portrayed their characters. So then if your contestant loses in the first round, you kind of lock onto another one in the second round. So it really engages the audience.