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In Cliburn Doc, the Amateurs are Aces


by Stephen Becker 17 May 2011

I know, I know, I know – you’re watching the Mavs game tonight. You’ve only been waiting for it for more than a week now, and it’s finally here. But remember – tipoff’s not until 8, and you need something to watch beforehand. Might I recommend They Came to Play, which airs at 7 on KERA and serves as a civilized apéritif for the knock down, drag out action at the AAC up next.

CTA TBD

I know, I know, I know – you’re watching the Mavs game tonight. You’ve only been waiting for it for more than a week now, and it’s finally here. But remember – tipoff’s not until 8, and you need something to watch beforehand. (Trust me, you’ll get all of the studio talking heads you can stomach during half time and post game.)

A solid option is They Came to Play, which airs at 7 on KERA and serves as a civilized apéritif for the knock down, drag out action up next at the AAC.

The documentary covers the Van Cliburn Foundation’s Fifth International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs, which was held in 2007. (The sixth competition kicks off on Monday.) Seventy five amateurs from as far away as Berlin, Paris and Venezuela visited Fort Worth to take part in a contest that’s possibly even more about the love of the piano than the higher level Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. At that contest, the players are trying to make a name for themselves on the international stage and build careers as concert pianists. For the amateurs, it’s truly all about the music. The winner takes home $2,000 – not exactly pocket change, but not really a reflection of the hundreds of hours these players practice just to get here.

The picture that emerges from the film is that these competitors are very high-functioning people. It’s not a stretch to suggest that some of these players could have been professionals if they had wanted to. Instead, they pursued lives in medicine (two doctors make the finals) law, professional tennis, physics and a slew of other fields that require a similar level of sustained focus. But for each of them, playing the piano is still a major part of their makeup.

The film sets up as you might expect, beginning with interviews with some of the competitors before landing in Fort Worth for the preliminaries. Then it’s on to the semifinals and finals. Along the way, you’ll develop rooting interests based on generous performance footage as well as the players’ personalities. (My favorite was Esfir Ross, a boisterous woman originally from Eastern Europe who couldn’t have been happier to be there, even if she did proclaim through a thick Russian accent that one of her performances was “lousy.”)

They Came to Play director Alex Rotaru sticks pretty closely to the formula established by A Surprise in Texas, which documented the 2009 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. If you watched that film and got caught up in the players’ quests for piano glory, you’ll get caught up again in They Came to Play.

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