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A Comedic Composition at the Cliburn
by Bill Zeeble 3 Jun 2013

Christopher Theofanidis composed Birichino, the original work all semi-finalists must play for the Van Cliburn Piano Competition. “Birichino” means “prankster” or “trouble maker” in Italian, and Theofanidis wants pianists to have fun with it.

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Christopher Theofanidis says he grew up watching the Cliburn Competition on PBS and listening to it on radio.                Photo: Michael Warner, TheaterJones

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Fifteen years after composing the fanfare that opened Fort Worth’s Bass Hall, Christopher Theofanidis is back at Bass Hall for the premiere of his Birichino, the original work all semi-finalists must play for the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. The Cliburn has commissioned a new piano piece for every competition since 1962. Theofanidis says Birichino means “prankster” or “trouble maker” in Italian. It’s inspired by his daughter, “the original prankster.” He wants pianists to have fun with it.

“The players are going to be under incredible pressure this week. They’re probably going to be suffering from an overload of seriousness. And at the very least, I thought this piece could potentially help them laugh a little at themselves and have a good time,” Theofanidis says. “There are all kinds of mechanical things in the piano that are quite funny to play, physically. The person who treats it that way, I think, will have the most success and have a little more fun with it.”

It’s up to the players to figure out the work. Theofanidis said contact between him and the pianists is forbidden, and not even his extra performance notes were available to competitors. Claire Huangci, the first semi-finalist to play Birichino, did her homework. She knew it meant “prankster,” which helped put her at ease. Because as a youngster, she says that was her.

“I was rather sly as a child,” she says. “I would do things that were kind of funny for me but not so cool for others. In elementary school, I was the one who was always doing the dares, like putting things in my classmate’s desk or switching his lunch – rocks instead of eggs, digging up worms and cutting them up and putting them in things.”

Not that she’s proud of that now. At 23, she’s a bit more serous, and among the world’s top young pianists. So she welcomed the composer’s comic relief.

“I found that the piece was really funny. When I got into it, I really felt that I could express something from personal experience. It comes in a lot of spurts and spasms. That’s what makes it fun.”

(Listen to Claire Huangci’s performance below)

Theofanidis called Huangci’s world-premiere performance “brilliant and clean.” The other Saturday night performance was delivered by Nikita Mndoyants. The composer liked the Russian’s approach to character, use of silence, and good comic delivery. But he’s still waiting for the others to find more in his music.

“One of things in the piece that hasn’t been caught yet are these ‘clustery’ figures in the piano that are supposed to be laughter. Actually, like ‘uh, ha ha ha ha.’ That hasn’t quite come out yet. I think people treat – when they see clusters – they think very ‘serious,’ and kind of treat it that way. But it’s very gestural, kind of meant to be funny,” he said.

Unlike other new works, Theofanidis gets to hear his 7–8 minute piano composition not once, but in this case, a dozen times, with its many potential interpretations. He says that’s part of the joy of writing a work for the Cliburn Competition, which he says he grew up watching and listening to on PBS or radio. Another pleasing part, he says, is “seeing how the piece can stretch. It’s a joy to hear it, back to back, with very different kinds of feelings and metabolisms of these players.”

He’s also pleased Birichino is dedicated to Cliburn Competition Jury chair John Giordano, because Giordano led the Fort Worth Symphony in Theofanidis’s Fanfare Shining in Bass Hall in 1998.

“It’s gratifying to come back 15 years later and have this experience and get to see John again and have it be under these circumstances,” Theofanidis said.

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