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The Cliburn Amateur Competition: Close To Home

by Jerome Weeks 17 Jun 2016 3:29 PM

The Seventh Cliburn Amateur Piano Competition begins Sunday with 68 competitors coming to North Texas from as far away as Taiwan and Turkey. And then there’s Clark Vann Griffith.  KERA’s Jerome Weeks sat down with the contestant who can drive to the Cliburn performances – from his home in Fort Worth.

Clark Vann Griffith, welcome.

CVGThank you very much. It’s good to be here.
The Seventh Cliburn Amateur Piano Competition, June 19-25th at the Van Cliburn Recital Hall and the Bass Performance Hall.

Competitions like this are generally seen as adding to the fun of concerts — they add suspense and tension.  But beyond that, and beyond the few thousand dollars in prize money – what’s the point of an amateur competition in classical music?

CVGThe point is to hear people you would not otherwise get to hear.

So what’s the point for you?

CVGThe point for me would be to get to play on a really good piano for a really attentive, appreciative audience.

At your home, you have a digital piano that you can make sound like a grand piano. But of course that’s not the same thing as walking out onstage in front of everyone and playing a grand piano that you’ve only practiced on briefly.

So what is that like?

CVGIt’s an act of faith. My mother tells the story of practicing the Rachmaninoff C sharp minor prelude for, I guess, the  UIL contest in Texas at that time, and she had practiced on her Baldwin upright religiously, and she got in front of this big, black piano onstage, and she didn’t recognize the piece. It was almost a religious experience for her because she was able to make so much more sound than she had been  at home.

You’ve entered twice before. The first time you placed third, the second time you placed second. It looks like you’re playing a long game, a kind of stair-step approach to ultimate victory.

CVGMathematically speaking, sure. But the field gets so much better every time they hold this thing that I’m not counting on anything.

You’re a retired database programmer. And you’re classified as an amateur. The Van  Cliburn people make that distinction between professional and amateur by stipulating amateurs must be older than 35 and not making their primary living performing, teaching or composing piano music. But I’m going to ask a blunter question: How good do you think you are?

CVGAt what I really care about, I hope I’m the very best. At knocking a Beethoven sonata out of the park, that’s not going to be my thing because that takes so much perfectionism. There are people out there who are doing that really, really well.  And I love listening to them, and it makes me feel so good that I don’t have to do those Beethoven sonatas that really well because that frees me up to look at Bach more deeply.

Yes, I notice you chose a prelude by Johann Sebastian Bach for your first round choice, but you brought along something else you’ve recorded. It’s lovely.What is it?

CVGIt’s a transposition of Chopin’s E minor prelude, opus 28, from E minor into E major. I imagined there were more sharps in the key signature, and I started playing around with the notes a little bit. And at the last minute, I stuck it into my third round, if I get that far.

Well, Clark, good luck. And thanks.