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Photo: Fran Kaufman

Meet The Cliburn Competition’s Secret Weapon

by Bill Zeeble and Miguel Perez

With the final rounds of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition well underway, KERA’s Bill Zeeble caught up with the composer tasked with creating one of the challenging pieces presented to competitors. Every four years, the Cliburn commissions an original work that all 30 contestants must play. This year, the distinction went to pianist and competition judge Marc-Andre Hamelin.

The 56-year-old Canadian — the first non-American to be chosen — is best known as a concert pianist, one who’s been composing since childhood.

“Even at the beginning when I started lessons at 5, I mean, I would scribble notes on whatever paper I found,” Hamelin told Zeeble. “My dad was very good amateur pianists.  He had scores which I saw and looked at boggle- eyed. And I tried to do the same thing.”

The commissioned work is a challenge for both the pianists performing it and for the composer, who must create a piece that’s technically demanding but still has room for individual interpretation.

Hamelin joins an impressive group of commissioned composers including Leonard Bernstein (1981), William Schuman (1989), and Lowell Liebermann (2001). But, he says he’s not in it to further his reputation.

“I’m happy to be doing what I’m doing compositionally, at the level that I’m doing [it] and I’m not really aspiring for anything greater, like writing symphonies or concerti,” he said. “I couldn’t.  I am not one of those people whose head is just brimming with ideas and themes and whatever.”

Hamelin’s work, titled “Toccata ‘L’homme armé,” is a five-minute “finger-buster” based on a 500-year-old French song. Still, the contestants are enjoying the challenging piece.

“It’s entertaining music,” said finalist Yury Favorin. “It sounds really, how to say, delicious in some parts. I think it’s good for the audience as well.”

The Cliburn’s commission is a unique opportunity for composers to hear their work performed and broadcast multiple times to a national audience.

“Too many of these pieces that are written specifically for competitions have been totally ephemeral, and they just have no life outside a competition,” Hamelin said. “So many composers have works that they’ll never hear.  They’re not even fortunate enough to have a first performance. I’m going to have thirty. It’s fantastic.  I’m never going to be able to top that. It’s a dream really for any composer.”

Check out Art&Seek’s coverage of the competition below, and be on the lookout for more updates.

Van Cliburn Piano Competition Kicks Off In Fort Worth

KERA’s Bill Zeeble On What’s At Stake For Cliburn Competitors

Pianist Showcases Skills for Fort Worth Schoolkids

Cliburn Finalists Will Vie For Top Spot