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Dualing Ivories: Young Pianists Compete in Texas

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“The experience of live music is unique and its immediacy and impact irreplaceable,” states the program of the Thirteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, currently underway in Fort Worth, Texas, where 29 young pianists (upper age limit: 30) from around the world are competing in the most challenging, and certainly best-organized and innovative, classical music contest.  The Cliburn, divided into three rounds—preliminaries, semi-finals, and finals—includes recitals, performances of commissioned pieces, chamber music, and concertos with orchestra, and is packed into little more than two weeks.  It wraps up on June 7.  Its aim: to discover talent worthy of a career and to provide a sustained push. When I was in Fort Worth last weekend, I heard two pianists in one of the preliminary sessions: Michail Lifits , born in Uzbekistan, representing Germany, and Alessandro Deljavan of Italy.

The two pianists could not have been more different. Lifits, exuded an easy, movie-star glamour (sports jacket, no tie) and delivered a probing performance of the Schumann Piano Fantasy in C major.  Deljavan, in black shirt and pants, wore a beard that belied his youth (he’s only 22!).  His casual appearance suggested he could be a barrista at your favorite coffee bar—until he touches the keyboard.  Based on this hearing, he’s one of those artists that comes along once in a generation. Deljavan’s a quiet performer physically (no soulful staring at the ceiling, no extravagant gestures), but let rip the most penetrating, passionate, intelligent, and dazzling performance of the Liszt B Minor Sonata, a virtuoso warhorse, I’ve ever heard.

The Cliburn takes place in Bass Performance Hall in downtown Fort Worth.  The handsome hall, modeled after a classic European opera house and in cool shades of celadon green, offers superb acoustics, a sense of intimacy (capacity tips 2,000), and attentive (read: quiet) audiences.

Because the competition is held every four years (it started in 1962), it's a great excuse to take off to Texas, if you can. (Here's a sampling of last-minute roundtrip airfares to Dallas/Ft. Worth that depart this weekend: $170 from NYC; $199 Miami; $275 Chicago; $327 Los Angeles.)

If you can’t make it this year, the Cliburn is a few clicks away; the 2009 competition is being streamed live online in its entirety from May 22 to June 7 at www.cliburn.tv . The webcast is free, built with the same Silverlight technology used for the Olympics, and runs eleven hours per day. You can watch the pianists in rehearsal as well as performance or—away from competition pressures—trying on cowboy boots.



Mario Mercado is the Arts Editor for Travel + Leisure.

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