- The Washington Times - Friday, September 30, 2005

In a strikingly beautiful PBS documentary titled “The Twelfth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition: In the Heart of Music,” French director Andy Sommer captures the glamour, excitement and nail-biting nervousness that defined the May 2005 competition.

Mr. Sommer also delves gently into the life experiences of several extraordinarily gifted finalists as they step nervously before the klieg lights with their entire musical futures at stake. They’re a gifted lot, to be sure. But they also labor doggedly, with the quiet fanaticism of a champion athlete like Lance Armstrong, to achieve their goals.

The Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, held in Fort Worth, Texas, is a high-firepower challenge for talented young classical pianists from around the world. It’s named for the gangly 23-year-old Texas pianist who astonished the world when he became the first American pianist to win the prestigious Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in the Soviet Union in 1958 at the height of Cold War tensions.

For finalists in the Van Cliburn, the glittering prize is not merely a modest pot of money. It’s the once-in-a-lifetime chance to launch a brilliant career amid the kind of lavish publicity and attention generally accorded only to top-tier rock and pop stars.

Mr. Sommer’s storytelling is light and unintrusive. He begins his film “in medias res” as officials announce the 12 semifinalists. He then travels back in time, through the eyes of the competitors themselves, weaving in the preliminary elimination rounds that carve the standouts from the initial field of 35 pianists, ranging in age from 19 to 30.

The film’s “stars” are eventual Russian gold medalist Alexander Kobrin, 25; Korean silver medalist Joyce Yang, 19; finalist Davide Cabassi, 28, of Italy; and a naive Maria Mazo, 22. Hailing from both Germany and Russia, Miss Mazo captured the hearts of several jurists, but was not quite able to make the final cut.

Both male pianists, who become great friends, nip furtively at cigarettes — clearly a nervous habit and a reaction to the intense pressure. Almost stereotypically, the Italian, Mr. Cabassi, comes across as warm and outgoing, while the Russian, Mr. Kobrin, is more intense, introspective and reserved.

Miss Mazo is engaging but seems somewhat immature as an artist, a topic explored with her by one of the judges in a kindly manner during a garden walk after the finalists have been chosen. The bubbly Miss Yang, however, while the youngest of the finalists, also seems the most confident, bursting with energy and drive and reveling in the joy of the moment.

Only after her final performance does she break down in tears, finally releasing the incredible tension that built up beneath her sunny exterior.

The personalities of each performer come through loud and clear, making this a fascinating excursion into the realms of talent and genius. Just what does it take to become a classical star? The answer here seems to be, it depends. But strong parental support provides an important clue.

The untold story here, of course, is: What happens to the rest of the competitors? The younger ones, having learned a great deal from the competition itself, might go on in a few years to cop the brass ring in the Van Cliburn or one of the other prestigious competitions. But for the thirtysomething pianists, this might be their last shot at enduring fame. Sadly, at the end of the day in classical music, as in all the arts, there’s only room at the top for a few star performers. And then there’s everyone else.

Fortunately, “In the Heart of Music” emphasizes the virtues of hope, character and hard work, and it’s delightful to see young, talented pianists competing for a prize based, for a change, on merit rather than the fleeting fame that glorifies tattoos, nose rings and bad manners over genuine accomplishment.

The 90-minute documentary will air on local PBS outlets beginning Tuesday at 10p.m. Sort of. In a whiff of television’s rapidly approaching future, the program was recorded in High Definition Television (HDTV) and won’t be shown on conventional cable.

It will only be available to classical digerati who’ve already paid their cable companies for access to their digital services.

Both Washington’s WETA and the Maryland Public Television system (MPT) have additional digital channels capable of carrying this kind of signal. If you’re lucky enough to have digital access, “In the Heart of Music” will make you feel a whole lot better about the investment you made to see it.

WHAT: “The Twelfth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition: In the Heart of Music.”

WHEN: Program first airs on Tuesday, at 10 p.m., with repeat performances at various times through Oct. 8 on WETA and MPT HD channels only. Numbering schemes in local systems vary, so consult local listings or visit www.weta.org or www.mpt.org for detailed listings and exact airtimes. A non-HD DVD of this program can be ordered online at www.cliburn.org.

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