Photos courtesy Ralph Laurer/The Cliburn
It’s down to the final six at the 7th Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition!
After semi’s there was one “free day” where no competition was held. We were given each a room at the Bass Performance Hall with a Steinway Grand. What a treat! Originally, I was not planning to practice much, but I ended up practicing all day because of the wonderful piano.
Damon Gupton was our conductor (http://www.star-telegram.com/news/special-reports/van-cliburn/article85530742.html). He is not only an accomplished conductor, but also an acclaimed actor. Michelle and I recognized him from the TV series, “Suits”. It was so cool to meet him and get to play with him. Damon has a calm demeanor, but he can get fired up on the podium. At Bass Hall we had an American Steinway D on stage. This was a different feeling than the Hamburg Steinway. The action was heavier, and the sound was brighter. It almost encouraged you to play harder on it. In the first rehearsal with orchestra, I found myself pushing into the keys to get more volume, and my arms were getting a bit tired. Fortunately, Damon helped to keep the orchestra under volume so my runs could be heard. The most important advice he instilled in me was not to rush.
I was not satisfied with my playing during the rehearsal, so I went back to the practice room. I needed to stay in control, sit back on the bench, not lean forward, not rush, but play louder. I took a break from the seriousness and went to the Open Piano Night hosted by Cliburn. They had wonderful events all week to attend, but I was only able to make a few because of advancing deep into the competition. This was a very fun night filled with competitors playing whatever they wanted. It was totally a non-competitive atmosphere. I even went up to play a Michael Jackson cover tune (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NoXfeDXqjdI). Here was Jorge Zamora from Mexico playing that night. It was all in good fun before the madness that was to come the next day.
The morning of the finals we had a dress rehearsal with the orchestra. I applied everything I learned from the day before, and it went better. Damon was happy with the changes as well. Things were coming together nicely, and I finished early with time to spare. I felt like the only work left to do was the performance itself. When I arrived later in the afternoon, I felt calm about the moment ahead. My concerto movement was signifcantly shorter than the other competitors, but I was the only Romantic piece in the finals. I chose the exciting Saint Saëns “Concerto No. 5” final movement. It’s a rare piece with lots of fireworks and a flashy ending. When I practiced it at home, I would visualize the moment after the final chord, when the audience would leap to their feet and cheer madly.
I did my final warmups (even the stage moms got into the spirit with yoga stretches backstage) and was ready to go. Playing with an orchestra is a special experience and one that cannot be duplicated. The opportunities are rare for amateurs to play, so I felt very fortunate and thankful to be part of the Cliburn. I reminded myself of all the points I needed to cover as I adjusted my bench. Then the piece started. It took off to a quick start and it took some time to warm up. It’s not like this movement would normally be played cold, but given the one-movement format of the finals, my body had to be warm as soon as possible.
It took a couple minutes before my arms started to loosen up. I kept disciplined with my control and fought through the tough opening runs. Soon, things felt like they were floating. By the final passage I started the broken octaves at a blistering tempo, but kept true to my promise to stay in control. After the final chords sounded, I began to hear cheers from the audience like I had dreamed. I turned to Damon and shouted an obscenity (“F yeah!”). He sort of looked at me funny, and then I corrected myself and said “thanks!”. He shouted “yeah, man!”. I shook the concertmaster’s hand and looked at the orchestra, and they were all smiling back at me.
The final turn to the audience was something I’ll never forget. I saw them standing and cheering, and I immediately thought of my mother. I held back the tears and proceeded off the stage before a curtain call. Backstage, I was given a glass of water, but before I was able to take a sip, Damon rushed in and gave me a huge bear hug from behind. The water spilled everywhere! I was so pumped and so was he. It was a pretty awesome moment.
The jury took a very long time…over two hours...to decide the prizewinners. That was a tough time to be waiting backstage. We kept the mood light and our stage mom kept us loose with shoulder massages! It’s the hardest place to be, backstage waiting for results. We all had a mutual respect and admiration for each other, so the mood was not as tense.
Then…after two long hours, finally the jury was ready. We were told to sit in the second row as the prizes were announced. There would be additional prizes such as best classical/romantic works, and special jury prizes for those not in the finals. They also mentioned that if you were in the top three, you were not eligible for these prizes. So in some ways, I was hoping not to have my name called. By the time these additional awards were given out, there were just three of us remaining.
In third place was Xavier Aymonod. I met him in a festival (http://www.pianestival.org) many years ago. He has always been a great player, and he sounded even better now. So it was down to Michael Slavin and myself. I shook his hand and told him it was an honour to be in the last two with him. Michael is a celebrated amateur pianist who not only has won many of the most important competitions, but is also an expressive and mature player. He has been a motivation for me and I have the utmost respect for him and his playing.
Michael’s name was called in second, which meant I was the winner. I sat in my seat, almost stunned, as photographers were taking flash after flash in front of me. I had dreamed of this day, as many others had, but in reality I did not know how to react. I thought about my mother, my wife, and my family. I promised my mother that I would go down to Cliburn and I would win it for her. She never encouraged me to enter competitions, she was always proud of whatever I did. I could feel her presence throughout this grueling week and hoped that she would again be proud today.
I also received the Press and Audience Awards. A clean sweep! They presented me with a cowboy hat (I live in Calgary so it was a perfect gift). I was a very lucky person, and I have to thank The Cliburn for providing all of us an experience we will never forget. Growing up, I did not know that my life would so involved in amateur piano events. But it has been an incredible, stressful, and rewarding time of my life. Who knows where my musical pursuits will lead me next, but the celebration of amateur music must continue. There will likely be some future performances now that I have won Cliburn Amateur. I also have a goal to bring international amateur pianists to Calgary. Hopefully I will be able to use these last ten years as a build-up to the next goal. Wait an see!
Anyone who dares to play Beethoven's last Piano Sonata Opus 111 must be fearless and confident in his skills. In the case of Thomas Yu, both are true...[He] plays the piece with elegance and depth...and his interpretation was the highlight of the festival day.Süddeutsche Zeitung, Germany's largest newspaper, translated.