Photos courtesy Ralph Laurer/The Cliburn
The quarterfinals allowed us to have more time on stage, so I chose three pieces. The piano and hall was not unfamiliar to me anymore. Being backstage was a little less scary too, though I was still very nervous. Unlike the first round, I chose pieces that were very familiar to everyone. This strategy was riskier because if I made slips in this round it would be much more exposed. Thankfully, I kept my promise to be under more control, and the pieces flowed nicely. The Debussy “Reflets dans l’eau” took a lot of work, as I mentioned before that quiet colours were hard to control on this piano. I felt that my Chopin “Scherzo No. 3” was crisp and energetic with an exciting finish. I was happier with how this round was going and was excited to play my final piece. Liszt/Schumann’s “Widmung” was dangerous to program because of its popularity. Many others were also performing it during the competition. I brought my own interpretation, with singing lines and soulful expression. I was able to capture the atmosphere I wanted, and overall was very happy with it. This piece was dear to my mother, and I hoped I made her proud.
In 2014, I played this piece in Saskatoon as an encore. I spotted my mother sitting near the side of the main floor and blew her a kiss. She caught it and blew many kisses back. It’s a memory that is so special to me, and it comes to mind when I play the Widmung. This was the moment right before I played it for her:
At the Cliburn competition there is constant press coverage. Every note was accounted for and reviewed by The Fort Worth Star Telegram and Theater Jones. I got caught up with all the media in the first round, but realized it would be addictive and destructive to read about everyone’s performances, especially my own. I chose not to follow it anymore, as there would be plenty of time later to read all the articles. That said, you couldn’t avoid it sometimes, and seeing yourself in the newspaper was pretty cool. Here is one of those articles: http://www.star-telegram.com/news/special-reports/article85693112.html
It became increasingly-difficult listening to other competitors. Given the level of playing, I was nervous to hear everyone. There were so many standout performances (you can see for yourself on Cliburn YouTube https://www.youtube.com/user/VanCliburnFoundation). The results from quarterfinals were made at the end of the fourth day. Tensions were higher for this announcement, which aired live on webcast. My phone kept buzzing with texts from friends watching online. Luckily again, my name was called and I was very happy. I was drained from being so nervous all week, and it was only half-done! I tried to contain my excitement and continued to look forward to the next opportunity to play.
The stakes kept getting higher with each round. Six finalists would be chosen and have the opportunity to perform with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. So everyone in the semi’s would be putting their best performances forward. My first piece was “Prelude No. 1” written by my previous teacher, Marc Durand. I wanted to express both the sad and intense emotion through its simplistic chords. It was a perfect lead-up to the immense Beethoven Op. 111 Sonata.
I put my entire life into the next 30 minutes, and I felt again the presence of my mother onstage. This was another piece very dear to her, so I owed her my best effort. Technically, I was happy with the first movement. All the hours spent on the difficult passages paid off. The second movement was a more reflective and spiritual experience. There were a couple moments where it felt impossible with this piano to reach the dark colours needed. I tried my best not to make it seem like I was working hard to create these sounds, but I really was. The final two pages, full of trills and pianissimo, ascended to heaven, and the final chord came out perfectly. I felt it was my soul speaking through this monumental work. My decision to pick this piece against the advice of others turned out to be the right decision.
On a lighter note, there was a barbecue hosted by The Cliburn. I met a fan of Cliburn named Ron. I recognized him from the documentary, “They Came to Play”. I was a fan of a fan! He was such a nice man and I hope someday to run into him again.
The results of the semifinals were to be announced very late the same day. There were not as many people sitting there at 11pm. I could only imagine how exhausting it would be as an audience or jury member sitting through some of the largest works in piano, one after another, and still put in an honest analysis. It was not an enviable position to be judging on such a grand scale.
Despite the competitive level of playing, we were all still amateurs. It’s what makes this competition so interesting. We love to play, but we took different paths to get here. I met Noah DeGarmo, who played a fantastic Prokofiev sonata, and is an emergency doctor.
Shinji Wada played an amazing “La Valse” by Ravel, and is a senior director at Playstation (I forgot to ask him if he can get me a discount on games).
Yet, for one week, we put all our professions aside and immersed ourselves in music. The bond that happened between competitors was instantaneous. It was definitely not as cut-throat as a professional competition. We were all there to support each other, and with a friendly competitive atmosphere to keep us honest.
Finalists was announced in order as they would appear in the final round. The order was determined by the conductor based on programming. I saw one person called after another, and still my name was not called. It took until the last spot before I heard my name. Amazing!!! There was more work to be done, but I would have the final say in the final round. It was the place I hoped to be, and I was glad I chose the appropriate concerto. Finals, here we come!
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.