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Cliburn Piano Competition Embraces Internet

This year, for the first time, all performances at the 13th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition — even rehearsals — are live on the Web. Cliburn officials say they're always open to new ideas to build a broader — and younger — classical music base. In 2001, the competition offered music streaming online. Four years later, it added video streaming. This time, the Cliburn is streaming everything: live audio and video 11 hours a day, for the competition's full 17 days.

To pull it off, lead engineer John Johns basically built a TV studio.

"There's been a lot of big webcasts," Johns points out, "like the Olympics, that were on the air on multiple channels, and things like that. But this to me is the biggest Web-centric or Web-only event that I know of that's not affiliated with a broadcast."

Sitting in his Cliburn Foundation office, President Richard Rodzinski types "" into his computer.

"That's where you'll have all the little buttons that will take you to the biographies, schedule information, everything," he says. "And then you just click on the big screen, and that's it — you get the actual performances."

Rodzinski is proud of the online extras, especially webcam access to all of the rehearsals. Not even the paying fans in the hall get this kind of behind-the-scenes access.

"It's like having webcams all throughout the theater," he says, "and kind of looking in on what's happening backstage putting this thing together. People love to know what's happening backstage. They love to go to rehearsals, because that's where so much is put together in a way that demystifies the experience."

But there's something of a Big Brother aspect to this that makes some contestants nervous. South Korean Kyu Yeon Kim appreciates the Web exposure her recital received, but as she readied for her performance with a string quartet, she didn't realize it too was live.

"Is it? Rehearsal?" Kim asked incredulously. Then she laughed, "That's going to be a little bit of pressure, I can say."

Russian semifinalist Eduard Kunz was not laughing.

"I don't like the public to follow me in the kitchen, if you know what I mean," he says dryly.

Contestants did agree in advance to live webcams throughout the event, and the video the cameras capture will also be used for a documentary on the competition.

Another Web extra this year is a sort of play-by-play commentary by Buddy Bray that scrolls along the bottom of the computer screen.

"I had to intuit this because it's really not been done much in the industry before," Bray says. "I think what [the viewers] like the best is a road map: 'Now we'll have a different theme. This is the second theme, and it's announced first by the strings and it's taken up by the piano.' Things like that."

Anne Demarest knows most of the music the contestants are playing this year. She's a successful composer in her own right. But at 89, she doesn't travel much beyond her small town of Arvada, Colo. So she's counting on her computer to take her to Fort Worth, Texas.

"I'm not coming up for air," she insists, but then moderates her position: "I might come up for air occasionally, but I'll be sitting here in front of this monitor watching. I still have many years ahead of me, but I'll spend them as much as I can involved in music. And now it's brought right to my doorstep."

And that's where Demarest says she'll be when the winners are announced Sunday night.

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Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.