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Arts & Culture

In music competitions, just being heard can be considered a win

Clayton Stephenson114.jpg
Ralph Lauer
/
Cliburn.org
23 year-old Clayton Stephenson, in his tuxedo, on stage at the 2022 Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth's Bass Hall.

Once every four years, in this case five because of the pandemic, people from all over, who hire classical music pianists, head to Fort Worth during the Cliburn International Piano competition. They’re listening to up-and-coming artists who might fit into their organization’s future concert schedules.

Samantha Pollack, with Washington Performing Arts, in the nation’s capital, is a talent-watcher attending this year’s Cliburn competition.

"We have a long history of presenting Cliburn winners and finalists,” Pollack said. “One of the hallmark series of Washington Performing Arts is our Hayes piano series, which has been around almost as long as our organization, which is getting near 60 years."

Pollack’s approach is logical and nearly universal. In a little notebook, she’ll write comments about pianists who impress her, but then she'll book a Cliburn medalist.

Sometimes though, a pianist stands out almost immediately.

Brooklyn native Clayton Stephenson, a 2022 Cliburn competitor, has already received several booking inquiries online. He says the first queries arrived when streaming audiences had only heard his preliminary and quarter final performances. The entire 16th Van Cliburn International Piano competition is being streamed live online.

"It was pretty surprising, like hearing that people wanted me to play already,” Stephenson said. “But also it kind of made me feel that, you know, even through the livestream and even through like, online, people were kind of, I guess, feeling what I was feeling. And, you know, my music got across to them."

It wasn’t just online listeners though. Bill Crane’s in Fort Worth from Oregon.

"When I heard his solo recital a couple of days ago,” Crane said, “he unnerved me with his insightfulness and ease with all of us."

Crane is a life-long pianist who runs Portland Piano International. The organization books top pianists every season.

"It really felt so much like a real offering of self. That's an insightful young man who's deeply knowledgeable of the music. And way fun,” continued Crane.

And way employable for some future Portland booking. Maybe Crane simply picked up on what the jury heard, because they soon advanced Stephenson to the final round. Even if they hadn’t, Crane says his enthusiasm would have remained. He wants to book Stephenson for a future recital no matter what the competition’s outcome.

"I hear in him a spiritual maturity that's really uncanny,” Crane said. “When he walked on stage and how he took a bow and that big smile and all that stuff, I said, he's got the whole thing."

At this Cliburn competition, each young pianist has something, if not the whole thing. Cliburn CEO Jacques Marquis told all 30 of this year’s competitors that just appearing here could generate future gigs.

"You have a lot of people here, coming from all over the world, wanting to meet you and talk with you,” Marquis told all pianists before the contest began.

”If you played a fantastic Liszt sonata in the quarter-final round you may have someone who’s doing a Liszt festival in a few weeks and said ‘I remember at the Cliburn, this person,’ and we’ll provide the information for all of you.”

For Samantha Pollack, that person turned out to be 2017 Cliburn competitor Martin Bartlett. He stood out to her then and she made some notes, but he only made the quarter finals that year. Then she heard him again.

"I think one year later at the Young Concert Artists auditions in New York City,” she said, “and remembered why I enjoyed his playing so much at the Cliburn and we ended up presenting him just this past March at the Kennedy Center. "