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Arts & Culture

At the Cliburn International Piano Competition, 30 world premieres in two weeks is routine

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Bill Zeeble
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KERA News
Cliburn competitors, arm-in-arm, at the Fort Worth Zoo, relaxed and happy even though they’d been eliminated from the competition. L-r - Francesco Granata from Italy, Jonathan Mak, from Canada, and Arsiney Gusev from Russia. They all plan to keep playing Hough’s Fanfare Toccata.

Every Van Cliburn International Piano competition features a new work designed to challenge and display the skills of each pianist. Past composers have included classical music icons Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein. This year, newly knighted Sir Stephen Hough, winner of the MacArthur “genius” grant, wrote the work.

Pianist, composer and author Sir Stephen Hough is in great demand. He was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2001 and was knighted earlier this month. The Cliburn Competition wanted him on its jury in the past, but he said no. In 2022, they tried a variation on a theme; they asked him to join the jury and write the new work.

“Well, that was a carrot that this donkey couldn't resist,” said a happy Hough.And I started writing straight away, within an hour of getting the email. I thought, ‘right, what am I going to do?’ It gave me a great big burst of inspiration this, so I thought, this is going to be such fun.”

Hough had fun, and so did the pianists, including gold medalist Yunchan Lim, who also won the award for the best performance of Hough’s Fanfare Toccata. South Korean Lim spoke through an interpreter.

“So being able to practice and play a fellow pianist is kind of, like, a heart-pounding experience for me. It makes me, like, excited about it,” said Lim.

Hough’s Cliburn composition was inspired by a tempest of toccatas he’d learned over the years; by Scarlatti, Lizst and Rachmaninoff, Poulenc and Prokofiev on up to Samuel Barber and more. They helped him come up with several themes.

“Well, it was the fanfare flourish,” said Hough, almost singing. “And then I came up with this tune, this romantic tune with a falling sixth, then the little winding around the te da da da dee da da dum.” Hough continued “ then it appears at the end in a more majestic kind of way.”

Cliburn competitor Jonathan Mak said Hough’s composition was uniquely playable, in part because Hough’s a brilliant pianist himself.

“Everything was very pianistically... it fit in the hands. And so it was very comfortable to play,” Mak said.

Still, Hough was surprised many players got parts wrong at the open and end of the short piece, despite clear instructions on the page; so his fear of hearing 30 identical pieces went away. But there were other surprises.

“I thought, well, the middle section, the romantic bit, I bet they're not going to get quite what I'm looking for, this slightly Cole Porter-esque, well it's lounge-ish, tune. And I thought, well, they probably won't get that,” Hough said. “Well, they all got that.”

The musicians said they’ll keep playing the piece, now that they’ve learned it, and more important, like it. That’s the life Hough hoped it would have; enduring in other’s hands. Because even though he wrote it, he’s never learned it, nor played it.

Click here for a list of all the winners of the 2022 van Cliburn International piano competition.