Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Surprises come with the territory

Imagine the surprise that Russians felt in 1958 when a lanky Texan named Van Cliburn won their Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow. Contests are full of unexpected results and the 2009 Van Cliburn Competition in Fort Worth had its share. Peter Rosen’s film “A Surprise in Texas” is about capturing the energy, moments of ecstasy and unpredictability of last year’s competition.

The film starts with the arrival of the twenty-nine competitors. The director keeps us aware of all of them as they sign in and are assigned their host families; this is done through quick cuts and snippets of music. Young pianists from Korea, China Russia, Japan and the United States are presented to us and even in these fast snippets their different personalities are evident.

Nobuyuki Tsujii isn’t the first blind contestant to compete in the Van Cliburn, but he is the first to get into the group of twelve semi-finalists and here the film starts giving us an understanding of what it is like for him in a different country under extraordinary circumstances trying to get along and meet his expectations. Other pianists are not pushed aside by this story, but it is a challenge to compete without being aware of the extra attention going on elsewhere.

The chamber music component of the competition is where everyone including the pianists themselves find out how well they react to a situation where their piano isn’t the star of a performance, and then there is the working with an ensemble with a well established and strong personality like the Takacs Quartet. Here the pianists have to explain why they are playing the music one way and Herr Brahms seems to have indicated something else. Agreement isn’t always immediate and ironing out a balance is sometimes the best one can do.

The film has its musical philosopher in the long time pianist of the Beaux Arts Trio, Manahem Pressler. He gives us viewers a short primer on what the judges are hoping to hear from these young performers and vote accordingly. We don’t get to see the judges arguing their case in their chambers; like the Supreme Court we are left to imagine how the debates were presented.

The expectations and the pressure increase when the six finalists move on to the concerto section of the contest and here experienced conductor James Conlon has a very difficult job. It is not surprising that older and calmer artists like Conlon are given the duty working with such young pianists. They have to simultaneously coach, prepare and compromise with musicians that know a complicated work through only ten fingers; adding seventy extra musicians is a whole n' other ball game.

The competition is so tight that the judges took quite a while to come to their extraordinary decision and "A Surprise in Texas" does a great job in giving us enough information to keep viewers on the edge of our seats just like the contestants were on that final night of the 2009 Van Cliburn Competition.

Although piano music is the reason for this gathering, classical music’s greatest tunes are used piecemeal to set mood, establish personalities and link edits. Don’t expect each work to be identified, there is much to cover and the Rachmaninoff or Beethoven is there for other uses.

The colors and sound of this film are clean and rich. Peter Rosen gets us close to the musicians and their instruments; considering we are never aware of cameras and microphones that are being used this is quite an achievement.

A must see for classical music fans.

A Peter Rosen Production

"A Surprise in Texas" will be showing at the Santikos Bijou Cinema & Bistro starting Friday, May 14th.

Randy Anderson

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