An `Olympics' for Young Pianists


HERE TO MAKE MUSIC PBS, tomorrow, 9-10:30 p.m. Documentary on the Eighth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Hosted by Dudley Moore. Produced by Peter Rosen. BRING a towel to the TV set. Unless you're the unfeeling troglodyte of legend - the one who thinks classical music is only for chess-playing wimps - your palms and forehead will be sweaty through this one.

Here is a behind-the-scenes look at what many call a contradiction in terms - an artistic competition. More specifically, it is one of the most public and widely heralded piano contests of our day, the Eighth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, held last May 27 to June 12 in Ft. Worth, Texas.

Before the program is over, even a Hun or a Tartar would have a far greater appreciation for the rigor necessary for a successful piano career. ``I think the most important thing about going into classical music is that one must love it more than anything else in the world,'' notes Van Cliburn, ``and to feel that without it his life would be incomplete, so that he must have it at all costs, all expense, for the rest of his life.''

``This [competition] is absolutely removed from the real life of an artist,'' asserts concert pianist Misha Dichter at the show's outset. ``The bullfight, athletic events, the Olympics - that's what [this] is much closer to.''

Besides exploring questions about the meshing of art with sports in conversations with observers, judges, and participants, there is pure drama unfurled here: The characters are the 38 top young pianists from around the world, the setting Texas Christian University. The plot revolves around performances of a wide range of music before live audiences, cameras, and judges. The denouement is the thrill of ``victory,'' the agony of ``defeat''.

Who will win? The reserved Russian? The bombastic Brazilian? The elegant Italian?

The winner - who since has become something of a celebrity - was a 19-year-old Soviet prodigy named Aleksei Sultanov. To succeed, he had to survive a process involving 150 review tapes of applicants in performance, and then the pressure from 37 other contenders.

Since much of the filming took place before winners were announced, viewers share the same sense of anticipation, anxiety, and expectation as pianists. The latter are interviewed in hotel Jacuzzis, piano practice rooms, and automobiles both before and after scheduled events.

From preliminaries to finals, the camera zooms in close on faces and hands, while we hear the young pianists, all exceptionally talented, sharing their thoughts.

There are loads of comments from other famous winners of competitions: Vladimir Ashkenazy, Gary Graffman, Philippe Entremont, Andr'e Michel-Schub - and Cliburn himself, who vaulted to fame by winning the 1958 Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow.

``I guess the ostensible aim is to win,'' says Emmanuel Ax. ``But really the aim is to be heard, to be noticed, to have some kind of exposure.''

Choosing a winner is not at all a clearly-defined task, adds Ashkenazy. ``We simply cannot predict who and why [a performer] will make a successful career.''

The aim is to find ``true communicators - with something to say and the ability to say it,'' comments John Giordano, chairman of the 14-person international jury which selects the medalist who receives $15,000, a Carnegie Hall recital, and nearly two years of sponsored concerts (about 120 in all).

The journey adds up to great drama, whether or not you know the difference between the theme from ``Rocky 2'' and Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto. If you're a musical illiterate, you'll gain an appreciation for the athleticism behind performance. If you're an aspiring musician, you'll find the program both inspiring and sobering.

There is frustrating element in the early part of the film, similar to watching Victor Borge in concert. Just when you want to hear a contestant finish a passage, the film cuts to interview footage. As the contestants are winnowed down, however, more of the music is heard, culminating in significant passages from the concerto performances of each of the six finalists.

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