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Cliburn Competition Heats Up

ON Sunday the world will learn who wins the Ninth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Whether the victor is "another Van Cliburn" remains to be seen.

This quadrennial contest, an Olympics of sorts for classical pianists, aims to bring to its gold medalist the same acclaim Mr. Cliburn earned at the first Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in 1958.

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In a photograph from that contest, Cliburn, handsome in his roomy tuxedo, performs with a rapturous expression, oblivious to the profusion of roses strewn at his feet by adoring Muscovites, who hug each other as they press to the stage.

The cold war made Cliburn's triumph all the more electrifying. Unlike Adolf Hitler, who refused to place a gold medal on black American track star Jesse Owens in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev ordered the Tchaikovsky jury to let the best person win. And that was Cliburn, regarded by some critics as a once-in-a-century genius.

Unknown to the general American public when he left for Moscow, Cliburn returned to ticker-tape parades. To celebrate his victory, citizens of Ft. Worth, Texas, organized what is now one of the world's most prestigious piano competitions.

Yet no winner can boast to have inherited Cliburn's mantle of superstardom. None have possessed the Texan's charisma, says Moura Lympany, a competition juror from Great Britain, whose own concert career spans six decades.

"I think you're going to get it this year," Dame Lympany said after the 12 semifinalists were selected from among the 35 artists in the preliminaries. "Several people could suddenly happen."

Lympany acknowledges that the dramatic political context of 1958 is absent. Not only is the cold war over, but the Soviet Union also has dissolved. Veronica Reznikovskaya competed at the Eighth Cliburn competition under the watchful eye of a female KGB agent. Four years later, she has returned without state supervision. "Now we are free," Ms. Reznikovskaya says.

"You have to be in the right place at the right moment," Lympany says of Cliburn in 1958. "But you have to be able to deliver at that moment."

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The right place for the preliminary and semifinal rounds of the Cliburn competition was Texas Christian University in Ft. Worth. TCU's Ed Landruth auditorium, a modest setting, is mostly adequate. But not long before the competition, the aging roof allowed water to leak onto a Steinway that Cliburn himself had selected.

AIR conditioning kept the audience cool enough during the 50-minute recitals that made up the preliminary round. But on the spotlit stage, one competitor after another reached for his handkerchief. Sergei Tarasov from Russia even wiped the keyboard at one point, later describing it as "a river." Between each performance, white-gloved attendants wiped the piano with a chamois cloth.

Some of the heat was in response to the pressure of competition. "I was so scared," says Shirley Hsiao-Ni Pan, a Canadian citizen born in Taiwan. "I thought I was going to pass out at any moment."

Relaxing in jeans and white socks on the rug of her host family's home, Ms. Pan was the final performer of the preliminaries and one who advanced to the semifinals. She started a Bartok selection with "the usual mezzoforte" but found that she couldn't hear herself playing.

"I couldn't tell whether I had started or not," Pan says. "The Ravel was the worst. It goes so fast. I missed so many notes."

Lympany says the pressure to perform well will always be there, even more so for the winners. "If you can't take it, give up the profession," she advises.

On the other hand, she dismisses accuracy as less important than spirit.

"We don't care about the minor mistake," the juror says. "In fact, the major mistake is nothing." When one performer ended on the wrong note, the jurors smiled knowingly at each other, she says.

"The point is," she adds, "let yourself go. Don't be restrained." The audience should be excited or moved.

American Frederic Chiu advanced to the semifinals after a daring performance. Rather than sticking to traditional piano classics, he chose transcriptions of other works, including some of his own arrangements.

"I did that on purpose to provoke a response from the jury," Mr. Chiu says. He criticizes competitions as being long on conformity.

He says they also serve no artistic purpose from the competitor's point of view. Giving audiences the "sports thrill" of a winner and loser is a bad introduction to classical music, where performance is subjective, he says.

Nonetheless, "the money is here," Chiu says. Prizes for first place are worth $200,000. Well-known in Europe, Chiu was hoping that the Cliburn competition could make his reputation in the United States.

But, he did not make the list of six finalists, announced Tuesday night. They are Armen Babakhanian, Armenia; Fabio Bidini, Italy; Valery Kuleshov, Russia; Simone Pedroni, Italy; Johan Schmidt, Belgium; and Christopher Taylor, United States.

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