Behind the curtains of 2017’s Van Cliburn International Piano Competition

Yekwon Sunwoo, of South Korea, performs during the finals of the Fifteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition at the Bass Hall on June 9. Sunwoo went on to win the competition.Rodger Mallison - rmallison@star-telegram.com

Bass Hall is a treasure, but only every four years does its stage become the most important platform in the world for classical music. That’s when the quadrennial Van Cliburn International Piano Competition keeps piano lovers rapt.

This year’s 15th event — in which South Korean pianist Yekwon Sunwoo was announced the winner June 10 — was no different. To boot, it reached a larger audience than ever, with more than 4 million watching it in 169 countries through online streaming and/or in simulcasts in Sundance Square and on cinema screens around the United States.

This allowed viewers to witness 30 pianists — selected from 141 who auditioned in six international cities — in the preliminary round be narrowed to 20 quarterfinalists, then 12 semifinalists and six finalists. They performed a total of 86 concerts over 15 days, made up of recitals, piano quintets and concertos, with the help of the Brentano String Quartet and the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra in the latter rounds.

That was on the stage.

What you probably don’t know is what happens off the stage as the pianists prepare to take their 40 to 60 minutes of stage time in each round. It is more carefully orchestrated than a Beyoncé surprise video-album drop.

Take the preliminary round performed by American Rachel Kudo, beginning with her exit from the practice area in the ground-level dressing rooms on the west side of the hall. From there, “backstage mother” Maria Harman leads Kudo, wearing a floor-length blue gown with silver-and-black strapless bodice, through the stage left doors (right side from the audience perspective) to the back of the stage. Then they take long walk behind the curtain that separates the symphony shell from backstage, a dimly lit corridor, and emerge in the stage-right staging area.

In that wing is housed several pianos (pianists selected pianos to use for each round); several benches adjusted for each competitor before the round by measuring-tape-wielding officials; stage managers; tech operators; announcer Christina Allen; photographers and videographers from the media and medici.tv, which filmed everything on the webcast; and most importantly, Kathie Cummins’ table.

Backstage moms Kathie Cummins, right, and Maria Harman, left, assist Martin James Bartlett of the U.K.
Backstage moms Kathie Cummins, right, and Maria Harman, left, assist Martin James Bartlett of the U.K.Brandon Wade - Star-Telegram

 

Cummins is the main “backstage mother,” and she has performed this role for several Cliburns. She’s the only person who talks to the contestant before she/he goes onstage and immediately after the performance, accompanied by a hug and motherly encouragement and compliments.

“You’re going to be great,” she might say as she attends to anything the pianist wishes. On her table sits a variety of items that might come in handy: a lint roller and hand mirror for last-minute tidying up, mints and cough drops, napkins and small bottles of water. Cummins greets each pianist with water she has poured into a plastic cup. She might trim a stray thread from a dress or tuxedo, or straighten a tie or shoulder strap.

For Kudo, Cummins delicately presses the pianist’s hands on a dry towel in case there’s any perspiration. After Kudo’s performance of works by Bach and Barber and the new work each of the 30 pianists had to play in the preliminary round, Marc-André Hamelin’s Toccata on “L’Homme armé,” she offers a warm hug and an extra dose of reassurance.

That support was not unnoticed by Kudo.

“It was calming to have her backstage,” she later says. “You can just feel that she’s very caring and wants the best for all the competitors, for us to do our best. To be able to physically hug someone who you know is full of warmth and love — that’s the best human contact you can have in stressful situations like a competition.”

Kudo then decompresses for a few minutes, as Harman escorts her back to the rehearsal area, where Kudo’s host family is ready with more congratulations. Soon thereafter, the next pianist, Croatian Alyosha Jurinic, is ready for Harman and Cummins to repeat the process.

Alina Bercu of Romania, right, hugs her host mom, Becky HAskin, after competing in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition 2017
Alina Bercu of Romania, right, hugs her host mom, Becky HAskin, after competing in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition 2017Brandon Wade - Star-Telegram

Considering the number of performances, that amounts to more than 100 hugs.

Some pianists use their pre-performance time for warmups: Gold medalist Yekwon Sunwoo, for instance, jumps up and down and shakes his hands to loosen up. Bronze medal winner Daniel Hsu paces around, stretching his arms.

In the semifinal and final rounds, the added people backstage include conductors for the Fort Worth Symphony sessions, Nicholas McGegan and Leonard Slatkin (also the jury chairman), and members of the Brentano String Quartet. After the performances with the FWSO, before an intermission or with the last performer of the evening, the players exit, retreating to their instrument cases sitting on tables in the left and right wings. Occasionally, concertmaster Michael Shih or another musician will chat briefly with a contestant after the performance, and Slatkin takes another opportunity to shake hands with the pianist he just led.

Other than their performance, the pianists’ biggest interaction with the public is at the announcement of which competitors will advance to the three rounds after the preliminaries. Sitting in the front rows of the middle section at Bass Hall, they nervously await the decision, announced by Slatkin after remarks by Cliburn board chairman Carla Kemp Thompson and Cliburn president and CEO Jacques Marquis.

For those moving on to the next round, it is all about returning to their host home and practicing until the next time they arrive at the hall for a final rehearsal, and then being treated like a favorite child of stage mothers Harman and Cummins.

That love, along with the experience of a lifetime, is something every contestant takes home. For those awarded prize money and perks like career management and recording contracts, it is the extra-special icing as they launch into concert careers and classical music fame.

 

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