Virtuosity can be a tough thing to get a handle on – that’s exactly what a new documentary on the Cliburn International Piano Competition aims to do.The chronicle of the 2013 Cliburn in Fort Worth premieres nationally tonight on PBS. And KERA is the presenting station.
The film’s about a piano contest, so, no surprise, it opens with piano. But early on, the key turns minor, pictures fade to black and white, and we hear this VOICE.
“Imagine you’re back stage at a concert hall,” intones this somber speaker, “with 2000 people waiting to hear you play one of the most difficult pieces ever written for the piano, and depending on how you perform, your life will change.”
Director Christopher Wilkinson, that voice, injects big doses of humor to lighten this story. Best known for writing Hollywood hits Nixon and Ali, Wilkinson interviews Cliburn competitors before and during the contest. Today, he talks about why he made himself a character.
“I would ask what’s your favorite tree,” Wilkinson explains, “or is there a part of your body you don’t like, know what I mean? It would, you know throw them off balance so in 30 seconds you’re having a human conversation.”
Here’s a Q & A between Wilkinson and pianist Steven Lin.
“Stravinsky or Bartok?” asks Wilkinson, of Lin. “Stravinsky,” Lin replies. “Bach or Mozart? Mozart. “Biggie or Tupac?” Wilkinson continues. “I don’t know, what?” Lin says. “Notorious BIG, Tupac Shakur, they’re rappers,” explain Wilkinson. “Oh sorry,” Lin says, I don’t…”
Wilkinson visited many of the musicians at home, before they arrived in Fort Worth. In Italy, he met competitor Beatrice Rana, who went on to win Silver. Here, she and her dad play piano, her sister’s playing cello, and Mom and the family dog listen.
“I want to join your family,” Wilkinson yells, laughing. “I like your family much better than my family!”
Third place winner Sean Chen likes the way Wilkinson became a player in the film.
“The narrator always has a character in books and movies,” Chen reasons. “I mean he’s very easy to get along with. He’s been to concerts of a few of us, even of people that didn’t get past the first round.”
Editor Gabriel Wrye says this film was tough to cut because there were so many good stories.
“There’s not just five people who are amazing,” Wrye says, “they’re all unbelievably talented. So we wanted to have as much as we could, just little moments, of other people playing just to show the depth of talent.”
And strength of virtuosity on stage every four years, in Fort Worth.