At Cliburn, the pressure to be the first interpreter
The black Steinway concert grand piano waited in lilac light as the audience rushed in like metal to a magnet.
And backstage to the right of the stage stood the first man to greet him on Thursday on the first of three preliminary days of the Sixteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition: Georgijs Osokins, 27, from Latvia, who was preparing to begin his great translation.
Performing first in what is widely referred to as the Piano Olympics at TCU’s Van Cliburn Concert Hall comes with a stigma that can only be explained by the performers themselves. It’s a job no one wants. But someone has to, and this year Osokins’ name was the last drawn to pick a performance slot.
But it is a moment that time has woven intricately. Van Cliburn, the Fort Worth pianist whose hall and competition are named after, was the one who inspired Osokins’ parents to start playing the piano, who in turn inspired Osokins himself. Now he is one of 30 artists in the competition in which 388 applied with the aim of winning the gold medal.
This spirit is now on his side. The environment, the acoustics, the piano are set. Now it’s up to Osokins to follow.
As 10 a.m. approached, the lights went out and slowly cut out the noise of the crowd. And on stage, Osokins sure leaped, arms relaxed as he sat down and played the opening notes of the competition.
Right now, during those 40 minutes of undivided attention on one of classical music’s greatest stages, he’s in a trance. It’s a moment he says isn’t about him, but about being part of a bigger picture.
The music for Scriabin’s Black Mass, Hough’s Fanfar Toccata and Chopin’s Sonata No. 3 shifts from dark to lively to whimsical as Osokins rises and bows modestly between pieces. He was joined by a partner and sheet music once, and together they worked in tandem in a dance to turn the pages with a wink from Osokins.
Today, the nerves come not from being first, but from doing justice to the composers whose music is played. It’s not about competition, but rather about imagination and fantasy.
And when he’s finished, a cry in the distance: “Bravo!” There were more arcs and an exit, and when the applause didn’t stop, a return to center stage.