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PERFORMANCE

tells me at his office in downtown Fort Worth, “and I want them nice.” Moreover, he adds, “they give all their comments to the kids afterwards.” The idea is to be as helpful as possible. That’s what nice means. The chairman of the jury this year is pianist Alessio Bax, who came to the Meadows School on a scholarship from Bari, in the Adriatic heel of Italy, when he was 16. He joined the faculty at 20, and now is artist-in-residence while also playing 100 concerts a year around the world. He will preside over six jurors, including composer Lowell Liebermann. The first thing he must do is set the ground rules, the ethics of the operation, Alessio explains over lunch in New York where he lives with his wife, Lucille Chung, also a pianist/artist-in-residence at Meadows, and their four-year-old daughter Mila, who speaks English, Italian, and French and, of course, plays the piano in a special music school. “Some jurors want to know as much as possible about a pianist,” he says, “while some want to know nothing.” All this must be worked out before the young players, culled from 230 applications across 32 countries, hit Dallas, ready for action. I meet a veteran of the Junior Cliburn one afternoon in the lobby of the Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek. It is Clayton Stephenson, winner of a Jury Discretionary Award four years ago when he was 15, back in Dallas to perform at a Cliburn event that night. He started playing the piano when he was seven with a garden-variety teacher in Brooklyn who was more “a babysitter,” he admits, than anything else. “I was a troublemaking kid,” Clayton confesses, “and my mom wanted me to sit for an hour.” She was an accountant, supporting the household pretty much on her own since Clayton’s father was not a lot in evidence in their life. He died two years ago. Clayton couldn’t even sight-read music at that point, but pretended to, while actually playing by ear. There “were no Hanon Exercises, no Chopin,” he continues. Instead, “I played songs I liked…easy beginner’s [stuff]…I didn’t really know about my piano abilities…I never really considered myself to be good.” But astonishingly good he was, and that was impossible to miss. After two years, Clayton switched to a new teacher, near Chinatown on Brooklyn’s 8th Avenue. The barely budding pianist remembers the teacher “was very strict, traditional.” But that was exactly what was needed to catapult Clayton Stephenson into Juilliard’s Pre-College at the age of ten, and then to Harvard where he is now a sophomore majoring in economics (his mother wants some grounding for him) while pursuing a Master of Music degree at the New England Conservatory. The Junior Van Cliburn was his first big competition. With no piano at home, he prepared by practicing at Juilliard. What he loved most about that time in Fort Worth, staying at TCU, was this: “They treat you like artists, not children.” His goal now? To compete in the next big Van Cliburn in 2021. While Clayton Stephenson loves the Romantics—Chopin, Liszt, and Beethoven, but he is not yet playing Bach—Alim Beisembayev, who at 17 scored first place in the inaugural Junior Cliburn, definitely revels in Bach, plus Mozart, Schumann, the Russian composers, and Debussy, whom he calls “incredibly creative.” Beethoven too, of course, who cannot be ignored. All this I learn in a phone interview with him, speaking from London where he’s been studying since he was 12, going back to Kazakhstan to visit his family only for the holidays. Alim first left home at 10 for a music school in Moscow. Currently at the Royal Academy of Music, he mentions his interest in contemporary works, which are “quite important,” he says, but “very difficult” to play with a chamber group. That’s because they are “not as straightforward as classical music, less harmonic…but much more fun to do.”

Above: Youlan Ji, 16, of China, takes a bow after she performs with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Mei-Ann Chen during the final round of the Cliburn International Junior Piano Competition and Festival, in Fort Worth, Texas, Sunday, June 28, 2015, photograph by Rodger Mallison. Courtesy of The Cliburn. Below: Pianist Alessio Bax serves as this year’s chairman of the jury, photograph by Marco Borggreve. Courtesy of Arts Management Group.

MAY-JULY 2019

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Profile for Patron Magazine

PATRON's 2019 BEST OF THE ARTS Issue