Keys to the Future
At this piano recital, there’s none of the formality of the Cliburn Concerts at Bass Hall, let alone the genteel frenzy that the Van Cliburn Piano Competition inspires every four years. Instead, the crowd is mellow and casual, some even wearing shorts. (It is summer, after all.) The music they’re hearing, though, is worthy of a tuxedo – played by some of the great pianists of today and, possibly, tomorrow.
The concert is part of Piano Texas, the annual academy and festival that has been drawing top piano students and instructors to Fort Worth from all over the world since the 1980s. This year’s edition features piano students from 15 different countries (16 counting Hong Kong), as well as a laundry list of elite music schools: Juilliard, the Moscow Conservatory, the Beijing Central Conservatory, the New England Conservatory, the Curtis Institute, the Eastman School of Music, and the Manhattan School of Music among them. (There are no TCU students this year, but they have often participated in the past.)
Still, the festival doesn’t garner the coverage or the crowds of Fort Worth’s other classical music series. For now, in a town with many choices when it comes to piano music, Piano Texas remains an unusually well-kept secret. This is vexing to Tamás Ungár, a tall, thin, bespectacled, white-haired gentleman who looks very much like a professor. He’s had time to grow into the part – 2008 marks his 30th year of teaching piano at TCU. He founded what has become Piano Texas and serves as its executive director. His personal manner is courtly yet warm, his Old-World charm reinforced by the light dusting of an accent in his English. (Also adding to his old-school demeanor is the fact that he doesn’t have a cell phone, which is a source of occasional frustration to his students.) He doesn’t seem angry about the relative neglect that his festival suffers, but he’s grateful when it does draw attention. “The Star-Telegram reviewed our opening night last year, and that was it,” he said.
His office is located on the second floor of Ed Landreth Hall, the domain of TCU’s School of Music. The atmosphere at other music schools is reminiscent of an accounting office, but at TCU the halls are noisy and convivial. During a visit near the end of the semester, the palpable seriousness of exam time didn’t stop the friendly chatter in the halls, much of it in Mandarin. Ungár’s reputation as a teacher has helped greatly to attract students from around the world to Fort Worth, and if Piano Texas is a well-kept secret, so too (to a lesser extent) is the music education available at TCU. Perhaps not for much longer, though.
Ungár spent his early childhood as a piano prodigy in Budapest. He was 10 years old in 1956, when the Soviets rolled their tanks into the city to crush a student-led revolution against the Communist government. Ungár’s parents took the family and fled Hungary for Australia, where young Tamás learned English and completed his piano education under Russian teacher Alexander Sverjensky. After touring and recording extensively as a concert pianist based in London, he started teaching at the University of California at San Diego in the 1970s, where fellow Hungarian Lili Kraus happened to hear him play. She served as TCU artist in residence from 1967 to ’83 and as permanent juror on the Van Cliburn Competition from 1962 to 1981. Though she passed away more than 20 years ago, her effect on TCU’s music school is still felt – in part because she persuaded Ungár to make Fort Worth his home in 1978.
Ungár recalled how different Texas seemed from other places he’d lived. He had trouble finding the European brands of coffee that he liked (though he has no such trouble today). He remembered something else, too. “The people in Fort Worth were very open and friendly to foreigners. I never felt they were withholding support because I wasn’t from here,” he said. “That mattered much more to me than silly things like coffee.”
Three years later, Ungár began his festival under the name of the TCU/Cliburn Piano Institute. “I was probably naive to start the way I did,” he said with a wry smile. He saw an opportunity in the Van Cliburn Piano Competition, which was taking place that year. As always, several of the world’s great pianists were in Fort Worth to serve as judges. “When they weren’t listening to the contestants, these jurors were here in town for several days with nothing to do,” he remembered. “I felt it was a waste.” Ungár began to remedy that in summer 1981, when he brought in several students to learn from a sparkling lineup of names that included Lili Kraus, Lithuanian-French colorist Vlado Perlemuter, Cuban virtuoso Jorge Bolet, and Leon Fleisher, the American superstar who had retired from solo recitals because of a hand injury but remained active as a teacher and conductor.
Ungár couldn’t have found himself on more fertile ground. Long before his arrival, Fort Worth had shown signs of unusual receptivity to piano music. Shortly after Van Cliburn’s historic 1958 victory at the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, it was Irl Allison, founder of the National Guild of Piano Teachers, and Grace Ward Lankford, Fort Worth Piano Teachers Forum president, who arranged to inaugurate the piano competition named after Cliburn and have it based in Fort Worth. To this day, piano music is king in our city – the crowds at Bass Hall’s Cliburn Concerts are consistently larger for solo pianists than for the world-class instrumentalists and singers who perform as part of that series.
Originally planned as an adjunct to the Cliburn Competition, the institute went annual in 1990. In 2005, the TCU/Cliburn Institute officially changed its name to Piano Texas. “The Cliburn name is gold when it comes to fund-raising,” explained Ungár. “But it was time for us to develop our own identity.”
This year, Piano Texas will welcome 24 students under the age of 30 to learn and perform. The pianists were chosen by a three-member selection committee based on audition tapes. Each musician will take master classes with three different instructors, in which they’ll learn the finer points of interpretation for a particular piece they would like to play. Scheduling everyone and making sure that the same piece isn’t being played by too many students is a sizable challenge for Ungár. (“Thank God for computers!” he said.)
Several of the program’s students have gone on to wider acclaim: Chu-Fang Huang made the final round of the 2005 Van Cliburn Competition, while Stephen Beus took top prize at the 2006 Gina Bachauer Competition, the prestigious international contest held every four years in Salt Lake City, Utah. Most famously of all, an 18-year-old Li Yundi played at TCU’s institute in 2000, a few months before his win at Poland’s world-renowned Chopin Competition catapulted him to international stardom. (Surely he’s the only classical pianist with his own Nike commercial.)
The students are potential stars of the future, but many of the guest artists brought in to tutor them are stars of the present. The roster of pianists who have performed at Piano Texas include many former Cliburn Competition winners, but also many others instantly recognizable in the classical piano world who built their reputations over the decades: Menahem Pressler, Moura Lympany, Alexis Weissenberg, Earl Wild, Paul Badura-Skoda, the late John Browning. As well as teaching, these pianists play concerts for the public. This year’s edition will feature period-instrument specialist Malcolm Bilson, 2001 Cliburn gold medalist Olga Kern, sturdy British veteran Peter Donohoe, Israeli chamber-music specialist Joseph Kalichstein, TCU professor Harold Martina, and upcoming Finnish star and 2003 Leeds International Piano Competition winner Antti Siirala.
Piano Texas also has a program geared toward piano teachers, allowing them the opportunity to brush up on technique and repertoire, as well as learn new trends in teaching. (Teachers pay $150 to $400 for classes, while ordinary piano students can receive instruction for $350 to $600. The 24 selected young artists are charged $1,500, although their costs are defrayed by scholarships.) A separate program for amateurs has been in place since 1996, and non-professional musicians who buy the $1,350 deluxe package receive not only intensive instruction and master classes but also a chance to play a short concerto or a movement of a concerto with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra.
The orchestra is primarily there for the students, but amateurs and teachers also have a chance to play with them as well. Their involvement is a significant advantage for Piano Texas over similar festivals around the country. “It is truly unique for young pianists to have the opportunity to perform with a professional orchestra, and it enriches their artistic growth immeasurably,” said Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra president Ann Koonsman. “We are very honored to collaborate with Piano Texas.”
A few years ago, Ungár also realized his dream of adding a string quartet to perform chamber music with the various musicians as well. (Not just any quartet, either, but the Calder Quartet, the up-and-coming young string ensemble that will make its appearance here less than a month after playing L.A.’s Walt Disney Concert Hall.) Nonmusical events educate the pianists as well. “The students wanted to do more than just go to concerts,” Ungár said. Thus, the festival holds sessions on practice habits as well as physical and mental health. In various years, pianists could learn from artists’ managers about the business aspects of the classical music world, from hand specialists about the medical implications of playing the piano, and from psychologists about dealing with stage fright.
All this helps make Piano Texas the largest event of its kind. There are bigger summer musical gatherings in the United States – Vermont’s Marlboro Music Festival, Colorado’s Aspen Music Festival, and the Ravinia Festival near Chicago – but those gigantic affairs encompass orchestral, vocal, instrumental, and in some cases even jazz and pop music as well as classical piano. Though the recently established Miami International Piano Festival has drawn some big names, no piano-centric event can match Piano Texas in terms of duration, breadth, and marquee attractions.
Yet awareness of Piano Texas remains curiously low despite most of the concerts being free of charge. (Tickets for performances by the senior artists and of some of the concertos run $15 to $20.) The local mainstream press, which covers events such as the Van Cliburn Competition in great depth, devotes relatively little to this festival. (Two summers ago, the Star-Telegram ran a brief piece headlined “60-Second Review,” calling Piano Texas a chance to hear “Neiman-Marcus pianists at Wal-Mart prices,” a somewhat left-handed compliment.) While healthy crowds turn out for the Concerts in the Garden, the city’s other big summertime classical series, Piano Texas’ recitals frequently go begging, even when the big stars are on stage.
It’s a source of frustration for Ungár. “When I see someone like Menahem Pressler play to a half-empty concert hall, it just breaks my heart,” he said, noting that the diminutive 84-year-old German pianist’s concerts (as part of the chamber group Beaux Arts Trio, which broke up last month after more than 50 years) would frequently sell out at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. “These musicians come here for the educational opportunities and play for next to nothing,” he said.
If Ungár’s name isn’t a household word here in Fort Worth, it’s known by piano students around the world – a major benefit in recruiting students to TCU’s piano studies program. On the message board at a web site called Pianoworld.com, one aficionado rated Ungár’s studio as “probably the strongest in Texas,” while another listed Ungár’s name alongside such luminaries as Daniel Pollack, Gary Graffman, and Russell Sherman on a list of “favorite piano teachers in the USA.” Closer to home, a recent profile of Ungár in the TCU Daily Skiff quoted junior piano student Danny Zelibor as saying that he came to Texas from Indianapolis for the express purpose of being taught by Ungár. “A lot of teachers make the fact that they’re teaching feel like a job,” he said, “but when you’re at a lesson with him, you know he’s enjoying it.”
Half of TCU’s piano students are from overseas, as opposed to just under 20 percent of the School of Music and the student body in general. Ungár’s global reputation is built in no small part on his willingness to travel to meet students. In April he spent two weeks attending a competition in Milan and lecturing at the Vienna Hochschule and Budapest’s Liszt Academy, where he studied as a boy. In August, he’ll be at the Chopin Competition, whose artistic director Piotr Paleczny has been a guest artist and instructor at Piano Texas. In the meantime, with TCU’s spring semester over, he’s in China, where he serves as artistic director of the China Conservatory International Piano Festival in Beijing.
A hotbed of pianistic talent, China has an estimated 38 million piano students. “Most of the time I’m just away on weekends,” he said. “In China, I’ll lecture 300 piano teachers in one talk. Then they go back to their villages with what they’ve learned.” He hails Chinese students as the most sought-after in the world, and indeed nine of the 24 piano students who’ll play at this year’s Piano Texas hail from Chinese-speaking nations, while a 10th student (Oliver Jia) is a Swede of Chinese descent.
The strength of the TCU piano program is starting to show on the competition circuit. José Feghali’s student Adam Golka won the Shanghai International Piano Competition in 2003, while Ungár’s pupil Jie Yuan placed second in the most recent version of that contest. Even more impressive is how many students come to TCU after already having won prizes: Andrey Ponochevny opted to study in Fort Worth two years after winning the bronze medal at the 2002 Tchaikovsky Competition, while Alexei Koltakov enrolled here five years after making the finals of the 2001 Cliburn Competition.
Ungár is the longest-serving member of TCU’s piano faculty, though he’s hardly the only draw. Feghali is the gold medalist from the 1985 Van Cliburn Competition, while department chairman John Owings won the top prize in the 1975 Robert Casadesus Piano Competition in Cleveland. (He has recorded several discs’ worth of music by Casadesus, the French pianist/composer, as well as music by Beethoven and American composers.) Feghali and Owings have both been on the faculty since 1990, while the rest of the piano professors have joined within the last decade, the biggest recent coup being the hiring of Yoheved Kaplinsky, a Juilliard piano professor and longtime Cliburn Competition juror. “The strength of our piano area is that all of [our instructors] are performing artists who are dedicated to teaching,” said Ricard C. Gipson, dean of the School of Music. “They still actively perform locally, throughout the country, and the world.”
The principal timpanist for many years with the Oklahoma City Philharmonic, Gipson also spent considerable time heading the School of Music at the University of Oklahoma. He came to TCU in 2002 to do the same job. While there’s no U.S. News & World Report-style rankings of schools of music, Gipson can point to a long list of accomplishments by TCU’s ensembles: a symphony orchestra that has performed twice at the Festival of the Americas, a marching band that won Best Drumline at the Percussive Arts Society International Convention, a jazz band that has performed at the Umbria and North Sea Jazz festivals, and a choir that has sung twice at Carnegie Hall. Enrollment has risen 60 percent in the last five years, and more of the faculty is full-time rather than adjunct professors. The music department became an officially credited School of Music in 2000 (the distinction being that a school has greater autonomy to run itself than a department) and now conducts activities in six buildings, though it still shares Landreth with the theater department.
Yet finding more physical space is a top priority for Gipson. “We’ve got 270 music majors right now,” he reported. “We want another hundred, and then we’re going to stop.” TCU is a mid-sized university, and its music school will be mid-sized as well. Successful music schools come in all sizes, he pointed out. Oberlin College has a highly prestigious program with only about 100 music majors, while UNT has turned out distinguished alumni from its giant school of roughly 1,700 students.
Gipson has no wish to see TCU become that big. “We have enough piano students and enough percussionists right now,” he said. “We have to find the right number of violins and oboes. It’s a complex formula. Most of all, we want close personal contact between students and faculty. We want students working with faculty from the day they walk in the door. Right now, everybody knows everybody else. You don’t get lost.”
Adam Golka seconds that opinion. The Houston-born former child prodigy first came to Fort Worth in 2000 to perform at TCU/Cliburn, at the age of 15. “Piano Texas is the best institute for young pianists in the world,” he said. “It gives you everything – concertos, chamber music, master classes – and that helps develop really well-rounded pianists.” His experience was so positive that two years later he became a full-time TCU student. He also met Feghali at the festival, and he has nothing but praise for his teacher.
The school is “much more low-key than a place like Juilliard,” he said. “It’s friendlier and more diverse. I was a teen, and most of my colleagues were 25, and they all treated me like a peer. The school let me play all of Beethoven’s sonatas in a series of concerts, something I just walked in and wanted to do. I don’t know that many other schools would have let me do that.” His recollections were delivered loudly and quickly over the phone – he was waiting to catch a flight to Michigan, where he has been performing as part of the Gilmore International Keyboard Festival. The Gilmore, a highly selective nonprofit organization devoted to promoting keyboard music, has bestowed one of its two Young Artist awards on Golka. “Wherever I go, I spread the gospel of TCU,” he said.
It’s a long way from where the school was in the 1970s, when Ed Landreth Hall housed the university’s entire fine arts departments. The music department was confined mostly to the upper floors. Without an adequate practice room, the chorus had to run across the street to University Christian Church to learn new pieces. Now the school is in a resurgence led by its piano program, and professors who have been here for 30 years say that it has never been better.
For now, though, Tamás Ungár is busy preparing to welcome a new crop of performers for Piano Texas. Between June 8 and 29, there will be a concert every night. Daunting as that sounds, the founder of Piano Texas seems far from exhausted by the prospect. “When I first came here, there was nothing in the summer,” Ungár said. “These young students work so hard – even when I’m tired they energize me. This is a great life.”
You can reach Kristian Lin at