International piano competitions and glitzy film festivals make for interesting bedfellows. The mix seemed uneasy at first but slowly coalesced into a memorable evening as the Van Cliburn Foundation’s new documentary, Virtuosity, made its world premiere as part of the Lone Star International Film Festival on Wednesday.
Bass Performance Hall’s lobby was packed to capacity and abuzz with lively chatter as reporters snagged passersby for impromptu interviews, giving the area all the trapping of a Hollywood red carpet event. Inside the hall, the festival’s bright red banners were juxtaposed with the statelier black-and-white Cliburn logos.
Standing before the seated crowd of several hundred, Dione Kennedy, president and CEO of Performing Arts Fort Worth, called the event the perfect “trifecta” of a collaboration among Bass Hall, the Cliburn, and the film festival. Cliburn president and CEO Jacques Marquis followed her comments by describing documentaries like Virtuosity as an “arm” that allows his group to reach audiences worldwide.
The 2013 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition is still fresh on the minds of classical music lovers around the world, both for the talent it brought to Fort Worth during the three-week competition and the careers it launched.
During their performances, the competitors were filmed by eight cameras. All-in-all, more than 1,000 hours of footage was shot that, along with childhood videos from the pianists, was crafted into the 86-minute documentary under the watchful eye of director and Academy Award-nominated screenwriter Christopher Wilkinson.
The opening dedication read simply, “For Van,” a reference to the much-beloved and recently deceased concert pianist Van Cliburn.
The film’s first scene plays heavily on the oft-stereotyped image of concert pianists. Shot in black and white, competitors shuffle nervously backstage, waiting their turns. The effect was one of tension, magnified by sparse, discordant piano in the background. As a camera nears pianist Fei-Fei Dong, her stoic face bursts into laughter, and color returns –– along with livelier piano music.
The moment of levity is kept, for the most part, throughout the film by focusing on the natural humor of the contestants, their sincere but awkward attempts to fit into Cowtown culture, and focusing on the musicians’ courage and love of the art.
Each segment of the film is prefaced with titles like “The Journey” and “Piano Selection.” Following a chronological layout of the competition, Virtuosity dutifully and creatively captures moments from the first arrival of competitors at DFW International Airport through each stage of the competition and finally to the awards ceremony. In between each segment are interviews that favor humorous moments over biographical content.
One notable segment, “Competitions Are for Horses,” is an examination of the role of competitions in the careers of musicians. Sean Chen, winner of the Cliburn crystal award, describes contests as a “necessary evil” that brings opportunities in a highly competitive field. Cliburn silver medalist Beatrice Rana goes into more depth, describing classical musicians’ natural disinclination to compete with one another. Vadym Kholodenko, recent Cliburn gold medalist, turns the question around, describing the competition as an inward struggle against nerves and psychology. The interviews reveal that few of the Cliburn judges or competitors focus on the “competition” aspect of the event, but rather, see the contest as an opportunity to express their artistry to new audiences.
After dozens of memorable interviews and performance clips, the three finalists are announced. As Kholodenko, Rana, and Chen take the stage, the second movement of Beethoven’s angelic fifth piano concerto plays, adding an emotional climax to a heartwarming documentary.
As the documentary for the Cliburn’s world-renowned piano competition, Virtuosity faced several challenges and unparalleled opportunities from the onset. On one hand, the stature of the event lends the film a built-in and loyal audience, and the subject matter is compelling, to say the least. At the same time, the history of documentaries of this nature is well-established, and audiences come with their own preconceptions of how the narrative should unfold.
While the film did not deviate from the standard chronological mashup of music, interviews, and footage you might expect, it balanced the heavier elements of serious art music with unabashedly honest portrayals of the competitors, adding an accessible and vulnerable feeling to the movie that was refreshing.
Virtuosity will make its national premiere on PBS next summer.