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The Cliburners: Teens Goofing Off, Getting Serious At The Keyboard 17
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Wei Luo, from China, age 17. Photo: Rodger Mallison

The young pianists who’ve entered the first Cliburn International Junior Piano Competition going on this week are teenagers, 13 to 17 years old. Yet some have already logged in thousands of miles performing in national and international contests. KERA’s Jerome Weeks checks in with these high-achieving adolescents.

Yes, the resumes, the backgrounds, of these teenagers can be inspiring — the kind of inspiration that makes you think you really slacked off in high school, when all you were doing was battling crime at night as a masked superhero.

“My name is Anna Larsen,” says the 15-year-old contestant from Boston, “and I’ve recorded albums of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, performed on From the Top, NPR’s radio show, as well as Carnegie Hall and the Oprah Winfrey Show.” She’s also won two ASCAP awards for her compositions, including a sonata.

“My name is Eoin [pronounced Owen] Fleming,” says the slender, 17-year-old Irishman who played for Mary McAleese, the president of Ireland, and has “participated in the Feis Ceoil, which is the all-Ireland competition for any instrument. And I have won every Fies Ceoil I have ever entered. So that’d be like six or seven.”

And those are among the eleven contestants who were eliminated in the first round this week. With a lot of the young Cliburners, we’re talking about kids who started plunking at keyboards when they were three or four and then were giving recitals at six. Needless to say, many are children of music teachers or professional musicians.

But still, they are teenagers. Saturday, before the competition officially began, the 23 contestants were left in a rehearsal room at TCU with a table full of cookies – and two pianos. You can guess what happened next.

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Six-hand piano playing with Wai Yuen Wong (walking away, left), Clayton Stephenson (back to camera), Gavin Bala (behind him), Roger Shen (head down), Adam Balogh (head down) and Amir Siraj (right). Photo: Jerome Weeks

Most of them immediately pulled out their cellphones and started texting.

Half-a-dozen did head for the pianos and began clowning around. Three or four would hammer away, accompany each other, top each other, crack each other up — then get shoved aside by the next one who wanted to play.

“We started with “Chopsticks” and “Heart and Soul,’” recalls Amir Siraj. The 15-year-old from Boston has already played Carnegie Hall and Boston’s Symphony Hall. “Then we had some fun with some concertos, so a Liszt concerto, Rachmaninoff Second, Third, Tchaikovsky concerto and someone tried to show off with a Chopin concerto.”

Things turned serious later that night at the ritual draw, the selection of what order the pianists would perform for the jury. For many, this is all about strategic positioning. Conventional wisdom holds performing later in the schedule is better. It’s the the same thinking behind movie release dates and Broadway openings: The closer you get to when the voters are choosing winners, the fresher your performance will be in people’s minds. Early entrants may wow judges, but some of that excitement is likely to fade after the Cliburn jury has had to sit through 20 other keyboard-bangers.

Sure enough, as the names of these young contestants are called out (in a random draw) by Cliburn Foundation CEO Jacques Marquis, the schedule fills up in a predictable fashion: The earliest pianists chosen pick time slots two-thirds and three-fourths through the two-day concert timetable. The last performers whose names are drawn are stuck with the front-end of the schedule, the earliest slots.

But for this preliminary round, the jury’s selections run directly counter to the conventional wisdom: Six are chosen from the first twelve young performers, six are chosen from the last eleven. It’s practically a random distribution: It doesn’t matter when anyone played for the judges. And this pattern holds through the next round as well, when the dozen competitors are cut down to six.

Evelyn Mo, 16, of the United States, performs in the quarterfinal round of the Cliburn International Junior Piano Competition and Festival, in Fort Worth, Texas, Wednesday, June 24, 2015. (Cliburn/Rodger Mallison)

Evelyn Mo, 16, of the United States, performs in the quarterfinal round. Photo: Rodger Mallison

Another, less random pattern is also  apparent: American teens made up nine of the initial 23  — almost 40 percent. The only group to number as many requires combining everyone from Asia:  Japan, China, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan. But the Americans quickly fade. Only three make it out of the preliminary round (Misha Galant from California, Evelyn Mo of New York and Clayton Stephenson of New York).

And only one — Evelyn Mo — survives into the semi-final round.

In addition to being crackerjack musicians (and ordinary cellphone-toting teens), what marks many of these adolescents is their multi-disciplinary achievements — often in areas of math or science. Gavin Bala won gold medals in math competitions in his native Singapore. Siraj started the Innovation Club at his Boston high school. Anna Boonyanit of San Francisco wants to double-major in college – in piano and economics.

“I’m Alim Beisembayev [Al-EEM Bay-sem-BAI-yev],” says the husky 17-year-old who was born in Kazakhstan and started playing when his father bought him a toy piano. He moved up from that to an electric keyboard before actually trying a real piano. “By the age of 10, I went to the Central School in Moscow, where I studied for two years. Then I wanted to try something different so I moved to the UK, and I’ve been at the Purcell School for Young Musicians [in Hertfordshire, north of London] for five years now.”

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Alim Beisembayev, 17, from Kazakhstan. Photo: Rodger Mallison

Beisembayev stands out among this international crowd of overachievers, not just because he’s bounced around Europe and Russia. For one thing, he’s not in the crowd fooling around on the pianos in the rehearsal room. He seems older than his 17 years. This is the first time he’s ever visited the U.S., and he says he’s come because the Cliburn is a festival as much as a competition, and he hopes to learn things while he’s here.

For another, Beisembayev has played each round towards the supposedly unlucky front of the schedule. Yet he’s made it this far — so much for the conventional strategy. He enters the semi-finals as the opening act. On the other hand, the only other competitor from the first 12 out of the preliminary 23 is Wei Luo. So maybe there is something to be said for the conventional strategy.

And then there’s Beisembayev’s second passion: ballroom dancing. “I started at the age of seven. Got good at it, got first prizes. However, I did have to make a choice. And I chose music.”

In a way, though, Beisembayev is still dancing. He’s made it to the semi-finals of the first Cliburn International Junior Piano Competition. This weekend will decide how good his finger -and-foot- work really are.