The amateurs at the Cliburn

Pianists: A Baltimore County accountant returns to her well-schooled dream of the concert piano.

May 17, 1999|By M. Dion Thompson | By M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

Some things you do for money, others because they are as necessary as eating and breathing.

So it is for 94 amateur pianists around the world now preparing for the Van Cliburn Foundation's first International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs. They are doctors, lawyers, one is a former Miss Minnesota, another is a hairdresser from Denver, yet another is the head of gaming tables at Harrah's casino in Reno, Nev.

Like Linda Gilbert, an accountant in Baltimore County and one of the chosen, they have careers. But before they entered the world of money-making, they were conservatory students. They gave themselves over to the rigorous, demanding art of the piano. Who knows how many hours they spent in practice rooms. Who knows how many hours they are spending now, years after putting aside the dream of being a concert pianist.

Gilbert is practicing at all hours of the day and night. She practiced from 2 a.m. to 5 a.m. one morning last week. The houses are far enough apart in her neighborhood beyond Mount Washington that she doesn't have to worry about some neighbor pounding at her door and yelling, "Lady, enough already!"

If they are listening at all, they are hearing her work through Mozart, Debussy, Scarlatti and Rachmaninoff.

"My neighbors, I know they think I'm crazy. I'm trying to get at least three hours a day," she says. "My neighbor, he's a doctor, he says, `Now, Linda, you have to practice two hours in the morning, two hours in the afternoon and two hours in the evening.' "

The same thing is going on in Brazil and Denver, Finland and New York. People are preparing for Fort Worth, Texas, where the competition will be held June 9-13. Gilbert found a piano coach, Jeffrey Chappell. He's her extra set of ears as she refines her touch, her pedaling, her expression. And there is her husband, Bob Levenson, who earned a degree in music from the University of Maryland. Why all of this work?

"I don't think anybody's doing this for money," says Gilbert.

First prize is $2,000, barely enough to cover the hotel and travel arrangements the pianists must make and pay for themselves. Some other need is drawing them to Fort Worth.

"I'm going to meet people who have the classical training that I have had, maybe more," says Gilbert. "And I'm going to be around them, where normally I'm around people who can't sing `Happy Birthday.' "

This idea of giving amateurs a grand competition is not new. The annual Concours des Grands Amateurs de Piano in Paris began 10 years ago. Richard Rodzinski, executive director of the Cliburn Foundation, attended last year's competition and brought the idea back with him. The foundation announced its competition in November and received 143 applications from pianists over 30 and not working as professional musicians.

"We selected simply by looking at their complete repertoire list, and there is the term, `outstanding amateur,' and that's what we're looking for," says Maria Guralnik, the foundation's general manager.

This is not for someone who can muddle through easy piano arrangements, sonatinas and simpler classical pieces -- though there is a place for those amateurs. These competitors probably had a shot at Carnegie Hall.

Gilbert, 48, graduated from the Peabody Conservatory in 1975, then earned a master's degree in piano performance from Towson University in 1978. That was college. Real life made her an accountant, a job where she could pay the rent, buy groceries, live a comfortable life.

"For me, I think it was very gradual," she says of her pulling away from a career in music. "There's some sadness. Anytime you end something there is sadness. But then you're also going into a new thing. You're glad to have health insurance."

Real life makes you practical. Years go by, but the playing does not end. One of the competition's amateurs, a mathematician by trade, has played a different Mozart piano concerto with the Triune Concert Orchestra of Columbus, Ohio, each of the past 13 years. Gilbert, whose repertoire includes many of the great masterworks, taught piano and played at Louie's Bookstore Cafe on Charles Street. She earned a living at Alex. Brown & Sons and Royal Furniture.

She read the newspaper story about the competition, said to herself, "I can do this," and sent away for the application. Her acceptance letter arrived in March. She went to her 7-foot Steinway and started to work. It was like old times, only better.

"It brings back a lot of old memories and creates new ones. It's nice. It's like going on vacation," she says. "Whatever worries you have, you know, whatever your current worries are, all of a sudden you put that aside and you do something that you did 25 years ago."

And you are refreshed by the experience.

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