There's no pay, but still they play

Van Cliburn lures amateur pianists

April 05, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

An expert in waste-water treatment, two pathologists, a tennis coach, an acupuncturist, the wife of a Canadian senator, a flight attendant, and a computer network administrator from Baltimore will be among the contestants in the Van Cliburn Foundation's Fourth International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs in Fort Worth, Texas, beginning May 31.

"It's a great opportunity to meet other people crazy enough to be doing what you're doing," says Thomas Maurice, 44, the Baltimore entrant, who has previously made respectable showings in similar contests in this country and France.

Since 1962, the quadrennial Van Cliburn International Piano Competition for professional keyboard artists, ages 18 to 30, has been one of the highest-profile events of its kind. In 1999, the Cliburn Foundation branched out to create the first major amateur-pianist competition in the United States. It is open to anyone over 35 (there's no upper age limit) "whose principal source of income is not derived from piano performance or teaching piano."

The 75 amateurs heading to Fort Worth next month represent seven countries. Cash prizes are modest - $2,000 for first place, $1,500 for second, $1,000 for third. But it's not really about the money.

"The atmosphere at an amateur competition is quite different from the professional ones," says the Canadian-born Maurice, who was selected from among 110 applicants. "There's a lot of camaraderie. It's all about getting a chance to play, and just the love of music. It's not going to launch anyone's career."

Maurice, who has degrees in piano performance from Towson University and the University of Maryland, initially set out on a professional music career. He was a semi-finalist at the William Kappell and Busoni competitions. "But I came to terms with the fact that I was not cut out to win, or to fulfill the obligations that would come with a win, playing 50 concerts a year," he says.

Instead, Maurice worked as a rehearsal pianist for several opera companies around the country before forming his own educational venture, the Opera Theatre, in New York in the mid-1990s. He commuted from Baltimore each week to work on that job. "I rented a room there," he says. "I didn't want to move. My home was in Baltimore. But then burnout hit. I realized I had $23 in the bank, no health insurance. It was time to stop living like a bohemian."

In 1996, Maurice closed up the Opera Theatre on a Sunday and started work as a secretary ("I can type very well," he says) at BGE two days later. A natural affinity for computers - he quickly earned training certificates in Microsoft, Cisco and other systems - led him down a new career path. He currently administers the computer networks for the Owings Mills office of the Iowa Foundation for Medical Care.

"I closed the lid on the piano for four years," Maurice says, "but the piano still called. I needed to get back to playing. I was surfing the 'Net one day and came across an amateur competition in New York. I've competed in seven or eight now."

Finding time to practice is tricky during a typical work week, but Maurice usually finds three or four hours. "Then it's as many hours as my hands can handle on weekends," he says. He's polishing up a finger-busting sonata by Prokofiev for the first, 12-minute round in the Van Cliburn event - "It will be my way of saying, `Hello, here I am,'" Maurice says.

Depending on how the jury returns that greeting, Maurice could make it all the way to the finals on June 5.

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