EunAe Lee’s fingers flutter over the keys, the sound they produce a musical painting of the water that laps gently just beyond the pianist’s glassed-in studio.
An elderly couple in floppy, summer hats pause to watch Lee at work, then continue their stroll along Lake Michigan in Evanston.
All is relaxed just now for the 29-year-old South Korean, a doctoral student at Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music. Soon, that will change. She will head to Fort Worth, Texas, to take part in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, dropping into a cauldron that one past competitor called “the most grueling three weeks of my life.”
“It’s the premier competition in the world, in my opinion,” says Lee, the first Cliburn competitor to come from Northwestern. “It means a lot to me just to get to compete.”
What about winning? “I’m not even thinking of winning. I just want to perform, and I want to do the best that I can.”
In Texas, she’ll join 29 other pianists, ranging in age from 18 to 30 and coming from around the world. They will include four Americans, six Russians and, counting Lee, five South Koreans. The American conductor Leonard Slatkin will chair the competition’s nine-member jury.
Lee is practicing eight hours a day, sometimes more. Her music includes pieces by Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt and Ravel.
Unlike some competitors, she isn’t from a musical family. She began playing violin and piano in Korea when she was 5. She stuck with piano because, when she made a mistake, her violin teacher would hit her on the hand.
“My violin teacher was very scary,” Lee says. “I just didn’t like someone to touch me when I was really little.”
She was an exceptional swimmer, too — potentially world-class in the backstroke.
“When I was 9 or 10, my mother just asked me, ‘What do you want to do in your life?’ Because I had a choice between swimming and piano. I’m happy that I chose piano.”
She came to America in 2004 to study at Juilliard’s pre-college program in New York City. She found that her playing helped her communicate even before she learned English.
The Cliburn began earlier this year with auditions for 125 prospective contestants in seven cities around the world. The actual competition, divided into four rounds, begins Friday, May 26, and runs through June 10.
At 29, Lee is one of the older competitors. She hopes to use that to her advantage.
“It’s helpful because I have more experience than some of the younger contestants,” she says. “If an 18-year-old plays fantastically, then they have more attention to them. I want to show my maturity.”
James Giles, Lee’s Northwestern professor, says she has the technical ability to play anything and “thrives within a pressure-cooker environment.
“A large part of it is mental, especially at this point,” Giles says. “She knows her music. She knows how to do it. A large part of performing is getting out of your own way and letting it happen and having the confidence to do it.”
The Cliburn competition is named for the 23-year-old Texan who, at the height of the Cold War in 1958, stunned the world by winning the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, conceived to showcase Soviet superiority. Cliburn won the hearts of audience and jurors alike. But, given the political backdrop, the judges couldn’t award him the prize without first consulting Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who famously replied: “Is he the best? Then, give him the prize.” Along with his gold medal, Cliburn got a bear hug from Khrushchev.
Cliburn died in 2013. Without the draw of his star power, there’s been talk that the competition that bears his name has lost some luster. Andrea Ahles, a Fort Worth Star-Telegram reporter who covered her first Cliburn in 2005, disagrees. She points out that the applicant pool of 290 this year was about twice as big as it was four years ago.
“What is fair to say is the Cliburn went through a period of uncertainty, particularly when Van got older and got sick,” Ahles says. “He wasn’t as involved in the competition.”
Some have criticized the makeup of past Cliburn juries, which have included piano teachers whose students were in the competition. Even though jurors aren’t allowed to vote for their own students, Cliburn’s president and CEO, Jacques Marquis, has compiled a jury for this year’s competition that does not include any piano teachers to “avoid the perception of a conflict,” he told the Star-Telegram.
That doesn’t sit well with one past piano-teacher juror, Veda Kaplinsky, who chairs The Juilliard School’s piano department.
“I don’t quite understand Marquis’ point of view,” she says. “If he wanted to do that, why are there several very prominent university professors on the jury? The issue is finding teachers with integrity, not jurors who never taught.”
Lee doesn’t let such matters cloud her preparation. She knows that soon she will be beneath the stage lights inside the Bass Performance Hall. It’s a 2,000-seat venue built in the style of a grand European opera house. The jurors will be there. And music critics, talent scouts and classical music fans from around the globe will fill the seats. Ushers will prowl the aisles bearing cough drops. Children under 10 aren’t allowed in.
Being a wonderful musician is not enough here.
“Physical and mental stamina counts for a lot in the course of a competition like this,” says Kristian Lin, who covers the Cliburn for the Fort Worth Weekly. “Some really good musicians are not built for that.”
The early rounds feature 45-minute recitals. Then, six finalists play a piano quintet and a concerto, with Slatkin conducting the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra that plays behind them.
As the competition rolls on, the “delicate colors” of the early rounds can become blunted, Lin says. He recalls one pianist was a standout in the early rounds of a past Cliburn, only to “butcher” a Rachmaninoff concerto in the final. Afterward, a woman in front of Lin turned around and said, “He just banged the piano.”
So what do jurors look for?
“A piece of music is like a play or a poem or a novel,” says Kaplinsky, the former juror. “It’s about a human experience. You have to decide what the human experience is that’s being conveyed by the piece of music — and convey that experience to the listener. That’s the mark of a great musician.”
Missing a note or two isn’t fatal, though.
“Arthur Rubinstein — who is everybody’s idol as a pianist — used to say that, from all the notes he misses in one performance, you can have another concert,” Kaplinsky says.
Part of the thrill of the Cliburn — for the audience, anyway — is that no one knows what to expect from one moment to the next. And that thrill doesn’t dim even for those who’ve been coming for years, Lin says.
“You show up at the concert hall, and every day there is something that will potentially blow you away,” he says. “And you never know who it’s going to come from. That’s the excitement of the Cliburn.