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Van Cliburn moments for piano amateurs

Two Los Angeles-area pianists compete in the sixth International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs hosted by the Van Cliburn Foundation.

May 25, 2011|By Karen Wada, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Nazeli Atayan Rohman-Flynn, left, and Dr. Yvonne Tsai will be heading to Texas to compete in the sixth International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs hosted by the Van Cliburn Foundation.
Nazeli Atayan Rohman-Flynn, left, and Dr. Yvonne Tsai will be heading to… (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)

When she was a schoolgirl in Armenia, Nazeli Atayan Rohman-Flynn went to hear a young American named Van Cliburn play the piano in her hometown of Yerevan two years after he caused a sensation by winning the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958.

"It was incredible," she says. "Everybody was in love with him. All my life I remember his performances when he got the first prize in Moscow, and then in Yerevan."

A half-century later, Atayan Rohman-Flynn, now a 62-year-old Pasadena homemaker, is in the midst of what she calls "another incredible experience." She is in Fort Worth performing in the sixth International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs hosted by the Van Cliburn Foundation, which is best known for the prestigious young artists' competition it started after Cliburn's historic victory.

The week-long event, which began Monday at Texas Christian University, has brought together more than 70 pianists from 10 countries. First prize comes with $2,000, but for most participants the rewards are intangible.

"We help people with real lives live out a dream," says David Chambless Worters, the foundation's president. Unlike entrants in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, these soloists are not looking to launch concert careers. They are music lovers who kept playing despite work and family commitments. Some are conservatory-trained and may once have had professional aspirations. Others are serious hobbyists.

Contestants must be at least 35 and cannot earn their primary income from piano performance or instruction. "By virtue of their age, they have demonstrated their lives have gone in other directions," says Worters. Indeed, the current hopefuls — the eldest of whom is 79 — include attorneys, executives, a screenwriter, a kindergarten teacher and a race car designer.

The competition, which is now held every four years, began in 1999 and was modeled on a contest in Paris. It was the first program of its kind in the United States, says Worters, "but the amateur scene has grown since." Candidates submit written applications and recordings of performances. This year, two spots went to the winners of YouTube contests.

The pianists play in up to three rounds before an audience, viewers of a live webcast (cliburn.org) and two juries — one made up mainly of musicians and scholars and the other of music critics (this year including Times music critic Mark Swed). Judging is based on criteria such as style and form, Worters says, "but these competitors come from all walks of life with different levels of training. It's a very uneven playing field in that sense, so the juries' primary consideration is the musicianship. This isn't only about the difficulty level."

Besides Atayan Rohman-Flynn, the other local entrant is Yvonne Tsai, 40, a Downey pediatrician. She began to study the piano as a child in Taiwan, continued to play after she moved to Southern California when she was 15 and earned a bachelor of arts degree in music from UC Berkeley before entering medical school.

Tsai says she wanted to be in the contest "to set a goal for myself" because as a doctor, wife and mother of a son in elementary school "I was playing only when I had the time" when she wasn't preparing for the competition. She says that she doesn't "actually like to play in front of people too much. But in order to improve as a pianist you have to do that."

Atayan Rohman-Flynn has performed solo and with orchestras since she was a girl. A graduate of Yerevan State Conservatory, she moved to the L.A. area in the early 1990s and has played "occasionally," she says, winning several awards and, most recently, appearing with the New Valley Symphony Orchestra in Hollywood in February. She is married to a retired engineer and spends her time "practicing when I can, but also cooking, washing dishes and watching my grandchildren.

"There are a lot of other competitions but I didn't go," says Atayan Rohman-Flynn. "This one is different because of Mr. Cliburn." She has seen him once since Yerevan — at the Hollywood Bowl in the '90s — and looks forward to seeing him in Texas. "I do this to participate in something he is interested in. Also, I love music. And I love the piano. It's my life."

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