A version of this review also appears in Friday’s Weekend Look section of The Oklahoman.
“They Came to Play”
The question of what really separates professional artists and musicians from amateurs is set to stunningly beautiful music in the documentary “They Came to Play.”
Alex Rotaru’s engrossing and tuneful film chronicles the Fifth International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs, which the Van Cliburn Foundation organizes every four years in Fort Worth, Texas. The contest is open to musicians 35 and older and brings together 75 of the best amateur pianists from around the world. In this case, “amateur” isn’t a reflection of the musicians’ abilities, only of their non-musical occupations.
Before the 2007 event, Rotaru traveled across the country and to Europe to interview about a dozen contestants. His trek brings him to the Edmond home of Greg Fisher, a fourth-time competitor who met his wife, Miho, at a previous Van Cliburn contest. The gregarious Fisher chats frankly about the cocaine addiction that derailed his life, the hazards of his day job in his family’s glass cutting and repair business, and the special request he made to his wife: that she sit out the 2007 contest so he wouldn’t have to compete against her.
The entrants also include an energetic eye surgeon from Birmingham, Ala., who wants to represent his often-maligned state well; a lovelorn New York doctor with a habit of changing his contest program at the last minute; a Frenchwoman retired from playing professional tennis and coaching her country’s national team; an attorney from Phoenix, Ariz., who lost his hearing in one ear during a battle with cancer; a high-achieving defense contractor with no formal piano training outside a few years of childhood lessons; and a Russian immigrant from Kansas City, Kan., who studied with his wife, a professional pianist, at the Moscow Conservatory – and considers making music together “the biggest threat to our marriage” because of their quarrels about how certain pieces should be played. Esfir Ross, a Moldovan native living in Oakland, Calif., steals the movie and the hearts of the Fort Worth crowd with her lively spirit and joyous performances.
But all the performances, including the extended versions offered as bonus features, are a joy to hear and witness, as the competitors play selections by Chopin, Mozart, Liszt, Bach, Prokofiev, Alkan and Schumann and other celebrated composers with remarkable skill and feeling.
“They Came to Play” inspires as it shines the spotlight on these astoundingly talented pianists and on the virtuosic Van Cliburn, whose musical bridge-building during the Cold War seems largely forgotten here in America. But the music becomes bittersweet at the realization that most of the contestants will never have the opportunity to make a living or share with a wider audience their amazing gifts.
Fortunately of them, the Van Cliburn Foundation will host its sixth International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs May 23-29 in Fort Worth.