Cliburn International Piano Competition has become the premier career-launching
venue for the world's top young pianists. To have one student among the
30 competitors is a high honor. This year, TCU Prof. Tamas Ungar has three.
a performance in itself, this master teacher job.
vast knowledge of repertoire, composers and performers; daily practice
to perfect intricate fingering or difficult passages; the stamina for
world travel and long days; and the uncanny ability to recognize untamed
talent in young pianists.
Add the patience
of a saint and the tenacity of a pit bull and you have the underpinnings
of a good teacher.
Piano Prof. Tamas Ungar knows that is not enough. One must also teach
subtleties difficult to define.
a prodigy for competition, one must know that hands leaping too dramatically
off the keyboard might cost precious points. And that a distant stare
at the audience might mean a silver, not a gold. The great teacher knows
that focusing too much on the music for the first two rounds could leave
a performer unprepared for the third.
that is not enough. To be a truly master teacher, one must give even more
to the student -- one must freely give his heart.
day, six weeks before the Cliburn began, Ungar strode purposefully into
the lounge at Ed Landreth Hall, a bright smile stretched across his face.
Though he was late for a photo shoot, the striking Hungarian was unruffled.
so sorry," Ungar said kindly, explaining he had gone to fetch a student
who had overslept. "But we were in a lesson until 2:30."
in the morning.
lessons with the three of his 10 students who competed in May began about
10 p.m. There was no time earlier in the day.
to lessons with his other private students, Ungar is the director of the
annual TCU/Cliburn Piano Institute which runs concurrent with the Cliburn
Competition and is a full-time job of its own. Interruptions are constant.
So on most
weeknights, Ungar is an audience of one in the spacious auditorium. He
listens. He advises. He listens again. Then the two -- the master and
the apprentice -- work judiciously through each of the compositions, tweaking
technique and talking about style.
for years, he sits and listens -- to body language, to personality quirks,
to the angst and joy underlying their performance -- understanding that
the piano is not what makes the music.
One is too
controlled, another must reign in his exuberance. One is simply too humble.
Teaching these immensely talented pianists has much to do with things
that have little to do with the Steinway they sit before.
distant memories rise in Tamas Ungar.
lyrical Hungarian accent adding a rich timbre to his words, he'll tell
you about the day that, at age 10, he, his younger brother and their father
ventured out of their house in Budapest for the first time since the 1956
revolution began. For
five days they had hid inside their home while the first wave of the war
raged about them.
fighting stopped, Ungar recalls, they were exhilarated. Free. Free from
communist reign. The joy was short-lived.
father tried to shield it from me as we walked," he said, "but
I have distinct memories of bodies ravaged by revenge, some hanging near
Parliament and the Secret Police building."
year the family escaped to Austria where the young boy, now a refugee,
learned quickly how to navigate the soup and bread lines. His main responsibility
though, was the line for free tickets to the Opera. "Oh, yes, standing-room
only at the Vienna Opera was a wonderful thing,"
eyes sparkling at the memory. In 1957, the family of four landed in Australia,
the farthest place "away from this madness," as his mother had
requested. During the long ship ride to that distant continent, Ungar
learned "the piano was money."
sailors enjoyed his accompaniment on the ship's rickety piano when they
sang. He plunked out chords, they pitched out nickels, which bought the
enterprising boy a cup of soda from a machine.
was the first time I tasted Coke," he recalled with a chuckle. "I
didn't like it much but my friends did so they always got me to play more."
after arriving in Australia, Ungar was again studying piano, this time
with a Russian teacher. By age 20 he'd earned a score of awards and become
the youngest professor ever named to the prestigious Sydney Conservatory
teacher had bigger goals and eventually landed at Indiana University where
he began work on a doctorate. But when students burned the library in
protest of the Vietnam War, Ungar left for London.
On the first
day of a visit to Hungary for doctoral work, he re-met a young woman he
went to kindergarten with. He and Jutka married nine months later.
in London were important to Ungar's development. "Part of having
a profession in music is being able to make a living doing it," he
said. "You have to learn to be a survivor, and that's what I did
was an incredible experience to prove I was capable of being a musician."
A later stint
teaching in San Diego eventually led to a meeting with famed TCU pianist
Lili Kraus, who amazingly had heard Ungar perform in Australia as a teen.
She convinced him Fort Worth was the future of piano.
sat me down one Sunday morning after I arrived here in 1979 -- still in
her dressing gown -- and spoke to me in sort of rough Hungarian since
she'd lost most of the niceties of the language," he said, "and
asked me what I really wanted to do.
said I want to make Fort Worth the center of piano."
are naive. You can't do it alone,
she told Ungar.
if she could only be here today to see this."
THE VAN CLIBURN
Piano Competition, the only privately funded competition in the world,
has been a driving force in the piano arena since its debut in 1962. It
was the first to incorporate a chamber music component, the first to commission
a work from a living composer.
practice of having the competitors play complete works in a performance
setting, as well as other innovations, is now replicated in competitions
around the world. From the inception, TCU has been an integral part of
year, Ed Landreth Auditorium and the TCU campus have been its home. The
list of TCU graduates and faculty intimately involved in its success is
long and impressive. Jose Feghali, the 1985 Cliburn Gold Medalist is an
Artist in Residence at TCU and John Giordano '60 (MM '63), the Cliburn
jury chairman and conductor since 1973, is now a TCU Distinguished Fellow
of the Cliburn are the TCU/Cliburn Institute, founded and run by Ungar
and held annually to teach and encourage young artists, and the new Cliburn
Lecture Series organized by Giordano.
who retired from the Fort Worth Symphony as music director and conductor
last year, has finally found time to respond to public demand and arrange
this series of six free lectures, bringing audi- ences into what goes
on behind the curtain. The topics range from the competition's history
to what the jury (judges) look for.
have to remember that this institution [TCU] was right there at the first,"
he said during the first lecture in the Moudy building. "Without
TCU, there really would not have been a Van Cliburn competition."
intimately involved prefer to call the competition a festival, for, as
Cliburn Foundation President Richard Rodzinski said, "We are indeed
celebrating the achievement of these young pianists, their years of devotion
in turn, rewards the winners by catapulting them into two years of pre-booked
performances. And, in addition to prize money, the foundation acts as
manager for the top six competitors, making all concert arrangements,
from negotiating fees down to rides to and from the airport.
represents every pianist's ideal competition. "There is an opportunity
to get into this profession once every four years," Ungar said, "and
his blessings these days. He knows having a waiting list of students anxious
for his tutelage is an extraordinary situation.
Fort Worth because the community has embraced the TCU piano program and
showers it with support. And he knows that TCU and the Cliburn have a
symbiotic relationship. "The Cliburn is a godsend," he said.
"Without the support of the foundation, the community and the TCU
administration, the School of Music wouldn't have such an excellent piano
To have three
of his students in one competition is singularly rare -- and places Ungar
among the world's most illustrious teachers. His success also puts TCU
on par with the truly great piano institutions, such as the Julliard and
the Moscow Conservatory.
knows a good showing in the Cliburn will make or break a career, Ungar
takes preparations very seriously. But only up to a point. The closer
they get to where the ivory meets the road, the less time Ungar will spend
with these three students.
they compete, they must rely on their own intuitions," he said. "They
need to be preparing mentally those last weeks. I will have done all I
can by then."
asked in early May where he would be during the competition. He responded,
startled, "Well, I have tickets. I'll be in the audience."