One by one, the chairman of the jury called their names -- the six who had made it to the final round of the Sixth Van Cliburn National Piano Competition.
The six who did not stay numbly in their seats staring at the stage, smiling frozen smiles. For hours Wednesday night, they had waited for the jury's decision. Some had waited in the homes of the Fort Worth families whose guests they were during the competition, others waited with black eyes on the scuffed benches in Landreth Hall where they had played.
"As I call the names of the six finalists, I ask that they come up to the stage and face the music," said John Giordano, the jury chairman, and called them up in the order of their appearance in the competition -- the winner of which is guaranteed two years of bookings and a clear shot at international stardom.
"Number five, Zhu Da Ming . . ."
For a moment the contestant from the People's Republic of China seemed confused, but then understanding and joy broke in quick succession on his face, and he unfolded his long fingers from their tense tangle and walked onto the stage.
He had come a long way to take these short steps. His mother, an amateur soprano, had introduced him to the piano when he was 9, and from the beginning it was all he wanted to do with his life. But that was before the cultural revolution, when the Red Guards came and smashed the piano in the conservatory, and he dared not play the one at home and the long days and nights were suddenly empty of music.
When he was about 17, Zhu Da Ming was sent to an island near Shanghai to work on a farm for three years. His mother wrote him letters, urging him not to forget "the sound of the music in his mind." And every evening he practiced, on the hard wood of his bed, on the windowsill, on whatever surface his imagination could fashion into a piano keyboard.
He stayed on the farm for three years. When the harsh chords of clashing ideologies had died away he came back to Peking. He eventually gained admittance to the Central Conservatory of Music, having taught himself enough to enter with the equivalent of an undergraduate degree. At the conservatory he works and studies 12 hours a day because, he says through his interpreter, he "loves music, because there is so much to learn, because one must treasure every moment."
He loves the music of Mozart best. "He says it has great simplicity," his translator explains, searching for the right word. "It is very plain." Zhu Da Ming adds something in Chinese, and his translator smiles her understanding."He says that the sound of it, the rhythm, is like the sunshine," she says. "Very simple and very sweet."
Zhu Da Ming has not seen much of Fort Worth yet, beyond the home of his host and those in which a few parties were held early in the competition. He likes American food, his translator reports, although he finds it odd that no one here seems particularly fond of hot boiled water, and the parties are a bit bewildering since there always seems to be much more to drink than there is to eat. "He wonders if what he has seen is typical of American," his translator says.
No, he is not that nervous about the competition, he says. It is a way to find out how good he is, how much he has to learn. When he left Peking, his mother gave him one piece of advice -- work for the glory of the motherland. And that, says Zhu Da Ming, is what he does.
Giordano called out the other names, and onto the stage came Jeffrey Kahane, quick, intense and Californian, a favorite of the crowds. He likes to talk of being in tune with himself, of the competition as "a spiritual challenge" and of music as "a miracle -- it's nothing, it's nowhere, you can't touch it, you can't hold it in your hand, and yet it is this thing that brings unending joy."
Then came Andre-Michel Schub, the one to beat, according to the music critics. His music, elegant and austere, like fire reflected in a prism.
Santiago Rodriquez was next, dark eyes flashing signals of a romantic persona that only listening to his Chopin makes believable.
Then came Christopher O'Riley, who laughs at the cloistered music world where a colleague can run in flushed with the triumph of cutting 30 seconds off his scherzo and who describes his own style as being more of "the barnstorming school."
Finally there was Panayis Lyras, his diffidence a disguise for a rock-hard self-confidence.
The chosen six were ushered backstage, while those left behind lingered for a moment. "Yest," said competitor Edward Newman finally. "It hurts. You want to play some more. It's as if I'm waiting for the fifth shoe to drop." Long pause. "So close," he said, with a brace attempt at a smile. "And yet so far away."
Next to him was Hung-Kuan Chen of Taiwan, gamely looking for the good side. "Well," he said, "I'm happy I won't have to play the Mozart concerto now. That would have been a lot of work."
"Oh boy," sighed Newman.
"Oh boy," sighed Chen.
Tell me, Andre-Michel Schub had said to Steven De Groote while they were still waiting for the judges' decision. "When you were in this, when did you start to relax?" Steven De Groote simply shrugged. It has been four years since he won the Van Cliburn and the memories have faded. Now he's beginning to see another side to them. "I'm just now facing the realities of competition," he had said earlier. "It's one thing when you're going through it. You think, 'Well, how else will we sort ourselves out?' But now I sit up in the balcony and I see the atmosphere and it's a murderous atmosphere. They sit there with their pencils, scribbling, 'His left hand is too heavy in that movement . . . It's terrible."
The shy, skinny, shabbily dressed kid from South Africa who won the Van Cliburn in 1977 is now a young man who moves through the thicket of jurors, well-wishers and anxious competitos with an insouciance that seems all the more remarkable because he has just brought in his career for a major overhaul. "I'm going to teach piano," he says in even tones. "I'm going to teach piano at Arizona State University at Tempe, which, I am told, is the sixth largest university in the country, and I'm damned pleased with myself. And if I want to teach piano, I'll teach piano. I'm the one in control of my life, not anybody else."
It is suggested to De Groote that he is sounding just a tad on the defensive side about a decision that is not exactly on a par with disappearing into a Trappist monastery for the rest of his life. He sighs. "Once you've won a competition," he says, "people assume that they have, well, an inherent interest in your career, but I don't think that the number of concerts you do in a year is the right measure of a career. I did them and I know I was good at what I did. But you know, the day I won this damned thing, one of the jurors came up to me and said, 'Watch it, you'll burn out, you'll see.'
"And there I was, I had this silver cup and this gold medal and this gold watch and this check and two years of concerts lined up, and I thought, 'I can handle this, what's he talking about.' But he was right."
Now, says De Groote, 28, he knows exactly what the man was talking about. "Once I was in Sioux Falls, S.D., playing a concert, and from there I went the next morning to Taipei where I played a concert that night. From ther I went to Tainan the next night and Taichung the next and to Hong Kong after that and from there to Kalamazoo, having crossed 12 time zones. That kind of thing I don't need. But at the time I thought, 'That was pretty impressive, look at me.' But now, I'm four years older and I don't feel four years older at all, I haven't lived. I don't belong anywhere.
"Right now I belong in hotel rooms and airports and when I do get back home to Philadelphia, it is only to open my American Express bill and pay it. I don't need that pace. I've seen what happens to people who keep it up. They don't play so good anymore and they know it. I'm more interested in what I play when I'm 50."
At Tempe, De Groote says, "I'll have a library to go in and paths to walk on and colleagues to whom I'll have something more interesting to say than, 'Hey, I've got a plane to catch.' I'll have friends. Let me tell you about friends. Friends are people who, even if you don't see them for two years, are still your friends. I could count the number of friends I have on the fingers of one mutilated hand. The friends I used to have I lost. I had become someone else.
"And friends aren't the worst thing you lose. I think I'm incapable of falling in love now. Every time you do, you go away for three months and then you come back and they say, 'Well, I have something to tell you.' You know what I want? I want to play the fourth Beethoven piano concerto and I want to finish and to look up and be able to say, 'I like my house, I like my new sofa, I feel good.' Not, 'Oh my God, my suitcase is still at the airport and where did they send my other bags.'"
Still, De Groote is not knocking the Van Cliburn, for all of his travails. "Without it I'm not even sure I could have survived another four years in this country. It was an enormous boost to my ego and to my career." The financial rewards, however, he says, are not what they appeared to be on the surface. "At the time I won they gave the money to you spread out over the next four years. I had to immediately buy a tuxedo, a tail suit, a piano. I had to buy airplane tickets in advance. The money was gone in three days." Gone nearly as quickly, he says, was any sense of glamor attached to his profession, to the glimmering moments backstage, the rush of admirers, the ladies in long evening gowns. . . "Ladies in long evening gowns tend to fawn over anything in a spotlight," De Groote says wearily. And groupies "tend to get on your nerves. They tend to want things. Lessons, for instance, and sex. It doesn't contribute to one's self-esteem in the slightest."
But there have been moments, wonderful moments -- a wonderful piano, a wonderful conductor, a wonderful audience. There are moments. One can't ask for more. "After all," says Steven De Groote, "I could be a dentist and fill teeth all day and fight commuter traffic." And with that vision of the inferno before him, he gets up to go back to the competition and to the six hopefuls who intend, each and every one of them, to succeed him.
First, the thrill of victory. Now, the agony of victory. Seconds after the six finalists have been chosen, they are all herded backstage for an object lesson in the immediate future. Dazadly, the six listen to the hoarsely shouted instructions of their keepers about press conferences and television appearances and interviews. Most of them seem not to have heard a thing since their names were called out, but all of them are brought rigidly to attention by the appearance of six cowboy hats distined for their respective heads as they stand with their arms around each other and Van Cliburn for the benefit of the photographers.
"no," says Santiago Rodriguez, his eyes wide with horror. "I refuse."
But of course he does not refuse, no one refuses, and the pictures are taken while stage directions are shouted from the side.
"Hey, that last one was ludicrous, it was terrible, no smiles, can you smile, please?"
"Hey, a little animation over here!"
"You, over there, take your arm off Van's shoulder."
"Talk to me, let's hear a little chatter!"
"Jeffrey, do you want to wave your hat for me?"
"Do I want to wave my hat? I can't believe you guys are doing this."
"I still hope I have some music left in me after this."
It went on like this for hours, despite the muffled protests of one of the finalists, who threatened to leave in the middle of the madness. Nope, said one veteran observer. He'd never do it. "You could put a dead chicken on his head and he'd still perform. That's what these guys are here for."