The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music news: Physician Christopher Shih wins the 6th Cliburn Competition for Outstanding Amateurs. But is the competition amateur enough? | June 1, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

First, the good news:

Imagine my surprise: I woke up on Sunday morning to hear that NPR’s Sunday Edition included the 6th Cliburn Competition for outstanding Amateurs in its headlines. Granted, Sunday is generally a slow news day, but still. Maybe there is hope for the arts and for all serious if amateur practitioners of them.

Anyway, that Sunday afternoon, the six finalists – chosen from 72 contestants – played their half-hour recitals. They were very good and most enjoyable.

And that night the winner was chosen, by a jury of professional pianists and also by a press jury made up of critics from various newspapers (though not many, I believe, from the blogosphere or broadcast media, especially radio like NPR and TV like A&E.) Perhaps that oversight will be remedied in future competitions. None other than Van Cliburn himself (below left) presented the awards, including the First Prize to Dr. Christopher Shih (below right), a gastroenterologiost from Maryland, just as many observers predicted:

The competition was streamed both live and recorded. I saw it live on my desktop, laptop and iPod Touch — all with great results.

And I did discover a very informative and much appreciated list (a link is below) that had headshots, biographies and recital programs of each contestant for each round as well as the schedule of preliminary, semi-final and final rounds of recitals.

I found many of the contestants impressive indeed.

Dominic Piers Smith (below), for example, who was a finalist but not a winner, played very well, especially his singing version of the Chopin Ballade No. 4. He designs Formula One race cars for Mercedes-Benz.

Ken Iiaska (below), a start-up entrepreneur, was another finalist but not a winner also played exceptionally well, though he chose some odd pieces to perform, including some jazzy variations by Kapustin:

I was impressed with the competition’s even-tempered and unflappable announcer, and especially with the graciousness of the audience. They were appreciative, enthusiastic but respectful, without rowdy cheering or favoritism. They seemed, in short, to get into the spirit of an amateur competition.

And so did the real-time chat room of on-line fans, which you could watch during performances. It was a lot of fun to overhear (oversee?) The color commentary reminded me of the voice-overs you hear during sporting events – except it was silent and witty. How refreshing!

I was rooting for a Provo, Utah housewife, Jane Gibson King (below), who didn’t play the BIG knuckle-busting pieces we expect from pros (Chopin ballades, Brahms’ “Handel” variations, major Beethoven sonatas and Ravel’s “Gaspard de la nuit”) but exactly the kind of things that serious amateurs do. She did some Scarlatti sonatas, and not the most virtuosic ones. She turned in an outstandingly musical and note-accurate performance of Debussy’s “Suite bergamasque” with the famous “Clair de lune” movement. And she did the first Bach Partita with lovely tone and line plus a fewer clunkers plus two beautiful Liszt transcription of songs by Schumann and Liszt.

Which brings me to the bad news: The Van Cliburn Competition for Outstanding Amateurs maybe not be, to my mind, amateur enough.

Too many of the so-called “amateurs” struck me as semi-professionals. They went to conservatories and graduated with degrees in piano performance, only to pursue other careers. Look at the winner, gastroenterologist Christopher Shih (below): He entered the real Cliburn, the professional Cliburn competition, 14 years ago and lost, then made a career in medicine and was now back as an “amateur.”

That seems to me to be akin to an Olympic athlete who ages and then competes in amateur sports. Anyway, he won and so by the rules, he can’t return.

But before you make up your mind, listen for yourself: Here is a link to Shih’s prize-winning final-round performance, very musical and subtle, of the Brahms’ difficult “Handel” Variations:

I think Shih could leave his practice and take up concertizing — though I doubt he would make as much money.

I think I prefer the stricter definition of amateur—not someone who was on the cusp of a professional career as an adult or who might have even had a professional career with different breaks and a bit more luck. I like the amateurs who do it for the love of it (hence the Latin etymology of amateur) and who make mistakes but who use music and playing the piano to enrich their lives.

Then there were the special awards for best Baroque, best Classical, best Romantic and best post-Romantic performances.

Anyway, here are all the winners, with prizes, according to the official Press Release:

Fort Worth, Texas, May 29, 2011—Following six days of thrilling competition rounds, the winners of the sixth International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs have been announced. Over the course of the week, 70 competitors from around the world were narrowed down to a field of 25 semifinalists and then 6 finalists. Each of the remaining talented amateur pianists performed a 30-minute program featuring the works of their choice this afternoon in the Final Round.

Following the performances, the jury deliberated and named the prize-winners:

(Here is a link to a Picasa gallery of photos of the various contestants and awards ceremonies:


Richard Rodzinski First Prize: CHRISTOPHER SHIH (below), Physician (Ellicott City, MD)

$2,000 cash; Cliburn custom spurs, courtesy of LUSKEY’S/ Ryons Western Stores; Pair of Tickets and Official Guest Status to the Fourteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition (2013)

Second Prize: CLARK GRIFFITH (below), Database Programmer (ret.) (Fort Worth, TX)

$1,500 cash

Third Prize: BARRY COUTINHO (below), Family Physician (Pittsburgh, PA)

$1,000 cash

Jury Discretionary Awards: LESLIE MYRICK (below top), Hospital Administrator (ret.) (Toronto, Ontario) and DAVID HIBBARD (below bottom), Railroad Manager (ret.) (Fort Worth, Texas)

$250 cash

Press Jury Award: JANE GIBSON KING, Homemaker (Provo, UT)

Western hat, donated by Peters Bros. Hats

Audience Award: CHRISTOPHER SHIH  (below)

Box set collection of 10 Cliburn documentary films

Best Performance of a Work from the Baroque Era: CLARK GRIFFITH (below)

$250 cash

Best Performance of a Work from the Classical Era: JUN FUJIMOTO (below), Piano Marketing Specialist (Scarborough, Ontario)

$250 cash

Best Performance of a Work from the Romantic Era: CHRISTOPHER SHIH

$250 cash

Best Performance of a Post-Romantic Work: BARRY COUTINHO (below)

$250 cash

Most Creative Programming Award: CLARK GRIFFITH

$250 cash

Fort Worth Piano Teachers Forum Award: CLARK GRIFFITH

“Guide to the Pianist’s Repertoire” by Maurice Hinson.

Top prizes were all quite reasonable: $2,000, $1,500 and $1,000 – no concert tours or booking agents or recording contracts.

All in all, I say Bravo to the contestants who mustered the discipline to learn the pieces and the courage get out on stage to play them in public. And I say Bravo also to the Cliburn Foundation. It ran the competition smoothly and comprehensively in real life and in cyber-space.

Here is a link to the biographies and program repertoire for all 72 contestants (none from Wisconsin this time):

Here is a list to a streaming video of the awards:

And here is a link to the recitals by the six finalists:

You can catch videos of all the performances, from preliminary through final rounds, in archives on the Cliburn Foundation website. Then, after a while, they will get posted on YouTube.

Did you see or hear the Cliburn amateur competition?

What did you think of the event and its presentation?

Who was your favorite performer?

Was it amateur enough for you?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music


  1. I just have to respond to the comments pertaining to Christopher Shih, and mention that he never went to a conservatory and actually majored in Biochemistry. He absolutely fits the description of an amateur but has reached an extremely high level of artistry. Although this is unusual, it does not put him in the category of a professional past his prime, interfering with the amateur spirit. I take this mistake as an extreme complement to my husband.

    Comment by Maya — May 28, 2015 @ 10:39 am

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    Comment by L — October 15, 2011 @ 9:21 pm

  3. I’ve participated in many regional Amateur Piano Competitions over the past 10 years or so, and was one of the Cliburn competitors in 2007, and so therefore I consider myself qualified to offer comments on the question: “Is it Amateur enough?”

    1 My own overall opinion is that the presence of, and really the domination of, Conservatory trained people in these events really doesn’t bother me all that much. I just get a rush listening to all the pianistic excellence, and how good some people really are.

    2 Having said this, the general problem that has been noted in these events is that the competitive element has tended to overwhelm the celebratory aspect, in spite of insistence to the contrary. This has resulted in people with big technical chops playing technically difficult works as the ones generally “rewarded” with Semi-Final and Final appearances, and this in turn forces “big work” repertoire choices.

    3 A couple of the Amateur Piano organizations are providing what I think are good approaches to this dilemma. First, the Berlin Competition has set up two “tiers” of competitive entry, which each entrant pre-selects for themselves. One tier provides the more typically virtuosic element, whereas the second is for those who want to present music with less overtly virtuousic demands. The second is a new one, just starting this year – Piano Appassionata — which goes slightly further and provides a Competition tier but also a Performing tier if people don’t want to compete at all. That one’s in the Philadelphia area (West Chester), and was initiated by Margo Keyser and Carolyn Luskin — two people who’ve made the Colorado Springs Amateur Piano event in my opinion the best experience. I wish them well.

    Comment by Tim Adrianson — June 6, 2011 @ 6:48 am

    • Hi Tim,
      Thanks for your very informative reply.
      I didn’t know about these other two-tiered approaches. But I like the idea very much.
      I do think amateur competitions should be more celebratory than competitive.
      I wonder how other readers react to them?
      I wish you luck whenever you participate in the amateur competitions.
      Keep us informed about how you do.

      Comment by welltemperedear — June 6, 2011 @ 9:41 am

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