They Came to Play: Music Played for Love, Not Money

In the ongoing hand-wringing debates over classical music's future in America, all the focus is on the classical-music business—stats about attendance, budgets, record sales. Ignored in the discussions of the art form's health are those who participate without expecting a paycheck. When 9-year-olds no longer want to pick up a trombone; when moms no longer rush off after dinner to church-choir practice; when people no longer strive to win the International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs (the subject of this documentary), then I'll start worrying. Because when only a tiny professional elite makes contact with Bach and Chopin, and the rest of us sit listening, that's when classical music will be dead. An adjunct of the quadrennial Van Cliburn Competition for professional pianists in Fort Worth, the IPCOA invites 75 entrants, winnowed to 25 and then six. Most contestants were exceptional players as children, but took another career path. Medicine and law are popular, but in this chronicle of the 2007 contest, we're also introduced to a glass-company owner, a Lockheed Martin suit, and a former tennis champ (female, elderly, French). The judges, among them four Van Cliburn medalists, bring generous, clear-headed criteria to their evaluations; a technical glitch won't necessarily disqualify you, since they're looking closer to the heart of the music played. As judge Jon Nakamatsu puts it, "Does that person make me want to hear them again?" Still, the playing here is on a superlative level; repertory for the final round includes an insane 28-minute Charles Alkan etude and the sonata Samuel Barber wrote for Horowitz. Director Alex Rotaru's light touch makes it easy to admire the contestants' discipline and devotion, enjoy the IPCOA's supportive atmosphere, and root for your favorites. Mine won, as it happens—and yes, he did make me want to hear him again.

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