News and Features

Tale of Two TCU Students at the Cliburn Competition

A pair of TCU piano students are playing for a chance of a lifetime. Both hope they get picked for this Spring’s Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth. It’s held once every four years. KERA’s Bill Zeeble reports the two are among twenty auditioning this week in Fort Worth.

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Mikhail Berestnev knows the odds are against him. By the time this last round of live auditions is over Friday night, the Cliburn screening judges will have heard 132 pianists in Milan, Hong Kong and other cities. They’ll only pick 30. But Russian-born Berestnev is confident. He came to TCU on a piano scholarship and says he felt good about his screening performance: ” I enjoyed to play in Ed Landreth. I think it’s one of the best halls, actually. So I felt very well. Even though I performed first, it didn’t disturb me a lot.”

At age 24, Berestnev is young but experienced. He’s finished at or near the top at competitions in Russia, Barcelona and Australia. But getting a medal in the Cliburn can launch a career. Berestnev’s TCU teacher, highly regarded Tamas Ungar, says both of his students here did well despite pressure that goes with this big competition.

“They always get nervous,” Ungar says. “They always feel they have to give 110 percent whether in the class or whether they do it in front of an audience. My feeling was, that today, specifically, they gave more because of the nerves. It’s a creative nerve, not a nerve that sort of pushes you down.”

Ungar says Berestnev and his other Russian-born student, Anna Bulkina, who’s 25, managed to dig deep, bringing out the music behind the written notes.  Bulkina and her fellow TCU pianist Berestnev back each other – they hugged in the hallway after competing. Like Berestnev,  Bulkina has done well in U.S. and overseas competitions. She also liked her audition:  “There are always things you can improve. I think I did my best.  I felt the piano very well and I feel very comfortable with the piano. Nothing disturbed me,”

All the hopefuls here are trying to get into the Cliburn Competition because it’s considered the world’s most prestigious. Players vie for $175,000 in prizes, recording deals and most important, three years of U.S. and international concerts managed professionally. Cliburn Judge Blanca Uribe of Colombia, knows the benefits.  She competed in this hall in 1966 and won bronze. But f47 years ago, there were no live auditions. And today, she says the world can watch the Cliburn competition on its live webcast.

“The consciousness, especially for instance, coming from South America,  we were so separate from everything,” she recalls. “It took a trip to the U.S. or Europe to really realize, my goodness, what’s happening? Now everyone is aware and everyone has to prepare accordingly.”

And Uribe says, her job may be lot tougher these days. Pianists everywhere now know top competition standards, and they’re meeting them. Her job is to help pick the best for the competition that begins in May. Those 30 will be named March 5th.