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Calgary's Thomas Yu wins 2016 Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition

Robert Rowat

"By the end, I could barely control my emotions," says Thomas Yu via email, describing his first-prize-winning performance at the Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas, on June 25.

Yu, a 38-year-old periodentist from Calgary, Alta., was one of six finalists who played a piano concerto movement with the Fort Worth Symphony under guest conductor Damon Gupton. He chose to play the third movement from Saint-Saëns's Piano Concerto No. 5. "I had only six minutes to give the audience and jury my entire life," he says. "It is difficult to get into that mindset and physicality in such a short time, especially with a third movement, so the key for me was to control my adrenaline. I felt better as the piece went on."

His first prize consists of a $2,000 cash award and a pair of tickets and official guest status for the 15th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2017. Second prize went to Michael Slavin, a retired opthamologist from New York; third prize was awarded to 40-year-old Xavier Aymonod, a strategy consultant from Paris, France. They both played the first movement from Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3.

The prize winners were chosen by an international jury comprising Akemi Alink-Yamomoto (Japan), Angela Cheng (Canada), Olga Kern (Russia), Catharine Lysinger (U.S.), Fali Pavri (India), André-Michel Schub (U.S.) and Nelita True (U.S.).

Yu is no stranger to the world of amateur piano competitions. He won CBC Music's Piano Hero contest in 2015 just a couple of months after being named 2014 Honens ProAm Champion in his hometown of Calgary.

Defining moment

To reach the finals of the Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition, Yu advanced from a field of 70 contestants through quarter-final and semifinal rounds. "It was certainly challenging to stand out," he explains. "I think for me, the defining moment began early on with my selection of Regina composer David McIntyre's Butterflies and Bobcats. Popular among Canadian pianists, it remained largely unknown to the American audience. The people, jury and press adored it, which made my Saskatchewan roots tingle!"

The Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition is run by the same organization that holds the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition every four years. Unlike professional piano competitions, which generally have an upper age limit, amateur piano competitions often have a lower age limit and in the case of the Cliburn Competition, it's 35. At 38 years old, this was Yu's first opportunity to compete.

"The atmosphere of an amateur piano competition is different from a professional one," he tells us. "None of us has to win to launch our careers, so it is not so cut-throat. That said, the tension all week was higher than expected. Nothing can prepare you for the morning of a competition round. Being backstage was nerve-racking as well, but thankfully the Cliburn has 'stage moms' who are there to provide anything you need. The electric heating pad for your hands was a highlight amongst competitors!"

Yu was the youngest of the six contestants to reach the finals, a fact that motivates him. "Michael Slavin, 65, was before me in the final round. His Beethoven Concerto No. 3 was sublime. Seeing how incredibly high the level of playing was for older Cliburn competitors was inspiring to me. I hope to keep playing like them all my life."

He had extra incentive to play well this time: "Above all, I thought about my mother, who recently passed away. I dedicated every note of every round to her, and wished that she would be proud of my playing."

What's next for Yu? "For now, I will enjoy the moment of winning Cliburn Amateur, something I had dreamed to do for many years," he reflects. "I will take some time away from the piano this summer to spend quality time with my wife, family and friends. But the attention from Cliburn probably won't allow me to slow down for long! Soon, I would like to set up something in Calgary for top-level international amateur pianists. I want to organize a masterclass setting where amateur pianists can come to study, play and perform. It would be a great thing for Canada to be established as a centre for amateur pianist development."