A surprise in Texas

A Surprise in Texas is director Peter Rosen’s acclaimed documentary of the 2009 Van Cliburn Competition.  It is sold in Japan under the title Nobuyuki Tsujii in 13th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition bundled with a CD of his Cliburn recitals.
This is the documentary the viewing of which drove me into a fit of Nobu fever.  In the American version, competitors other than Nobuyuki are featured, but there is no question that the star is Nobuyuki.
In interviews, Rosen said he was disinclined to make yet another documentary of the competition until he heard of Nobuyuki Tsujii, who is the focus of this gripping film even as it covers some other contestants.   The documentary was aired on the Public Broadcast System (PBS) in the U.S. in September 2010 and is now widely available on DVD.

The documentary won the 2011 ECHO Klassik Award for Best Music DVD Recording of the Year (Documentation).

A surprising change of heart

ZEN T.C. ZHENG, Houston Chroniclhttp://www.chron.com/entertainment/article/A-surprising-change-of-heart-1706938.php
Published 05:30 a.m., Thursday, May 13, 2010

Filmmaker Peter Rosen was inspired during the filming of the 2001 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Photo: Anne-Marie Rosen / HC

Filmmaker Peter Rosen was inspired during the filming of the 2001 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Photo: Anne-Marie Rosen / HC

 Peter Rosen's latest film, A Surprise in Texas, is aptly a surprise.

“There was no intent to make the documentary originally,” the New York-based filmmaker said of his project about the 13th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, which was held in Fort Worth last year.

With a budget of $500,000, Rosen and the Van Cliburn Foundation, which has commissioned him to document the quadrennial event since 1989, agreed there would be no film this time other than live-streaming the event on the web.

But Rosen changed his mind when Japanese pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii, one of the 29 contestants from around the world, emerged and claimed the crown of the Cliburn, one of the world's most prestigious classical music contests, in a tie with Haochen Zhang of China. South Korean Yoel Eum Son received the silver.

Blind since birth, Tsujii, then 20, captivated the audience and the jury with a technically fearsome repertoire, rendered with precision, passion and poetry.

“I had to keep from crying,” said juror Menahem Pressler. “God has taken his sight, but given him the physical endowment to encompass the greatest works of piano. For him to play the Chopin concerto with such sweetness and sincerity, it's deeply touching.”

“Nobu was the reason do make the film, to show what one can achieve against such great odds,” Rosen said.

The documentary brings the viewer backstage and into the daily lives of the six finalists in Fort Worth. Last month, it won Best Cinematography and the Audience Choice Award for Best Documentary at the Beverly Hills Film Festival.

The film opens at Angelika Film Center and other theaters across the state today. Rosen talked about the film on the eve of the opening.

Q: What's the big surprise as suggested by the title?

A: First, Nobuyuki Tsujii became a co-winner, as a blind person, in such a prestigious and tough competition. Secondly, there was a tie for the gold medal. And then we changed our mind about making a film.

Q: Classical music seems to be a staple in your nearly 100 films. How did you become involved in these projects and what's unique about doing films about the Cliburn?

A: I got an assignment to make a documentary about Leonard Bernstein in 1978. Then I began to meet other classical musicians, and quite a few musical projects followed. One of the ingredients that's very exciting about the Cliburn is the contest itself. The audience gets more and more excited waiting for their favorite pianist to win. There are always unique stories about the contestants.

Q: Nobuyuki Tsujii particularly captures your attention. Do you see him as a story of human triumph rather than just an artist with exceptional abilities?

A: Yes, that's really what I had hoped would come through in this film. It's not so much about the competition, but it can motivate people with hurdles in their lives to overcome their problems. We feel there would be a much bigger audience because of that one message that Nobuyuki carries through.

Q: This international event bares a strong Texas stamp. Was it your conscious effort to capture that spirit?

A: Yes. It traces back to Van Cliburn in 1958 as a young man from Texas winning the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Russia and (coming) back to start the Van Cliburn competition in 1962. Since then, people from around the world came to Texas. It shows music can bridge differences between countries. They came and lived with host families and experienced Texas hospitality. In the film, Texan Garrett Tucker made a symbolic statement that he felt the Bulgarian pianist (EvgeniBozhanov) he was hosting was like a son to him.

Q: How has your experience of documenting the Cliburn evolved over the years?

A: The technology. We used to have very large cameras and each required a crew of four or five people, with heavy coaxial cables all over the hall. Now we use super lightweight high-definition cameras with one person on the crew. The technology has made it possible to get much more intimate personal coverage. You end up with several hundred hours of materials over a three-week period and we used to FedEx everything to New York to edit. Now with laptops we work in an edit room in the basement of the concert hall overnight. Whatever was shot that day, we were able to put it on the Web the following morning.

Q: What recognitions have you received for your past documentaries about this competition?

A: I won the Directors Guild of America Award and a national prime-time Emmy Award for my 1989 production "Here to Make Music: The Eighth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition." In 2001, I won the Peabody Award for "Playing on the Edge: The Eleventh Van Cliburn International Piano Competition".

Q: What are you working on now? Any plan for the 2012 Cliburn?

A: Yes. I’ve already been asked to work on a retrospective documentary to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Cliburn competition. Right now, I am making a film about Jascha Heifetz, one of the greatest violinists of our time.


Wednesday, August 03, 2011



A Surprise in Texas: The Thirteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, the Peter Rosen-directed film chronicling the 2009 Cliburn Competition, has won the 2011 ECHO Klassik Award for Best Music DVD Recording of the Year (Documentation).

Each year the Phono Akadamie, the cultural institute of the German music industry association, recognizes the most outstanding and successful recordings by national and international classical artists with this prestigious prize-one of the best established and most well known music awards in the world. Prizewinners from a broad range of categories are determined by a judging panel comprised of personalities from politics, the arts, and media, as well as the classical wing of the German music industry association. The award ceremony will be held on Sunday, October 2, 2011 at the Konzerthaus Berlin.

A Surprise in Texas goes inside the 2009 Cliburn Competition to highlight several competitors, including 20-year-old Nobuyuki Tsujii of Japan, blind since birth; 19-year-old Haochen Zhang of China, the youngest competitor; and 23-year-old Yeol eum Son of South Korea, recently named 2nd prize winner at the 2011 International Tchaikovsky Competition. Also featured are Conductor James Conlon, the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, and the Takács Quartet. After debuting at the Vail, Beverly Hills, and DALLAS International Film Festivals, the film enjoyed a statewide Texas theatrical release in May 2010. It then received phenomenal reception from a nationwide PBS audience on September 1, 2010 when it aired at primetime in nearly all of the 50 top markets, reaching over 105 million households. Through partnerships with EuroArts Music International, NHK, and Avex Classics, the documentary was also broadcast internationally and distributed on DVD with great success around the world.
(Source: http://www.kmozart.com/kmozart/?cat=classical+music&region=1)
The atmosphere of the piano world's most demanding competition comes vividly across, as do the personalities of the finalists: blind Nobuyuki Tsuji wins all hearts as he collects his prize.”
BBC Music Magazine, January 2011 http://www.prestoclassical.co.uk/search.php?searchString=surprise+in+texas+dvd

A&S: It must have been a dream to have Nobuyuki Tsujii, the blind pianist from Japan, in the competition. What was he like to be around?
P.R.: He communicates through his music. So it’s really a matter of silent communication with him and observing him – the way he got to know his host family. I think it’s very moving. When he first got there, we were there when he first came into their home. He felt the flowers in the front yard and with his hands, he felt the Cliburn flag flying over their door. And then he came to the piano and touched the whole thing – from the tip of it all the way around to the keyboard. And I realized we were going to pretty much shoot a visual style with Nobuyuki because, No. 1, he didn’t do a lot of talking and No. 2, didn’t speak English.

On the IMDB (internet Movie Database) linke for the film , http://www.imdb.com/video/wab/vi3768714265/, the segment shown is not the "official" Cliburn trailer, but the part of the documentary where Nobuyuki was announced as the co-medalist, possibly the trailer used for the Japanese version.


This is just a speculation.  Rosen freely admits that he made the documentary with Nobuyuki as the focus, but the Cliburn Foundation, out of consideration for the other competitors, has to put on a neutral stance, at least in public.  Hence the cluttered cover photo of the DVD.   But take a look at Mr. Van Cliburn's own reaction at and after the award ceremony and there is no doubt who is his favorite.  And there is absolutely no doubt who Peter Rosen made this film for if you look at the ending of it.   (Note: Van Cliburn, the American pianist, is the name sake of the competition but not directly related to its adminstration or the judging.)


Here's a review of the film posted by me to amazon.com:

I viewed this documentary for the first time on PBS, initially following the television broadcast nonchalantly while working on my computer. By the end of the film, I was in tears and on my feet.

Peter Rosen has given us a gripping and sensitive portrayal of the contestants, the jury, the musicians and other people involved in the 13th Van Cliburn Piano Competition. Rosen has been criticized for focusing too much on one competitor in particular, the young Japanese Nobuyuki Tsujii. Personally, I am thankful that Rosen did  that. I became increasing drawn to the film as I started to take note of Tsujii. At the time of my first viewing, I was unaware of his blindness nor the outcome of the competition, so the gentle build-up of admiration for this seemingly ungainly young man worked perfectly on me. I was entranced by the piano performances and touched by the footage of Nobuyuki's interaction with his Fort Worth host family, the Takacs Quartet, the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, and conductor James Conlon. One scene that I can't get out of my head is that of Tsujii's mother standing alone backstage, her hands clutching at her heart and her face turned heavenward, while on stage Nobuyuki performs Rachmaninoff Concerto No 2 in the final round of the competition.

In a world beset with troubles and uncertainties, it is a privilege to witness a miracle that blossoms from a perfect storm of extraordinary talent, indomitable human spirits, and unconditional love. Bravo to Peter Rosen!

Footnote: The music ("Whisper of the River") that plays on the soundtrack as the final film credits roll is composed by Nobuyuki Tsujii -- a fitting end note.

The official trailer of the documentary 

http://www.imdb.com/video/wab/vi3768714265/ - a more Nobu-centric trailer uploaded to IMBD

A review of the documentary

My own review of the video as appeared on amazon.com
A 2010 article by the Cliburn Foundation about the film http://www.cliburn.org/uploads/pdfs/CliburnNews%20Spring%202010.pdf
A review of the video that faults it for its focus on Nobu (which I disagree with) http://www.slackerwood.com/node/1610

In Japan, the show was shown on NHK's Educational TV (ETV) on November 22, 2009.  Here is a program description at http://www.nhk.or.jp/etv21c/update/2009/1122.html, copied here for preservation

ピアニストの贈り物 ~辻井伸行・コンクール20日間の記録~

写真・左:ヴァンクライバーン国際ピアノコンクールの舞台となった Bass Performance Hall(バースパフォーマンスホールでの演奏)シューマン・ピアノ五重奏曲
写真・右:辻井伸行 2歳3ヶ月 。 母親いつ子さんの歌に合わせて初めて「ジングルベル」を弾く

写真・中央:ピアニスト ヴァン・クライバーンと記念撮影する辻井。 ヴァン・クライバーンは1958年、ソ連が国の威信をかけて創設した第一回チャイコフスキー国際コンクールの優勝者。アメリカの英雄となる。
写真・右:伸行さん(20歳)と母親・いつ子さん。 テキサス州フォートワースでのコンクール20日間をいつも側で支え続けたいつ子さん。

ア メリカテキサスで行われた20日間に渡る辻井さんの挑戦を最初から最後までそばでずっと記録し続けた一人のアメリカ人がいた。ピーター・ローゼン。Lバー ンスタインやヨーヨーマ、Pドミンゴなどクラシック界の巨匠たちの演奏を記録してきた音楽プロデューサーである。ローゼン氏のカメラは辻井さんのテキサス 到着から、過酷なコンクールの舞台裏、そして辻井さんが栄光を勝ち取るまでの20日間をすべて記録している。その映像からは母親いつ子さんとの二人三脚、 ホストファミリーの温かい支え、これまでカメラが入ったことのない審査の現場、共演するオーケストラと指揮者との行き詰まるやりとりなど辻井さんがいかに 厳しいコンクールを勝ち抜いたのかが改めて伝わってくる。
ローゼン氏は言う。「最初は全盲という興味で撮影を始めたが、次第に一人の偉大なピアニ ストの演奏に魅せられていった。辻井の弾くショパンは巨匠ルービンシュタインの叙情性を持っている」。辻井さんの演奏を聴いたアメリカ人の聴衆は「あなた の才能は神様からの贈り物よ」と彼を讃えた。