From the archives of “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” comes this tale by Clayton Stephenson, a pianist from the 16e Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.
The school that hosted a summer piano camp he attended as a child was being renovated. Outside with the old one were two standing pianos, tossed aside, their destination being the same as a large, empty, ransacked cafe. But for a child prodigy whose family couldn’t afford to bring a piano home, that upright piano was something like knocking oil at Spindletop.
“We didn’t even have a piano at home,” says Stephenson, who used a synthesizer at home. “We took one. It became my practice piano for six years.
Fort Worth is home to 30 of the world’s most breathtaking piano talents.
Brooklyn-born Clayton Stephenson is one of them, dazzling the audience during a 40-minute preliminary recital at TCU’s Van Cliburn Concert Hall on Friday morning.
In the preliminaries, each pianist performs a repertoire of works chosen by the pianist, including the 4-6 minute commissioned work composed by Stephen Hough.
For the judges, he opened with the Sonata in D major, Hob. XVI:37, followed by Hough Marching Band Toccataand ending with transcriptions, Stravinsky-Agosti’s sequel to Fire Bird and Strauss-Godowsky’s Symphonic Metamorphosis on Die Fledermaus.
“I love the audience. The audience is great here,” says Stephenson. “I didn’t understand what Jacques [Marquis, Cliburn CEO] was talking about when he told us about how welcoming the Fort Worth audience is. Walking on the state, I could feel the love, and that they are always listening. They are very supportive.
Stephenson, 23, hopes to be one of 18 to advance to the quarter-finals, starting on Sunday. Twelve will qualify for the semi-finals and six selected will qualify for the final at Bass Hall.
In conversation after her performance on Friday, Stephenson beamed with delight as a cologne bottle sprays cologne.
In addition to his demonstrated ability as a performing artist, Stephenson is also an academic. He is in the dual degree program at Harvard and the New England Conservatory. At Harvard, he will soon begin his graduate studies as an economics major. At the New England Conservatory, he is preparing a master’s degree in piano under the direction of Wha Kyung Byun.
His studies in economic theory keep him grounded and balanced, he says. “I think one of the things with music, and art in general, is that you can get so engrossed in the piece you’re playing that you lose touch with how the world works. The economy brings me back to reality.
He came to Fort Worth already an accomplished pianist. In fact, it’s a return to Fort Worth. Stephenson, won a Jury Discretionary Prize at the Cliburn International Junior Piano Competition and Festival 2015.
There is much more, of course. He was recognized as Gilmore Young Artist 2021; US Presidential Arts Fellowship in 2017; winner of the Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Award; Gheens Young Artist and Young Scholar of the Lang Lang International Music Foundation.
Stephenson in 2022 is a field of the most abundant and flourishing bluebonnets.
It all started quite late and quite by accident when his mother, looking for something to do for her rowdy and precocious 7-year-old, sent him to what he calls “the basement of a school of music”.
There he sat on a piano bench.
At the age of 8, the following year, he was part of the Julliard Music Advancement Program, an outreach program for underprivileged children.
He is grateful for the opportunities public awareness programs have given him. Without them, he wouldn’t be on one of the most prestigious classical music stages in the world.
“One of the things I loved to do was sit and watch the recitals of the Julliard Pre-College students. Full hour recitals. It really inspired me.
He didn’t make it to the Julliard Pre-College program on his first try, but he did on his second, at age 10. Few, if any, had left the music advancement program to join the Julliard Pre-College. Since 2010, only 61 have succeeded, according to the New York Times.
“My teacher at the time, Beth Nam, was so supportive,” Stephenson says. “Tons of extra lessons at no cost. I didn’t have great technique growing up, but I loved the music.
The Morningside Music Bridge followed, a summer camp in Canada that would have been prohibitively expensive for a family of its economic situation, he says, if it hadn’t been free. He was then selected as a young scholar for the Lang Lang Foundation, led by Chinese pianist Lang Lang, which sparked controversy over a song he performed at a 2011 state dinner at the White House.
“I know he gets a lot of flak for his piano playing,” Stephenson says of Lang, “but he really cares about his students. He doesn’t sugarcoat anything if he thinks there’s something you can improve on. Even if it can be hurtful, he will say it. He wants us to succeed.
With Lang, Stephenson performed at Carnegie Hall and the United Nations Assembly Hall. “These things really gave me confidence and inspired me to play even more and improve.”