Fort Worth library patrons revel in Cliburn competitor’s conversation, concert

Jonathan Mak (The Cliburn)

Each of the 30 musicians competing at the 16th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition stays with a host family, but a handful of pianists expanded their Fort Worth connections by volunteering for the “Adopt-A-Competitor” program.

During Cliburn competition years, some pianists are paired with local schools where they perform and typically talk about their home country and career path. However, when the school and concert schedules didn’t line up this year, Cliburn organizers had to get creative. 

“They reached out four or five months ago and said, ‘We typically do this Adopt-A-Competitor thing in the schools, but that’s not really going to work this year.’ And so they were thinking about what if we did them with the libraries?” Theresa Davis, communications manager for the Fort Worth Public Library, said.  “We were like, absolutely. They’re a great community partner, and we love being able to bring performances to different parts of the city.”

The connection seemed like a natural fit for the library system, which champions local music with an independent streaming service and recently launched an instrument lending program

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Davis’ colleague, music librarian Rita Alfaro concurred, saying part of the library’s mission is to inspire learning across platforms.

“They hear a little bit about these pieces. They become interested in these pieces and that’s when they start to explore and learn. And hopefully the library can provide some of that insight for them as well,” Alfaro said. “So if they want to get a little bit more into music or maybe this sparks an interest in them wanting to learn to play piano or wanting to play an instrument, all of that is just really important exposure for kids.

About 40 people sat in neatly spaced chairs under the awning at the Golden Triangle Library on the northern side of town while Canadian pianist Jonathan Mak performed Haydn’s “Sonata in A-flat Major, Hob. XVI:46” and the first and final movements of Ravel’s “Gaspard de la nuit.”

Seven-year-old Oliver Zuniga sat on his mom Sadie Murray’s lap throughout the performance.

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I’ve grown up in Fort Worth, and so the Cliburn has always been this very prestigious event,” Murray said. “And it’s very cool to have an opportunity to participate and listen to world-class musicians at our local library. It’s very exciting, and Oliver is very curious about music as well.” 

Oliver said he likes music, but isn’t planning to be a professional musician, though he did sign up for violin lessons the night before. He and his mom both heard some of the themes that Mak discussed before performing, with the first piece sounding like waves and the second evoking a goblin causing mischief.

“I think the second song really hit me,” Oliver said. “I think I just liked how he tried to make the sounds feel like real sounds.”

A few feet away, one little girl waited patiently to take a photo with Mak after his performance. 

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I talked to two of the younger kids who are both taking piano lessons. And, of course, the most important thing is like passing (it) on to the next generation as well and seeing them grow,” Mak said. “As an artist, you just want to inspire them to keep going and keep at it. The process is very long, but you have to trust that the results will show in the end.

For him, participating in the Adopt-A-Competitor program was a no-brainer. 

“It’s always very heartwarming to play for the local audience, and I think it’s a treat for both them and for me as well,” Mak said. “And like I mentioned earlier in the Q&A, any chance to just perform for anyone you should just take it because every opportunity helps.” 

Fort Worthians will have the opportunity to hear Mak perform Hadyn again when he competes in the preliminary round at 2:30 p.m. on June 2. Ravel is also in his competition repertoire, but audiences waiting to hear that performance will have to cross their fingers that he makes it into the quarterfinals.

Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at or on Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

This article was originally published by Fort Worth Report.