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PBS Presents a Prime-Time Musical Competition, Sans Simon Cowell
August 31, 2010  | By Tom Brinkmoeller

Anomaly alert:

Wednesday night at 9:30 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings), a network will broadcast a competition during which no devious alliances were formed, no overstuffed mogul fired anyone and -- though music is center-spotlight -- there was no connection whatesover to Simon Cowell. No weigh-ins; no texting of votes; no mile-high performance pastries.

Instead, gimmick-free and purely entertaining television.

A Surprise in Texas is an engaging and very watchable documentary about last year's Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. The event is held every four years in Fort Worth, Texas, and attracts the best young classical pianists in the world for three weeks of one of the most prestigious modern music competitions.


Twenty-nine men and women started the competition. Each performed a solo, and from that 12 semi-finalists were chosen. Each of the 12 then performed with a string quartet, as well as another solo. Six finalists then were selected to perform with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. From those, the three medalists were chosen. Even though the winners were chosen more than a year ago and the names of those who won are public (all the details are on the Cliburn website,) part of the drama for many viewers will be in watching how the performers fare.

Some of the artists are lightly profiled, and each is a unique and interesting personality, which helps engage viewers more deeply in the drama. Performance footage of these amazingly talented young artists will make the 90-minute program a treat for anyone who loves to experience extraordinary musical talent.

More than 70 performances were recorded over the three weeks, each shot with six cameras. In addition, the program includes rehearsal, backstage and non-performance footage that better reveals the personalities of the performers.

It's amazing such a easy-to-enjoy program resulted from all of that activity. So many people involved in so many different activities could have turned the program into a muddy mess. Maybe it's because this was the fourth time Peter Rosen has executive produced the program that the result is clear and confusion-free. It's said that marathon runners find the races subsequent to their first easier, only because they know what to expect.

Rosen and his company spent six weeks in Fort Worth last year. He personally worked as many as 22 hours a day, and the crew was just as focused. (In addition to putting together material for this program, they were responsible for a worldwide live-stream Webcast of the entire competition.) They returned to New York with more than 300 hours of footage. He and two other editors each took a third of the events and effectively distilled those 300 hours into 90 minutes of cohesive, entertaining and one-of-a-kind television worth watching.

If you know people who are convinced television has locked out culture, let them know about this program. It will change their minds.

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