This year, the quadrennial Cliburn International Piano Competition has added a new aspect to its contest: teenagers.
From all over the world, 13-17 year old pianists are flying into Fort Worth, Texas to vie for the gold medal. One of these 24 hand-picked pianists from a staggering 160 applicants is Brookline’s own Amir Siraj.
Amir, 15, just finished his freshman year at Brookline High School, during which he participated in varsity crew, founded an Innovation Club, and joined the BHS Camerata Honor Choir. In conjunction with these activities, he is aspiring to be a professional musician. Since the age of four, Amir has been exceeding expectations in the piano industry. He has performed at venues such as New York’s Carnegie Hall and Boston’s Symphony Hall and played alongside the Metrowest Symphony Orchestra and the Quincy Symphony Orchestra. This upcoming competition is possibly the biggest step he has taken so far in his music career.
The first Cliburn Piano Competition was held in 1962 to honor American pianist Van Cliburn’s historic victory at the inaugural Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow. Now going into its fifteenth year, the Cliburn competition has become a world-renowned piano festival, displaying the best of the generation at hand.
I spoke with both Amir and his mother, Aban Makarechian, a month before the competition to hear what they had to say regarding everything from piano to extracurricular activities at Brookline High School. According to Amir he is, “fortunate to be able to maintain as many of my interests as I can…That said, there are times where I have had to prioritize.” As a teenager, Amir has had to make several sacrifices in order to chase all of his dreams. In my interview, Amir explains how he manages to juggle everything.
Brookline Hub: Since this is the first year the Cliburn competition has opened its doors to 13-17 year old pianists for a junior competition, what are your expectations for the event?
Amir: It is already a privilege to be one of twenty-four in the world to be able to compete in this inaugural competition. I see the Cliburn competition as an opportunity for me to share the enjoyment I feel from playing music and hopefully impart some of that joy on the audience. I am practicing pieces for all four rounds, and during each round half of the contestants will be eliminated. My repertoire for the whole competition is about two hours, and some of the pieces I have prepared for the later rounds are my strongest. Of course I hope to be in the final round and win, but there are so many things that I can’t control, including the taste of the judges.
Brookline Hub: In the preliminary round of the Cliburn Junior event, competitors must perform the first movement of a classical sonata, a virtuosic etude from a selected list, and a piece of his or her choice. Can you share with us the selection you have chosen to present in this round?
Amir: For the preliminary round, I’ll be playing the first movement of Beethoven’s “Grand Sonata” (Piano Sonata No. 4, in E-flat major, Op. 7, I. Allegro molto e con brio), Chopin’s “Black Key” Etude (Etude in G-flat Major, Op. 10, No. 5), and the Chopin Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23.
Brookline Hub: You partake in piano practices/lessons/concerts/competitions along with school work and activities every week. How do you prioritize these various responsibilities?
Amir: I am fortunate to be able to maintain as many of my interests as I can. I feel that they inform each other through lessons and failings that translate across all of the things I do. That said there are times where I have had to prioritize. I had to forgo the last three weeks of my crew season as well as a shot at going to nationals in order to spend more time preparing for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It was not an easy decision, but my coach and teammates were very supportive.
Brookline Hub: Can you tell us a little more about your Innovation Club at your high school?
Amir: Sure! I’ve always been fascinated by people who create innovative solutions to significant problems and develop businesses around these solutions. I saw that while BHS has a lot of great clubs, a club to nurture this kind of entrepreneurial, problem-solving skillset didn’t exist yet. So I founded the Innovation Club in my freshman year and recruited like-minded students from across BHS. We’re currently working on several stealth startups, and have entered in two statewide engineering/design competitions where we placed second both times. We also recently qualified as a finalist for the Lemelson-MIT InvenTeam grant. Additionally, we regularly bring award-winning scientific and technological innovators to speak to BHS students.
Mothering a Prodigy
Brookline Hub: How about for you, Aban? What is a day like in the life of a mother who has three active children?
Aban: Lots of planning, driving, supporting, cajoling… in short, parenting.
Brookline Hub: How was the piano chosen? Do any other members of your family play piano or any other instruments?
Aban: Piano wasn’t chosen, per se – there was no “grand scheme” for Amir. His two older sisters were taking piano and voice lessons and naturally Amir felt jealous of them. When the piano teacher would show up at our home, he always wanted to participate in his sisters’ lessons. We were apprehensive about starting lessons at such a young age as not to dampen the joy of music for him. His music teacher was very cognizant of this fact and therefore very careful as she proceeded, but she could see early on that he had an extraordinary talent, as well as perfect pitch. He started piano at the age of four, and didn’t pick up voice until last year, when he joined BHS Camerata as a freshman.
Love What You Do
Brookline Hub: Amir, since you began piano at such a young age, when did you realize that you wanted to carry your music into a professional capacity?
Amir: I fell in love with music from a young age and have always seen it as being a part of me. So the exact point at which I realized I wanted to carry music into a professional capacity is unclear – it was simply my natural progression of love for the piano. I have also been very fortunate to have a fantastic teacher – Helena Vesterman – who has guided me and nurtured my deep appreciation for music.
Brookline Hub: How did you connect with composers such as Larry Bell and Stephen Feigenbaum to perform the world premiere of their music?
Amir: As a part of Angel Ramon Rivera’s Advanced Piano Seminar class at the New England Conservatory, I have been fortunate enough to have gained the opportunity to play some world premieres of living composers. Under Mr. Rivera’s mentorship, I played two premieres of works by Larry Bell, a wonderful composer.
I also used to be a part of a chamber music group (piano trio) at NEC, under the coaching of Rodney Lister. It was there that we were presented with the chance to perform one of Stephen Feigenbaum’s new compositions, a trio titled Clap Your Hands. We enthusiastically accepted, and it was an incredible experience for all of us.
As a member of the new generation, I feel an obligation of not only keeping alive music that was composed hundreds of years ago, but also helping to continue the tradition of classical music by performing the compositions of our times. Contemporary composers are writing the music of our era that will be remembered for hundreds of years to come, and there is nothing like performing a piece with the composer in the audience.
Brookline Hub: What are your summer plans after the competition concludes in June?
Amir: After the competition, I’ll be taking a vacation to the West Coast, and then participating in a music festival for a few weeks.
Brookline Hub: Do have any advice for other teenagers who want to take their talents and hobbies a step further?
Amir: Love what you do, and find a teacher or mentor that is a good fit for you.
Perhaps Brookline will have a new claim to fame – being the hometown of the inaugural winner of the Cliburn Junior International Piano Competition. For now, we wish Amir the best of luck in Texas this month along with future strides in his career as a pianist. The Cliburn International Junior Piano Competition takes place June 21-28 at the Texas Christian University School of Music.
—By Emma Kandrac