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Elvis, Meryl & Michael at the Cliburn: The Intangibles of "It"

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Literally, the toe of his dress shoe appeared from behind the small partition that shielded the pianists from the audience, especially used when they wanted to take a sip of water or dab the sweat from their dripping foreheads in between pieces. But in his case, he hadn't yet played a note of his second recital. Nevertheless, the audience reacted unreasonably, hooting and yelping, whistling in an overly enthusiastic welcome back to the Bass Hall stage. Funny thing was he hadn't said a word to them in their first meeting, hadn't sung one panty-dropping lyric, or swiveled narry a hip, but they adored him nonetheless. The audience didn't even know this kid, but they loved him, from his stride to his stringendos, even with only one prelim recital under his belt and a long grueling road ahead in the Fourteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. So how come he made them swoon so? Because he had "it," that thing that makes you like music you once ignored, that makes you cheer when that's not usually your way of behaving. He gets you, impregnating the pauses when he feels you reveling in the rests. His tremolos tangibly tickle you. He eagerly rushes you over the edge of a cliff with his runs, or possibly dares not to give you what you want because he knows you want it so badly. Either way, he keeps you on your toes and on the edge of your seat simultaneously. You don't necessarily know him any better when he leaves the stage, but you want to. Therefore, you've just got to hear him again. He's a powerhouse, like Elvis. That's his "it."

Or maybe it's more like hers where she pulls you in because you can see it's where she lives, in an organic space that looks like it feels like home to her, so you're so glad she invited you in. Her "it" is less audacious and more introspective. She makes you feel a bit like an overly self-conscious caveman and makes you want some of her unselfish music-making for yourself. Her purity is her "it." She's more of an aspirational figure to everyone in the hall, a cause for pause, someone that makes you rethink the flash and dazzle that's come before her. You know in your heart she's the real deal. It's as if music were created for her but still she is its servant. Something about her face is open and unassuming, you buy it because she's obviously not selling anything. She seems to protect the music so you find yourself wanting to protect her and the innocence she brings to the stage. She's an otherworldly talented darling, like Meryl Streep. That's her "it."

Finally, there's an "it" that flattens us. It comes from a place of awe, a sheer understanding that we're no where close to this person's level. We can't aspire to be like them because in our hearts we know it's impossible. What he's got is for him and only him and we're just lucky enough to watch him do what he does. He's so far above us we can't be jealous for risk of looking foolish. We could nitpick him if we dared but all it would reveal would be our own insecurities, because it's obvious in many ways he's flawless. Flawless enough not to pay attention to his flaws, that is. Worse yet, it's business as usual for this guy, we can see it in his face. This is what he does, what he was born to do. Even worse still, he works his butt off and we feel more like slackers for knowing that fact. That means he's not just gifted but he deserves to be right where he is. And we'll do everything to keep him there, so we can watch. He's an inimitable force, like Michael Jordan. That's his "it".

That's right, I've seen Elvis, Meryl and Michael at the Cliburn. If classical music were sitting on the highly visible plains shared by popular music, movies and sports, I have no doubt the rest of the world would see them, too. Because they get "it."