05/29/2013 02:16 pm ET Updated Jul 29, 2013

A Cameraman's Bird's Eye View at the Cliburn: It's Not What You Think

The other night as we walked back to our cars parked outside of Bass Hall, the final notes of Petrushka not long since fluttering in the air around us, I had a quick conversation with two cameramen. Before they included me in the conversation I walked quietly behind them, having traded in my heels for flip flops now that the lights of the webcast were no longer shining. All I could do was smile at the enthusiasm they shared for what they'd just heard. They'd been deeply impressed by the final performer of the evening and were talking animatedly about his playing. They were talking about it the way people who don't really know the music or the instrument talk about it, unashamed to be unabashed in their compliments, voicing lots of exclamation points and sound effects in regards to the sheer pyrotechnics and I loved listening in. But then the tallest one turned to me, I guess I hadn't been so discreet after all.

"He was really good, right?!", he asked this, looking deep into my face for validation of his own extremely positive impression. I was stuck because as the webcast host I am determined to be a non-critic here at the Fourteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. I only tweet about what's awesome, beautiful, striking, raucous, mellifluous and amazing to the point where by the end of the day I have to write down more superlatives out of fear for becoming repetitive in my compliments. I guess I figure that enough journalists, bloggers and critics abound, so no need for me to cover crunched notes and minor memory slips. But this guy insisted, so I said something to the effect of, "Yes, this was a really good recital for him. It showed a lot." He settled for my generic hedging and carried on as we walked about how fabulous (another superlative) this competitor was and then he said something that was so unexpected.

He told me how as a cameraman her hears the people around him after the performances quite clearly. To them, he is invisible so they don't mind their manners. He said, "You know, with sports we watch these huge, skilled athletes compete and do incredible things and we marvel. We say, "Gosh I could never do that!" But here, I watch these incredible musicians do next to impossible things and the poor guy gets done and people say, "Hmm, I didn't like the way he played that section. I would have done it this way or that way. And I'm thinking I'm pretty sure that was darned amazing!". All I could do was laugh in astonishment, he was so right. At sporting events we marvel, at Classical music events, we critique. At least that was the impression this young cameraman (who I later discover was also a musician in high school) was left with. How sad is that?

Of course, we harshly critique our sports gods as well. But that's usually because their victories and failures are tied to our own, think the NBA and NFL. They're causing our team to lose a game or, worse yet, not make the playoffs. If we're the gambling type, our favorite athlete might be costing us real money on his bad day at the office. But there's something deeper at play in the case of the Classical music experience, where so much of the audience is filled with connoisseurs, serious amateurs, professional musicians and professional critics. When a young pianist wanders off the well trodden path, it costs us nothing but our set-in-stone ideas of how a piece should be played. When the artist misses a note or has a slip, only he bears the brunt of suffering over whether his fate has been sealed by an unintended dissonance. But we grimace as if he committed a cardinal sin. When he plays with his heart on his sleeve or even mugs ugly while playing, we aren't physically hurt by the emotional outpouring, are we? Yet we feign to be, using words like "painful", "offensive" and describing performances that the audience has cheered as "train wrecks" and "disasters".

I fear it's this venom that is the same thing that repels newcomers away from the Classical music experience and further thickens the stinky atmosphere of snobbish elitism. It's all rather odd because you'd think this atmosphere of people "in the know" would render sympathy instead of the snarky commentary found on blogs by anonymous and supposedly vastly knowledgeable music-makers. When confronted with the chronic critic who's so easily and eagerly judging someone's "disaster of a performance", I ask them innocently, "So how did it go for you when you played it last, live on a big stage?" Funnily enough, they usually haven't quite gotten around to doing that just yet. I happen to like my critics weathered by the actuality of performing under glaring stage lights, having seemingly impossible repertoire deadlines and under the scrutiny of another critic's pen. Unfortunately, there aren't too many professional critics walking around carrying those credentials. To be fair, same goes for my sportscasters. I like to know they've felt the crunch of a tackle before they judge a quarterback for backing down from a hit.

The good thing in all of this is despite the snippet overheard by the cameraman, the overall atmosphere at the Cliburn is warm, more like a festival than a competition, all of the competitors say so. The audience stands easily to their feet, generous in their ovations for their favorites. Sometimes they even shout out "bravo!" after only the first piece. They want desperately for the young pianists to feel the love. Shouldn't we all?