Amateur musicians vie for a title in ‘They Came to Play,’ a documentary that explores competition

“They Came to Play” is a sly title. The movie isn’t about sports, as is implied. Rather, it’s about people with a competitive spirit that, while not duplicating that of the big-time athlete, suggests it.

Alex Rotaru’s documentary follows the lives of several contestants in the Fifth International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs, hosted by the Van Cliburn Foundation on the Texas Christian University campus.

The players come from all over the world. Seventy-five musicians begin, then 50 are cut for the second round, and the finals are comprised of just six. It’s hard to imagine playing piano all your life and then being given 10 minutes to show your stuff.

The film, which screens Friday to Sunday at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, raises two central questions.

First: Is the difference between a professional and an amateur merely one of if and how much you’re being paid? This is of particular interest in an area ” or “market,” as the pros refer to it ” like ours when so many artists, performing and otherwise, may or may not get paid to produce their work, but still have to hold regular employment in an unrelated field just to keep body and soul together.

As one contestant in the film, Henri Robert Delbeau, a doctor, says, “I have a day job, so I’m not too worried.” Another confesses that not having to rely on music for a living frees him to find it within himself.

The other big question is, if you have a talent, are you obligated in any way to use it? Most of these musicians abandoned playing the piano for several years as they concentrated on making a living or raising a family, or both, but the prevailing feeling is that, yes, if you can create or interpret beauty, you owe it to the human race to do so.

But back to the pro-am question. What I saw was that many of these people didn’t pursue going pro, because they lacked that obsessive quality that would force them to practice 10 hours a day and a willingness to be separated from their loved ones for months at a time. To them, music is an important thing, but it isn’t the only thing.

Two of the people we spend time with are very different, despite their similarities. One is Greg Fisher, who runs a glass shop in Edmond. The other is Drew Mays, an opthamologist from Birmingham, Ala. Both are outgoing and honest about why they stayed amateurs. Mays comes out with the most honest statement about performing: “Doing it in front of people is a lot different from doing it in your boxers in your living room at midnight.”

We hear bits of their performances, but the film’s emphasis is on the spirit of the competitors and not on the music itself. Rotaru’s movie breaks no new ground as a documentary and could be, as art, the work of a gifted amateur.

The fascination comes from being in the company of people whose personalities are not that different from our own, but who have extraordinary talent. “Doug Bentin

Doug Bentin

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