Director Peter Rosen didn’t know he’d have a feature-length documentary when he arrived in Fort Worth to shoot behind-the-scenes webcast footage of the 2009 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. When a feature story started to unfold — namely the early success of blind Japanese pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii — Rosen knew enough to step out of the way and let the story take center stage.
While A Surprise in Texas is rather straightforward in style, feeling at times like a made for TV documentary, it is surprisingly emotionally involving. At its heart, the film is like a sports film – a competition in which you connect with the characters and then root for their success. But there’s an added element that lifts its emotional power even further: the soundtrack of the greatest composers and pieces in the classical repertoire.
The Van Cliburn Competition provides the perfect ingredients for an interesting story. Young phenoms from around the globe descend every four years on Fort Worth, where they are engaged in an intensely competitive environment (one that could determine their future careers) while staying with local host families.
The film follows a number of the contestants, many of whom are dynamic, charming, and inviting. There’s the intense Romanian pianist, who brings his own stool to every rehearsal and performance. And the warm Italian woman who burns a finger while cooking her host family pasta. A bubbly Korean girl throws herself around the conductor after an exuberant performance in the finals. But it is Nobuyyki Tsujii, or Nobu, who steals the show. Sweet and shy, the young man seems almost dimwitted off the stage, but on stage he manages to produce some of the most moving musical moments you have ever heard on screen.
The film’s use of music tells both a human story and the story of an art. Watching these young people perform, it is impossible not to become deeply engaged with them. We also become entranced by music itself, as if we are hearing these classic pieces by Beethoven, Chopin, and Rachmaninoff for the first time.
“These artists are the priests of their art,” a competition judge says in the film. After a wrenching hour-and-a-half, you can’t help but agree that there is indeed something holy about the experience.