The title is misleading, since there’s very little that is startling about the final verdict in “A Surprise in Texas,” Peter Rosen’s workmanlike docu about the 13th Van Cliburn Intl. Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas. Even viewers who can’t tell the difference between an octave and an eggplant will be able to guess early on, thanks to Rosen’s disproportional allotment of screen time to competitors, which of the six finalists will triumph. Currently playing limited theatrical runs (as is another Van Cliburn docu, “They Came to Play”), pic will air on PBS in October.
Not surprisingly for a pic commissioned by the Van Cliburn Foundation, “Surprise” sounds mostly admiring and upbeat notes while following young pianists — ranging in age from late teens to mid-20s — through three grueling weeks of performances before demanding judges and capacity crowds during the 2009 competition. Juror Menahem Pressler frankly notes that, among all the hopefuls that ever have won top honors at the every-four-years competition, there have been only “a handful that have meant something to the world of music.” But the grand prizes include not only cash but recording contracts and performance tours, so the stakes are high and the competition intense.
Long before the lineup is reduced from 29 participants to 12 semifinalists, and then to six finalists for a decisive round of performances with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, a clear favorite emerges: Nobuyuki Tsujii, a blind young virtuoso from Japan. Accompanied by his doting mother, Tsujii — whose childlike enthusiasm is by turns engaging and offputting — is encouraged by his well-to-do Texas hosts, John and Carol Davidson, who blithely dismiss any carping by a local music critic about their guest’s competition performances. The audience’s standing ovation, they pointedly note, counts for more.
Among the other competitors, only two make similarly strong impressions: Zhang Haochen, a boyish Chinese pianist who comes off like a not-so-distant relation of the “McLovin’ ” character played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse in “Superbad,” and Yeol Eum-son, a charming South Korean who prepares for her performances with a regimen of rope-skipping and stretching exercises.
For all the intriguing and/or affecting backstage glances at the competitors on their own, “Surprise” is most effective as a study of the demanding challenges of musicianship when, during its final third, Rosen covers the give-and-take sessions each competitor has with conductor James Condon prior to their final performances with the Fort Worth Symphony. Condon proves a charismatic screen presence, and his interplay with the competitors — along with his subsequent comments on that interplay — probably should have been the entire focus of another pic.
Classical music buffs will enjoy the varied selections played throughout, but may regret that “Surprise” offers only excerpts, not complete performances. Pic makes clever use of split-screen imagery during expository and scene-setting sequences.