Stage: Wednesday, May 18, 2005
The Van Cliburn International Quadrennial Piano Competition
Preliminaries are Fri-Tue at Bass Performance Hall, 555 Commerce St, FW. $15-30.
For more info,
call 817-738-6536
Rocket 88

Kicking off this weekend is the world’s pre-eminent piano competition — the Van Cliburn.


If you don’t tune in regularly, you might think of the Van Cliburn International Quadrennial Piano Competition, to call it by its full title, as just a Fort Worth event created to lionize a local son. At one point in time, long ago, that’s what the contest amounted to. Young pianist Cliburn was honored with a competition named for him after winning the inaugural 1958 Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow, a major achievement viewed through the lens of the Cold War.
But now the Cliburn has grown into arguably the pre-eminent international piano competition in the world, eclipsing even the Russian contest that started the whole phenomenon. Moscow’s Pravda newspaper calls the Cliburn “a competition, which in the 21st century, has become ... the most prestigious in the world” — a judgment that The Chicago Tribune echoed. The New Yorker magazine says, “In the high stakes piano world, none is more influential than the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.”
Five mini-competitions have already been held across the globe to select competitors for this 12th meeting; from that, 19 women and 16 men have been chosen (the first time women have outnumbered men). Hauling the same jury around to all five locations, the competition applies probably the most rigorous screening process of any similar competition.
First, second, and third place Cliburn winners will each receive $20,000, along with three years of professional management and a possible New York debut. While the Big Apple performance used to be guaranteed, Cliburn officials over the years decided to make sure the chosen pianists were strong enough for an immediate New York debut, rather than making a commitment without reservation. There’s no question, however, that winning the Cliburn is a huge career boost.
True, another Van Cliburn may not surface, but some top-flight talent has passed through Fort Worth on the way to successful careers — and not just first-place winners. Radu Lupu, who won the 1966 competition, has an enviable reputation and a solid career. Olga Kern, one of the most recent gold medalists, is expected to reach international stardom. The 1985 winner, Jose Feghali, is artist in residence at Texas Christian University.
Christian Zacharias, who placed second in 1966, and Rudolf Buchbinder, fifth in 1966, both have big careers in Europe, as does Barry Douglas, bronze medalist in 1966, and Alexander Toradze, second in 1977. Most of the top competitors have gone on to comfortable careers — in teaching, performing, or both.
“What they want most is a chance to perform,” said Richard Rodzinski, president of the Van Cliburn Foundation, which sponsors the event. “Young pianists can’t get concert dates without a manager.” Along with running the competition, the Cliburn also handles hefty managerial duties, booking finalists for major appearances here and abroad. “We limit the engagements to 60 a year,” Rodzinski said. “If we gave them everything that was offered, they’d be playing 120 concerts a year.” No other competition offers this service, which probably explains the record number of contestants every season. For 2005’s installment, 270 pianists vied for the 30-odd available spots.
Having grown up and later worked in the rarefied music community surrounding his famous father, the late conductor Artur Rodzinski, the Cliburn president knows first-hand the needs of performers and the mechanics of the music business, and he seems to be constantly redefining what a music competition is and how it should be run.
The event used to be structured so that once competitors reached the final round — after already performing two full recitals, in the preliminaries and semi-finals — they had to perform only two concertos with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. Not anymore. Rodzinski is requiring that each finalist deliver a 50-minute recital in addition to the concertos. “We want to be sure they have enough repertoire to avoid duplication in their post-competition appearances,” Rodzinski said.
The musicians have great flexibility in choosing their pieces. More than any other attribute, personality appears to be what the judges are looking for most — and music selection offers one more clue. Everyone at this level can play the notes. It’s what performers do with the notes that can lift the music to another level.
Some observers find this subjective element troubling. Unlike skills that can be measured by time, distance, or form, musicianship knows no absolutes. A music piece has many interpretations. (Witness Brahms’ comment to a hopeful pianist who bounded up to the composer’s box after performing one of the maestro’s works and was met with the dampening observation: “Yes, it can be played that way, too.”) Musicians submit to the system as a way of getting a leg up in a tough music world.
Rodzinski is also bringing the competition into the digital age. For the first time, performances will be webcast with audio and video from On-line viewers can vote on their favorites in a special procedure not available to concert-goers in the hall. Two bloggers, Mike Winter and Carl Tait, will maintain interchanges with viewers and offer a stream of impressions throughout the contest on the same web site. (For the Weekly, film critic Kristian Lin will post observations on a blog at
Bass Performance Hall itself will be fitted with nine hidden cameras, and a cameraman will operate a hand-held device down front. During the finals, a jib — a 30-foot high crane-like apparatus — will be used to capture aerial views. The high-definition footage will be the raw material for a documentary about the competition to be aired on national television later this year.
Preliminaries run through Tuesday. The event will go on until early June. l

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