Special Report

Competing at The Cliburn

The new challenges facing Van Cliburn’s legacy.

By 4.22.13

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The first edition of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition since the founder’s recent death is well under way as 30 preselected young pianists prepare for two weeks of playoffs beginning May 24 in Fort Worth, Texas. Piano and music blogs are uneasy over this upcoming new edition.

The new President and CEO of the Cliburn Foundation, Jacques Marquis, acknowledged in a telephone interview that “The Cliburn,” as it is known in the piano world, is at a crossroads. “The eyes of the world are on us,” he said. Life without the inspiration of Cliburn himself, who died two months ago of bone cancer at 78, will never be quite the same.

Enriched by Texas money, The Cliburn has long been one of the most important events in the crowded world of piano competitions. Recitals and finals are made available via Internet webcasts and piano hopefuls tune in worldwide to learn how to compete. The top prize is $50,000, up from $20,000 in the last edition and now one of the largest piano purses in North America.

For 51 years the competition has attracted the elite of young pianists from Asia, Europe, and the United States. This year 12 countries are represented. Perhaps most surprising is that the U.S.–based contingent dominates with eight players. Six others come from Italy, four from Russia, three from China, and one each from Australia, Chile, France, Japan, South Korea, Poland, and Taiwan.

“This is a particularly strong group -- those I know are outstanding,” said former piano chair at the Juilliard School, Jerome Lowenthal, in an interview. Juilliard dominates this year’s event more than ever, some say grossly, with 11 students of the 30 in contention.

Trouble is nothing new in major piano competitions. Careers are at sake and artistic temperaments are in evidence. As Cliburn’s health declined, however, this Competition began to show particular signs of instability. Turmoil dogged the management ranks of the Foundation and the Competition staff itself with a series of abrupt resignations in the run-up to this year’s edition. The source of the staff problems has never been fully explained but the chronology reveals internal tensions.

  • Alann Sampson, a long-serving Cliburn loyalist, suddenly resigned as Foundation interim president and CEO about six months ago. She had been expected to remain onboard until after the 2013 event.
  • Marquis had just come aboard as executive director, serving on an interim contract.
  • Ms. Sampson had stepped into the job after David Worters quit after only six months in the job.
  • Worters had been recruited to replace Richard Rodzinski, who resigned after the controversial 2009 competition following 23 years as Foundation head.
  • The elevation of Marquis to permanent president and CEO was accelerated after Sampson’s departure and Cliburn’s death, taking effect March 20, just three weeks after the funeral. No new executive director is planned.

Marquis, who comes from a strong management background as co-founder and director of the Montreal International Musical Competition series (he also trained as a pianist), hopes to be the man to stop the drift and guarantee the integrity of future Cliburn Competitions. “I will be looking at every variable,” he said.

The event, known locally as “the crown jewel” in the Fort Worth cultural scene, is still smarting from the much-criticized finals of 2009 in which a blind Japanese and a young Chinese shared first prize, prompting a damaging headline in the Wall Street Journal, “What was the jury thinking?” The Journal critique, by arts commentator Benjamin Ivry, called the results “shocking” from an artistic perspective and said the Cliburn had a history of “odd picks.” The blind Japanese, Noboyuki Tsuji, was branded a mere “student level” player. Marquis did not comment on the choice of the 2009 winners but said there will be no more shared prizes under his watch.

Persons close to the Competition, who declined to be quoted for fear of exclusion, say the power behind the throne is now Yoheved (Veda) Kaplinsky, current chair of piano at the Juilliard School. She served on the three-person auditions jury and helped steer an unprecedented seven of her own students into the competition plus two that she shares with a Juilliard colleague. Another three are students of Arie Vardi, her own teacher, a fellow Israeli now based in Hannover.

Both Kaplinsky and Vardi will be on the jury in Fort Worth but Marquis said they will be excluded from voting on their own students’ performances. Jury integrity is frequently contested at major competitions, due to the incestuous nature of the piano world. Teacher-student relationships are sometimes manipulated and difficult to pin down.

Marquis recently removed teacher-student details from official Competition biographies because, he said through his spokesperson in an email, he wants public attention to focus on the competitors, not on such relationships.

But some observers complain that the dominance of one teacher, Mme. Kaplinsky, has become an issue in itself. One leading European teacher tells me that the selective editing of the biographies hides her powerful role.

Among issues agitating the young piano students at Juilliard is Kaplinsky’s group of seven competitors, five of whom are Chinese. Teachers agree that Chinese ascendancy in the professional piano world can be traced mainly to commitment to intense study but resentment among Americans and Europeans simmers just beneath the surface. According music bloggers, corridor gossip at Juilliard jokes that Kaplinsky “keeps Chinese pets.”

Conservatories and competitions in recent years have taken in larger and larger numbers of Asians, mainly Chinese and Koreans, prompting these jealousies and rivalries. “I don’t envy Mr. Marquis for the onslaught of talk he must hear,” said one prominent Juilliard teacher. Indeed music blogs have been abuzz with questions surrounding this year’s crop of contestants. One incident that puzzles observers is the unexplained decision to move the Asian round of preselection auditions from Shanghai to Hong Kong. As a result, instead of the expected flood of Chinese aspirants, only six turned up because Hong Kong is not easily accessible for the bulk of Chinese.

Marquis seemed unperturbed by the apparent Asian glitch, saying, “Most of the best Chinese players are already studying in the U.S. and Europe.” But he acknowledged that auditions for the 2017 edition will include better liaison with Shanghai and Beijing conservatories.

The larger question is the ultimate value of piano competitions, which have proliferated in recent years. “Every other street corner has one,” quipped pianist Leon Fleischer in an interview. And as for the quality of playing, he said, “What you wind up with is the player who offends the least number of jurors.” He is a former Cliburn juror but no longer participates.

Recognition of a top prizewinner can sometimes lead to a successful career, as it did for Cliburn himself in Moscow in 1958. His explosive talent created such a stir that Soviet organizers were obliged to pass over native contenders. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev then had to be consulted before the prize could be awarded.

Winners often find that the top prize leads to great personal stress. Lowenthal worries that young players may not be psychologically prepared for the rigors of a sudden concert tour. Winning can be “so overwhelming,” he said, that young players struggle to meet “exaggerated expectations.”

The big piano competitions are nevertheless here to stay because students value them as international testing grounds for their talent. A prize can be translated into a recording contract and other financially rewarding activities. But managing the “variables,” as Marquis called them, is proving a herculean challenge.

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About the Author

Michael Johnson spent 17 years at McGraw-Hill, including six years as a news executive in New York. He now writes from Bordeaux in France.