Thirty pianists from around the world have arrived in Fort Worth, vying to win the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. For our weekly State of the Arts conversation, I talked to KERA reporter Bill Zeeble about how this competition got started – and what’s at stake for these talented, young pianists.
Bill this is the 15th Van Cliburn Competition. It’s been four years since the last one. Remind us how this whole thing got started.
BZ Well, it really starts with Van Cliburn, 1958, he’s 23, this tall Texan who was actually born in Shreveport. He’s at the first Tchaikovsky Competition.
And that’s in Russia right?
BZ In Moscow. And it was created, in part to celebrate Russian musicians.They said let’s put on this competition- we think we’re gonna win. They didn’t say that but then Cliburn goes over and knocks everybody out. Especially, the Russians who think ‘my goodness, this guy sounds like one of us.’ They loved him. And he won gold.
And that was significant here in the United States because it was at the height of the Cold War.
BZ It was a really scary time: nuclear weapons were out there and Sputnik had just gone up. And Cliburn comes back an international hero. An American hero certainly, ticker take parade. first music artist, classical artist to sell a million records.
So how did the competition get started in Fort Worth then?
BZ Cliburn comes home, lives in Fort Worth. And a doctor, Irl Allison says ‘I want to start this competition for pianist and I want to name it after Van Cliburn.’ Which came as a shock to Cliburn and as a shock his mother, who was his first teacher. And his mother said ‘don’t worry it won’t be that big a deal.’ And overtime it became bigger and bigger and it’s now a huge deal. It’s among the most prestigious competitions of its type in the whole world.
The competitors in this competition, they’ve already cleared the hurdle, the big hurdle of auditions.
BZ Yeah, there were 300 who applied. Then the 300 get whittled down to 146- and they were heard all over the world, seven cities. Snd so, you had 146 musicians competing and being heard by the judges, who traveled around the world to to these different cities to whittle those 146 down to 30 in Fort Worth.
You actually went to the auditions this year.
Yeah, that was pretty cool. I went to Moscow. Actually, it was cold. We certainly heard a number of them who are now here in Fort Worth. Nikita Abrosimov was here four years ago and they all really come back for one big reason.
“We try to get to the concert career. That’s why we enter competitions. That’s the same thing.“
So also in Moscow, we heard Dasol Kim. He flew in from Berlin to audition, that’s where he lives and studies. He’s from South Korea and he’s 28 so he’s close to the cut off age of 30.
“I think I’m old enough and experienced enough for this competition. I always wanted to try this competition before but, I always felt that I was not prepared enough. It’s my last chance anyways so I was giving myself a chance.“
You can hear construction noise in the background. All the Moscow pianist had to contend with various distractions in that hall. And Cliburn officials say, that’s just part of being a pianist. Sometimes, you get a bad piano or a weird-sounding hall and you have to deal with it because you have to play.
Are there any other competitors that you are keeping an eye on?
BZ Some I heard in Moscow. Yury Favorin, who’s also been in the Cliburn in the past. So anytime somebody comes back you’re kind of interested in them because they have something and they judges believe they have something. So, you want to hear more. There are several artists returning, including one, Tony Young from Canada, who was a semi-finalist in the 2015 Junior Cliburn competition.
That’s for competitors who are under 18.
BZ Right. So, the Cliburn International Competition is for those 18 up to 30. And so now, Tony Young is old enough to compete in this major competition.
What are judges listening for?
BZ These judges have played piano a long long time. They’ve heard pianist all over the world for decades. So, they’re looking for something that makes sense but especially something that moves them.
What’s in it for the competitors? This is so much work and it involves so much practicing. What’s in it for them?
BZ In a word, a career. The gold prize, the top winner gets $50,000, second gets $25,000 and third gets $15,000. But here’s what the Cliburn does: it manages the top winners for three years. If you’re the gold winner you not only have a U.S. concert career for three years, it goes international.