The Cliburn’s New Keyboard Crop

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer based in Bordeaux, France, and is a former board member of the London International Piano Competition. 06.09.2013

The Van Cliburn International Piano Competition ended with the results many observers had predicted, the gold medal going to a self-assured Vadym Kholodenko, 26, of Ukraine. He delivered a series of impressive performances throughout the 17-day contest, several of which had the audience whooping in appreciation, including me. 

Italian Beatrice Rana, widely tipped to finish in the money, was the choice for silver, and Sean Chen of the United States won the third-place crystal prize. All three said they planned no further competition activity.

The Cliburn is one of the world’s richest piano competitions, awarding more than $200,000 in prize money including an array of individual bequests. Kholodenko’s gold is worth $50,000 and second and third finishers win $20,000 each. Various concert tours and recording contracts are also part of the winnings. 

The other three finalists -- Nikita Mndoyants (Russia), Tomoki Sakata (Japan) and Fei-Fei Dong (China) -- each took home $10,000.

I was among the half-million Cliburn fans and critics around the world who followed the Competition on the internet webcasts, easily accessed “on demand” from odd time zones such as mine in France until it broke down the last day. 

This year’s Cliburn offered standard competition fare yet in other ways it marked a departure from the past. Founding pianist Van Cliburn, long a mere observer on the margins of the event, died just three months before the opening, in effect depriving the event of its patron saint. And a new president and CEO, Jacques Marquis of Montreal, had been appointed on the eve of the Competition, altering top management influence on the proceedings.

Requirements also changed at the Cliburn this year. Each participant was obliged to perform two 45-minute solo recitals in the preliminary round, then the field of 30 was reduced to 12 for the semifinals in which a 60-minute solo recital was required as well as a piano quintet with the Brentano String Quartet. The final six survivors played two concerti, one classical and one romantic or modern, both from memory – all tolled, a huge feat for such young artists and well beyond some professionals. 

There is general agreement in the world of piano competitions that jurors are impressed by virtuoso turns more than by depth of interpretation. But a backlash is settling in against the “louder and faster” young players.  Marquis has said publicly that he wants to rethink required repertoire for future Cliburns. There is some support for a move toward subtler repertoire – away from Lisztian pyrotechnics and toward the deeper Schubert. Other competitions would be wise to take note.

 

Juror's Ethics

The success of this edition was far from guaranteed. Management turmoil and multiple resignations had rocked the institution in the months prior to opening, and auditions of 132 applicants were marred by overloading the field with students of jurists Yoheved (Veda) Kaplinsky and Arie Vardi, both Israelis and close collaborators. Eight of the 30 came from their stable. Marquis told me in a pre-Competition interview that Mme. Kaplinsky and other jurors would be blocked from voting on their students’ and ex-students’ performances. Actual jury procedures were carried out behind closed doors, however, and competitions are notorious for private vote-trading.

The Competition blog was peppered with challenges to the jury’s integrity – and with emotional defenses in response.

One blogger wrote on Facebook, “And the Cliburn jurors continue to outdo themselves. Corruption, fraud, politics – these are the words that come to mind. A sad day for piano and competitions around the world.” Another had more basic complaints: “We always see the same names on the Cliburn jury and it's just getting stale, much like the competitors' playing.”

One example stands out. Silver medalist Rana has studied in master classes with Michel Beroff, Andrea Bonatta, and Mme. Kaplinsky, all of whom were on the jury. She won the 2011 Montreal International Musical Competition while Marquis was director, and her parents are family friends of Marquis. Marquis roamed the premises in a black T-shirt and tailored sport coat, looking very much the fresh face of the new Cliburn.  But he openly socialized with the Rana family, raising eyebrows among those who noticed.

 

Safety First?

As in most piano competitions, the Cliburn jury suppresses much of the originality competitors might try to inject in their interpretations. Prizes tend to go to safe performers who stick to the score, rigorously observe tempos and play note-perfectly.

Kholodenko clinched his victory with all the above but he also managed to shape a sparkling and carefully colored Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 3 in the final round. It was perhaps his good fortune that the five previous concerto performances had been on the mediocre side. One critic wrote after Kholodenko’s confident interpretation was that he “sounded like the guy to beat”. And he was. 

One Italian semifinalist, Alessandro Deljavan, who carried off a Jury Discretionary Award worth $4,000, appeared to have lost his chance for a place in the finals despite one of the best piano quintet performances of the event. It was a cultural contrast for all to see. As in his other performances, he exuded an Italian joy and passion that many other competitors lacked. His remarkable Dvorak Piano Quintet in A with the Brentano ensemble was played with heart and polish despite minimal rehearsal time. His keyboard enthusiasm drew roars of approval from the audience but apparently not from the more conservative jury.

 

Prickly Management

Although comfortable financially (unlike most competitions), the Cliburn has traditionally demonstrated a provincial prickliness when criticized from outside. Based in Ft. Worth, Texas, home of the late founder, it has never risen to its potential as a mature institution despite 50 years of experience. Criticism of its management or its performances is openly resented.

The most prominent critic, Scott Cantrell of the Dallas Morning News, respected for his even-handed assessments, found himself the object of a “hostile” on-camera interview, he said, intended for an in-house documentary on the competition. Cantrell wrote in his blog that he felt ambushed by the aggressive descriptions of his critiques, and walked out of the interview. He forbade the producers from using the footage but later discovered he was being clandestinely videoed from a distance. His complaints elicited a private apology from CEO Marquis.


Telephone Teaching

If there were a prize for the longest-distance tutoring it would go to Maestro William Naboré of Rome, dubbed the Yoda of the piano world for his long record of Cliburn participation and winning players. This year, one of the five competitors from his International Piano Academy Lake Como, Italy, Tomoki Sakata, was a finalist. Most of his notices were glowing. “His Schumann Quintet sounded like Schumann, and that’s a high compliment,” wrote critic Cantrell.  Naboré had been present for the bulk of the Competition but returned to Italy before Sakata’s final was scheduled. In desperation, they spent two hours and 30 minutes on the telephone, Naboré guiding Sakata note by note through the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1, the same composition that launched Cliburn’s career in Moscow in 1958.

 

The future of the Cliburn is now in the hands of Marquis, and “The eyes of the world are on us,” Marquis told me in a pre-competition interview. He has promised to rethink “all variables”. If these include repertoire, jury ethics and the selection process, the Competition will flourish.

© Clavier Companion, 2013. Used with permission. www.claviercompanion.com 

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