Apr 23rd 2013

Competing at The Cliburn

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

The first edition of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition since the founder’s recent death is well under way as30 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 stake 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.

Originally published April 22, 2013, by American Spectator. Publsihed here with the kind permission of the author and American Spectator.

 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Mar 19th 2019
Last week, a far-right extremist killed at least 50 people – including a three-year-old child – worshiping at two mosques in the New Zealand city of Christchurch. Neither white supremacy, nor racially motivated terrorist attacks carried out in its name, are new phenomena. Yet the response to far-right terrorism remains thoroughly insufficient.
Mar 12th 2019
Allegations of Russian meddling in the affairs of Western countries have been a persistent feature of Western politics since the Cold War. Claims of Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election are only the most recent in a long series of suspected conspiracies across the past century or so. But Russian political discourse is also riddled with conspiracy theories. Everything bad that happens in Russia is traced back by some to one or another anti-Russian plot hatched in the West.
Mar 10th 2019
My Soviet school built a mesh fence around its yard. Every week, tardy kids who wanted to cut through the yard tore a hole in the fence. Every weekend, the administration fixed it. But the hole would reappear the morning after. This went on forever. I wish US President Donald Trump, the fence builder of the West, had gone to my school. The Soviet Union was a country of fences, barriers, and walls. Everything was prohibited, locked, and guarded. Warning signs were phrased in no uncertain terms: “Do Not Enter: Death!” “Strangers Are Forbidden.” “The Border Is Closed.” Barriers didn’t stop people from ignoring the warnings. But they complicated things.
Mar 8th 2019

 

WASHINGTON, DC – It seems that every time I write about Donald Trump’s presidency, I pronounce it to be in more trouble than ever. This time is no different: he and his presidency are indeed in more trouble than ever. And yet that may not prevent him from winning again in 2020.

Mar 7th 2019
The Brexit process has exacerbated many of the disunities within the UK’s territorial constitution................polling in England suggests that many people think breaking up the UK is perhaps a price worth paying to deliver Brexit.......... At the referendum, only two of the four component parts of the UK – England and Wales – voted to leave the EU. This was enough to swing an overall UK-wide majority in favour of leave, but it went against the will of the Scottish and Northern Irish electorate. In both these parts of the country, significant majorities voted to remain – 62% and 55.8%, respectively.
Mar 6th 2019
Watching Michael D. Cohen, US President Donald Trump’s former lawyer and self-described “fixer,” testify to the House Committee on Oversight and Reform was a remarkable spectacle to behold. Here was a man who was hired by Trump to behave like a gangster. And he did that to perfection. When The Daily Beast was about to report on allegations by Trump’s first wife, Ivana, that her husband had raped her, Cohen barked at the journalist working on the story: “So I’m warning you, tread very fucking lightly, because what I’m going to do to you is going to be fucking disgusting. You understand me?” That journalist was hardly alone. Cohen’s job was to threaten anyone who got in the way of his old boss. He lied to congressional committees, paid off prostitutes to stop them from talking about their affairs with Trump, and much else. Cohen, who will soon begin serving a three-year prison sentence, has become what Mafiosi (and Trump) call a “rat.”
Feb 27th 2019
Extracts: "Some political catastrophes come without warning. Others are long foretold, but governments still walk open-eyed into disaster. As the possibility of a no-deal Brexit looms, most analysts agree that there will be severe economic and political consequences for the UK and the EU. And yet a no-deal Brexit still remains an option on the table....." ".......Although the consequences of a no-deal Brexit will be much less terrible, there are similarities in certain patterns of thinking and political behaviour, from the few who embrace disaster to the systemic pressures which prevent compromise. Avoiding disaster in 1914 would have required framing the stakes of the July crisis in less zero-sum ways and refusing to rationalise a general European war as an acceptable policy option. It required leaders with enough courage to compromise, even to accept defeat, and for states to offer rivals the prospect of long-term security and future gains in exchange for accepting short-term setbacks."
Feb 25th 2019
US President Donald Trump’s administration has underestimated China’s resilience and strategic resolve. With the Chinese economy slowing, the US believes that China is hurting and desperate for an end to the trade war. But with ample policy space to address the current slowdown, China’s leadership has no need to abandon its longer-term strategy. While a cosmetic deal focused on bilateral trade appears to be in the offing, the sharp contrast between the two economies’ fundamental underpinnings points to a very different verdict regarding who has the upper hand.
Feb 21st 2019
Extracts: "......after three years of referendum-induced turmoil, there is finally a new move, a brave move, by the eight Labour MPs and three Conservative MPs (and counting)......There are no policy announcements, no real statement of principles, and there is no leader or political platform. And yet, this policy-free political movement is of incredible political importance........this is an act of direct action, based on the concept of prefiguration. That is, the actual policy statement at the heart of the formation of this movement is the formation of the movement itself. There is no need for grand policy statements right now."
Feb 21st 2019
There is a fascinating chapter toward the end of Alexis de Toqueville’s Democracy in America titled “What Kind of Despotism Do Democratic Nations Have to Fear?” in which the author attempted something truly extraordinary – to describe a social condition which humankind had never before encountered. We find him trying to put his finger on something which does not yet exist, but which – in his extraordinary political imagination – he was able to foresee with startling clarity.
Feb 20th 2019
From Trump’s very inauguration day speech, written for him by the fascist gadfly Steve Bannon and man still without a prom date Stephen Miller, it was apparent that the 45th president was a constitutional crisis waiting to happen. And now, without our realizing it for the most part, the constitutional crisis is here.
Feb 11th 2019
The first step to defending Europe from its enemies, both internal and external, is to recognize the magnitude of the threat they present. The second is to awaken the sleeping pro-European majority and mobilize it to defend the values on which the EU was founded. Otherwise, the dream of a united Europe could become the nightmare of the twenty-first century.
Feb 7th 2019
Watching a sophisticated democratic society knowingly walk into a predictable and avoidable national disaster is a rare and alarming experience. Most British politicians are well aware that leaving the European Union with no agreement on the post-Brexit relationship will cause enormous damage to their country. They are not sleepwalking into the abyss; their eyes are wide open. A minority of deluded ideologues doesn’t mind the prospect of Britain crashing out of the EU with no deal. A few chauvinist dreamers on the right, egged on by sections of the press, believe that the bulldog spirit of Dunkirk will overcome early setbacks and Great Britain will soon rule the waves again as a great quasi-imperial power, albeit without an empire. Neo-Trotskyists on the left, including Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the main opposition Labour Party, seem to think that catastrophe will spur the British people to demand true socialism at last.
Feb 4th 2019
We’re off to the races - the 2020 presidential races, that is. Since the beginning of the year, at regular intervals, new candidates have been coming forward to announce their intention to compete for the presidency. Some are interesting and/or exciting, while others frankly leave me scratching my head and asking “What are they doing? How on earth do they think they’re going to be elected?”      
Jan 29th 2019
Extract: "As it happens, on that Friday night when Trump buckled, I was at a restaurant where Pelosi and her husband, Paul, were dining with another couple. When the House Speaker left her table, customers and staff alike applauded her. A waitress standing beside me was nearly in tears. She choked out, “We need someone who will fight for us.” "
Jan 28th 2019
Recognizing that opinion in Parliament is moving strongly against leaving the EU on the terms proposed by May, with a growing number of members even in favor of a second referendum to test whether we should leave at all, some right-wingers have flirted with the idea of trying to close down the House of Commons for a time. They want the government to be able to get its own way without any democratic opposition. It is a sign of their desperation to get Britain out of the EU whatever the constitutional or economic cost. Is May prepared to get to grips with this? If she runs away from the task, despite growing Parliamentary unease about the path we are on, Britain is in big trouble.
Jan 25th 2019
At the end of last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia had completed final testing of an “invincible” new hypersonic nuclear-capable missile, the “Avangard,” calling it “the best New Year gift” for his country. With Putin seeming to up the ante on his increasingly frequent doomsday rhetoric, should the world be bracing itself for a nuclear conflict?................In recent months, popular support for Putin in Russia has declined sharply, with his approval rating falling from over 76% to 66% in the second half of last year. At the same time, a kind of neo-medieval thinking, focused on the restoration of autocratic monarchy and the supremacy of the Orthodox Church, has been gaining prominence in Russia. Putin’s fire-and-brimstone rhetoric may actually reflect the mindset of these fundamentalists, who view nukes as a “practical solution” to the world’s problems.
Jan 24th 2019
Over the past three decades I wrote more than two hundred articles about Israel, envisioning it to be a democratic state, independent and free, a champion of human rights, a force of unity for world Jewry, united in its citizenry, admired by its friends, envied by its detractors, and above all at peace with the Arab states and especially with the Palestinians. My vision about Israel was founded on my deep sense of the Jews’ turbulent and tragic history and their yearning for a home of their own in which to live in peace and security. As the years went by, I became increasingly disillusioned with Israel’s endemic political disunity, its inability to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians, the growing public complacency, the loss of the country’s unity of purpose, and the abandonment of its moral responsibility.
Jan 22nd 2019
China’s strategy for economic growth has been a work in progress since Deng Xiaoping launched the country’s “reform and opening up” in 1978. While the last 40 years of reform have been far from error-free, the government has displayed a willingness to adapt, as well as a capacity for navigating complex transitions, supported by a healthy internal policy debate. But how is China’s development model likely to evolve in the future, as external conditions pose new challenges to economic growth? A defining feature of China’s four decades of reform has been the state’s evolving role in the economy, about which there is still significant domestic disagreement. Some argue that the state – and, by extension, the Communist Party of China (CPC) – must retain a prominent role, in order to uphold the social stability needed to sustain economic development. Others claim that spurring the innovation needed to reach high-income status requires the state to be less like a market participant and more like a referee, regulator, and arbiter of economic and social priorities.
Jan 16th 2019
Consumer studies academics have been picking up on changing habits for a number of years. This includes an increased ambivalence towards consumption itself: people are buying less often and less overall. This is particularly true in the clothing industry, where research shows that millenials are especially unforthcoming – even after you factor in the shift to online retail. A lack of bricks and mortar did not, for instance, prevent online fashion retailer Asos from shocking the City with a profit warning shortly before Christmas. The American car industry is another harbinger of generational change: sales are stalling because younger people seem less interested in ownership. The average age of a new car buyer in the US was 50 in 2015. Or to give one more example, witness Apple’s recent trading problems. People are not only opting for cheaper smartphones, but they are keeping them for longer. If the world’s first company to pass the trillion dollar value mark is showing signs of struggling, we ought to take note.