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

Oct 30th 2020
EXTRACT: "At this stage, the Trumpian personality cult has completely dispensed with the need for actual plans and proposals (indeed, the Republican Party, which Trump now controls, did not even bother to offer a policy platform for the election). Trump embodies whatever his supporters want, even when they themselves don’t know what that is. This is all too typical of fascist leaders, who usually function as a father figure for those susceptible to the appeal of an authoritarian personality. As the father of the “MAGA” nation, Trump decides what is best for his children, and it is this patriarchal authority that provides the rationale for violence, lies, and even dictatorship."
Oct 28th 2020
EXTRACT: "One thing is certain: a highly contested election would cause further damage to America’s global image as an exemplar of democracy and the rule of law, eroding its soft power. Particularly over the past four years, the country has increasingly come to be regarded as a political basket case. While hoping that the chaotic outcomes outlined above do not come to pass – polls still show a strong lead for Biden – investors should be preparing for the worst, not just on election day but in the weeks and months thereafter. "
Oct 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "China’s approach today is similar: first, insulate its citizens from a virulent pathogenic contagion with draconian public-health measures aimed at containing and mitigating the spread of the disease, and then – and only then – make judicious use of monetary and fiscal policy to reinforce the post-lockdown snapback. This is very different from the approach taken in the US, where the post-lockdown debate is more about using monetary and fiscal policies as front-line instruments of economic liberation, rather than relying on disciplined public-health measures aimed at virus containment........ This underscores the sharp contrast between China’s COVID-first strategy and the America-first approach of US President Donald Trump’s administration. In China, unlike the US, there is no political and public resistance to masks, social distancing, and aggressive testing as requisite norms of the COVID-19 era. Meanwhile, the US is in the midst of its third serious wave of infection while China continues to exercise prompt and effective control over new outbreaks. Earlier this autumn, for example, some nine million citizens in Qingdao were tested in just five days after a relatively small outbreak affecting fewer than 20 residents. By contrast, Trump wears his own experience with COVID-19 infection as some perverse badge of courage, rather than as a warning of what may lie ahead."
Oct 20th 2020
EXTRACTS: Disney has announced a significant restructuring of its media and entertainment business, boldly placing most of its growth ambitions and investments into its recently launched streaming service, Disney+…. From a corporate strategy perspective, the move is remarkable on two fronts. Firstly, the sheer velocity of this pivot for a company the size and age of Disney is, for lack of a better word, unprecedented….Let’s not forget that it was just last year that Disney held a near 40% revenue share of the US box office….. The fact that in just seven months of the pandemic breaking out, Disney decided to reinvent itself primarily around streaming speaks volumes about its expectations regarding the pandemic length. Clearly the group decided that waiting it out was no longer an option.”
Oct 10th 2020
EXTRACTS: "Strange as it is to say, but it is no longer uncommon to hear talk of insurrection, martial law, and civil war in the United States......... Apocalyptic warnings that next month’s election will descend into crisis are coming hard and fast....... While the atmosphere in the US is already alarming, it is worth considering just how bad things could become. There is ample reason to worry that an election-related conflict could devolve into atrocity crimes against black and brown civilians on US soil........ Genocide and mass atrocities have happened all too often, including in America. The question is not whether it could happen here, but whether it can be prevented."
Oct 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "Fifty years ago, Milton Friedman published an article in the New York Times that articulated what has come to be known as the Friedman doctrine: “the social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.” It was a theme he had developed in his 1962 book Capitalism and Freedom, where he argued that the “one and only” responsibility business owes to society is the pursuit of profits within the legal rules of the game. The Friedman doctrine put its stamp on our era. It legitimized the freewheeling capitalism that produced economic insecurity, fueled rising inequality, deepened regional divides, and intensified climate change and other environmental problems. Ultimately, it also led to a social and political backlash. Many large businesses have responded by engaging in – or paying lip service to – the notion of corporate social responsibility."
Oct 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "China is well on its way to becoming a cashless society. More than 600 million Chinese already use Alibaba’s Alipay and Tencent’s WeChat Pay to pay for much of what they purchase. Between them, the two companies control approximately 90% of China’s mobile payments market, which totaled some $17 trillion in 2019. A wide variety of sectors throughout China have since adopted Blockchain to pay bills, settle disputes in court and track shipments. The Chinese government understands that, via Blockchain, the issuance of its own cryptocurrency is an excellent way to track and record the movement of payments, goods and people."
Oct 6th 2020
EXTRACT: "The American Republic was founded by Protestants, and American elites were for a long time largely Protestant........But something extraordinary has happened since the republic was founded by Protestants in 1776. Five of the eight current Supreme Court justices are Catholics, and soon there may be six. The one Protestant on the court, Neil Gorsuch, was raised Catholic. (The other two justices are Jewish.) Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, is Catholic, as is the US attorney general, William Barr. And Joe Biden, who might be the next president, is Catholic, too."
Oct 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "...... the economic pain inflicted by COVID-19 is not being borne by publicly traded companies. It is falling on small businesses and individual service proprietors – from dry cleaners to restaurants to entertainment providers – that are not listed on the stock market (which leans more toward manufacturing). These smaller players simply do not have the capital needed to survive a shock of this duration and magnitude. And government programs that have helped keep them afloat for a while are beginning to lapse, raising the risk of a snowball effect in the event of a second wave."
Oct 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "Trump’s disinclination – and perhaps inability – to reach beyond his right-wing base, which is insufficient to elect him, also calls into question his political acumen, and is one of many reasons to doubt his basic intelligence (an issue on which he is quite sensitive). But one thing about the president is now clearer than ever: in order to perpetuate his hold on power, Trump is testing the constitution in unprecedented ways. "
Sep 30th 2020
EXTRACT: "With the US presidential election barely a month away, former Vice President Joe Biden and his advisers are devising his national-security policy and creating shortlists to fill the cabinet’s ranking positions in the event that he defeats President Donald Trump. But while presidential hopefuls traditionally have focused first on contenders to run the state, defense, and treasury departments, this time is different. With the intelligence community in an increasingly perilous state, Biden should choose a top spymaster before making any other personnel decisions."
Sep 29th 2020
While today's mounting global disruptions have accelerated an ongoing shift in global power dynamics, neither China's rise nor the emergence of COVID-19 can be blamed for the West's lost primacy. The United States and the United Kingdom took care of that on their own, with a complacent Europe watching it happen.
Sep 28th 2020
EXTRACT: "One thing is clear: the world cannot trust Xi’s dictatorship. The sooner we recognize this and act together, the sooner the Beijing bullies will have to behave better. The world will be safer and more prosperous for it."
Sep 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "Four years of political turmoil under Trump may well end with massive violence akin to a civil war. Trump is priming his base to act violently, and with over 390 million firearms in the hands of Americans, one can only imagine the calamitous consequences if violence is to erupt between his supporters and those who oppose him..... The Republican leadership in every state and every municipality are the prime body that can stop this potential calamity from occurring. Time is of the essence. Should the Republican Party as a whole fall short of taking a stand against Trump at this juncture, they will subject the nation to turmoil unseen since the Civil War. Not a single Republican leader will be able to claim that he or she were not warned."
Sep 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "I continue to expect this broad dollar index to plunge by as much as 35% by the end of 2021. This reflects three considerations: rapid deterioration in US macroeconomic imbalances, the ascendancy of the euro and the renminbi as viable alternatives, and the end of that special aura of American exceptionalism that has given the dollar Teflon-like resilience for most of the post-World War II era."
Sep 26th 2020
EXTRACT: "Covid-19 essentially hit the “fast forward” button on emerging trends in a variety of sectors of national economies, hastening the demise of the shopping mall, laying bare how unnecessary being physically located in commercial work spaces is, and sounding the death knell for numerous 100+ year-old brands that had failed to adapt to the blistering pace of change in the digital economy. Failure to contemplate and embrace the future is leaving carnage in its wake.......The onslaught of dramatic change that has accompanied Covid-19 reminds us that fragile systems crack when exposed to unexpected events while antifragile systems have the ability to resist shocks."
Sep 24th 2020
EXTRACT: "China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, recently declared that aggression and expansionism have never been in the Chinese nation’s “genes.” It is almost astonishing that he managed to say it with a straight face. Aggression and expansionism obviously are not genetic traits, but they have defined President Xi Jinping’s tenure. Xi, who in some ways has taken up the expansionist mantle of Mao Zedong, is attempting to implement a modern version of the tributary system that Chinese emperors used to establish authority over vassal states: submit to the emperor, and reap the benefits of peace and trade with the empire."
Sep 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Seventy-five years ago, the prestige of the United States and the United Kingdom could not have been higher. They had defeated imperial Japan and Nazi Germany, and they did so in the name of freedom and democracy. True, their ally, Stalin’s Soviet Union, had different ideas about these fine ideals, and did most of the fighting against Hitler’s Wehrmacht. Still, the English-speaking victors shaped the post-war order in large parts of the world. The basic principles of this order had been laid down in the Atlantic Charter, drawn up in 1941 by Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt on a battleship off the coast of Newfoundland."
Sep 14th 2020
EXTRACT: "After Trump’s inauguration in January of 2017, millions demonstrated their disapproval. We can expect the same, no matter how this election turns out. With both sides framing this election in “end of the world” terms; with the president calling into question the legitimacy of the vote, even before it happens; and with the president warning his supporters that they may have to take up arms to defend him – we have a recipe for disaster that may occur in the days that follow this election. This may very well be the Armageddon election of our lifetime."
Sep 8th 2020
EXTRACT: "The Huawei case is a harbinger of a world in which national security, privacy, and economics will interact in complicated ways. Global governance and multilateralism will often fail, for both good and bad reasons. The best we can expect is a regulatory patchwork, based on clear ground rules that help empower countries to pursue their core national interests without exporting their problems to others. Either we design this patchwork ourselves, or we will end up, willy-nilly, with a messy, less efficient, and more dangerous version."