Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Cliburn Report 1: Background Music

Van Cliburn in Moscow, 1958
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As some of you may know, I’ll be jetting down to Fort Worth, Texas, in June for the final round of the fourteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition as part of a team from the Music Critics Association of North America. Although my live on-site coverage doesn’t start until then, I’m doing my homework by scanning news coverage of the event right now and sharing here what I see as the highlights.

I’m going to start with some not-so-deep background.

For those of you not familiar with the event, here’s a very condensed and superficial overview. For more details and complete streaming media coverage of the competition, check out the Van Cliburn foundation web site. You can also check my favorite classical radio program, PRI’s Performance Today, which will broadcast competition highlights.

The Cliburn is an international piano competition held every four years in Fort Worth. It’s named after the famed concert pianist (and Fort Worth native) Van Cliburn, who stunned the world by placing first in the Tchaikovsky Competition at the age of 23 in 1958. It was seen as a major cultural victory in the Cold War since no non-Russian had ever placed first in the Tchaikovsky and, in fact, it was generally held that the entire business was rigged to guarantee that result.

Cliburn went on to a high-profile (if somewhat erratic) career. His victory sparked a determination to create an American equivalent of the Tchaikovsky competition. Heavily funded by Fort Worth’s movers and shakers, the Van Cliburn competition made its debut in 1962 and is now held every four years. It has not been without controversy. Probably the most notable of its critics is musician, artistic consultant, and teacher Joseph Horowitz, whose 1990 book about the Cliburn, The Ivory Trade, makes fascinating reading.

This year’s will, sadly, be the first one held without the public participation of its namesake; Mr. Cliburn died of bone cancer in February.

The first preliminary round recitals won’t begin until tomorrow (May 24th) at 11 AM, but the weeding-out process of hopeful pianists from around the world began back in January and February when a panel of five judges traveled to Hong Kong, Hannover, Moscow, Milan, New York City, and Fort Worth to hear the 133 applicants for this edition of the competition perform a 40-minute recital. Thirty from that pool were chosen to compete from; you can see a complete list, including pictures and profiles, at the TheaterJones web site.

That might seem like an unfair process since it eliminates any pianist who can’t get to one of that handful of cities, but there’s probably no way to do something like this in a completely fair manner. Past attempts to use audio and video recordings submitted by hopefuls have had their share of problems as well. At least this way the judges get to see the contestants in a real-world setting with an actual audience.

Texas and international media are already cranking out coverage. I’ll skim what I see as the cream and post it here.

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