Even Van Cliburn and his indomitable mother Rildia Bee O'Bryan Cliburn were surprised when the competition that bears his name was announced. Only two people knew. One was Dr. Irl Allison, founder of the National Guild of Piano Teachers. The other was Grace Ward Lankford, his co-founder, who only found out moments before the rest of the world. Allison passed her a note that reportedly read: "Hold onto your seat, I have a startling announcement!"
This happened at a banquet in November, 1958, shortly after Cliburn made history by winning the first Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, at the height of the Cold War. Allison’s startling announcement was that he was going to start an international piano competition in Cliburn’s honor. In order to get the ball rolling, he wrote a check for $10,000 as the first prize. Ms. Lankford didn’t need more that that to really grab that ball and roll it to fruition.
According to the Cliburn website, “Lankford enlisted the support of an astonishing range of politicians, internationally-renowned composers, conductors, musicians, business leaders and professional educators, in pursuit of what must have seemed an impossible goal: to create a world-class international piano competition in a city still affectionately known as ‘Cowtown.’ ”
The Cliburn competition is now one of the most prestigious in the world. It has launched the careers of such all-time greats as Barry Douglas, Olga Kern, Radu Lupu, Jon Nakamatsu, José Feghali, Cristina Ortiz and Ralph Votapek (the first winner).
“It was my teacher’s idea I enter,” Votapek says. “Van and I both studied with Rosina Lhévinne at Juilliard and she thought I had a chance to win. Besides, the money was good.”
It certainly was. However, the money is only a small part of the prize. Even at the first Cliburn, the winners got professional management. Now they get a recording contract and other gifts.
“It was a big prize,” Votapek says, “but the real prize was that Sol Hurok would take the winner on his management roster. He was the biggest in the business, with artists like Arthur Rubenstein and Isaac Stern.”
A different kind of competition
Even right from the start, the competition was different in that it required the pianist to show their abilities in a number of different situations. They start with a solo recital that has some fairly strict repertoire requirements. Then they play a quintet with a string quartet and last, they play two concerti with the orchestra.
However, the real innovation was that the Cliburn commissions a new composition each time, which the pianists only get in the last few weeks before the event, and have to master in short order. The first one was by the great Lee Hoiby, who was a superb pianist himself.
Shields-Collins Bray, who is the pianist with the Fort Worth Symphony and allied with the Cliburn, says, “Hoiby’s piece, Capriccio on Five Notes, is challenging, but very showy.”
Votapek says that a rumor went around that a few of the competitors dropped out because the Hoiby was so difficult. However, Bray sees it differently. “Hoiby’s piano music, even the songs, fits so well under your fingers that you can tell he was a pianist.”
“Hoiby didn’t like the limitations,” says Mark Shulgasser, Hoiby’s partner and longtime librettist, “but he wrote the piece. Serialism was all the rage at the time, but that wasn’t in Lee’s nature, so he picked a five-note tone row and worked with that. He also says that when he heard it played in the years that followed, nobody ever played it fast enough.”
“We aim very high when it comes to composers,” says Bray. “Bernstein, Corigliano, Copland, Rorem…all the best have written for us. However, many chaffed under the constraints. The work had to last so many minutes and has to show certain prescribed parameters.”
Christopher Theofanidis, Grammy and Rome Prize winner (among other awards), is this year’s composer. “His piece is very different from all of the others,” Bray says. “There are no extra considerations, like a story behind it. Certain things are intentionally clumsy to play and Theofanidis wanted it to lumber along in a humorous manner.”
Another important difference about the Cliburn is that the contestants are housed in some of the grand homes in Fort Worth, all of which have a fine piano available for practice. José Feghali, who took the gold in 1985 and has been artist-in-residence at Texas Christian University’s School of Music since 1990, remembers his host family with great warmth.
“Judge George Crowley has passed on, but his wife Pat remains a close friend,” Feghali says. “The host families offer more than a place to stay. They offer support and assistance. Some of the contestants are in America for the first time, some still teens, and are a little bewildered. Best, though, [is that] you can practice anytime of the night or day.”
Want to be a contestant?
Well, the application requirements alone are a little discouraging to the faint of heart. You start out with a certified birth certificate. This year, applicants must have been born after June 9, 1982, and before May 24, 1995. Then you need copies of programs from the last five years, including at least five recitals (easy to get) and five orchestral appearances with concerti (harder to get), and copies of all the reviews (uh-oh).
Then, a recommendation letter from a recent (or current) teacher teacher is required. No general letters of praise are acceptable. That is still not enough. They need, according to the website, “…a recommendation letter from a musician or musicians of acknowledged international standing.” Not easily obtained.
Jacques Marquis, President and CEO of the Van Cliburn Foundation, says that the panel of distinguished judges carefully reviewed the applications and 132 of them were selected for this year’s screening auditions. These are held around the world and five jurors traveled to hear them (there will be a larger jury at the competition). “This year,” Marquis says in his delightful Québécois accent, “we heard auditions in Hong Kong, Moscow, Hanover, Milan, New York City and Fort Worth. Each applicant played a 40-minute solo recital for us. It was a fantastic trip around the world.”
This year, they heard a lot of Bach and Scarlatti but not much Mozart. The big pieces are always there, of course. Works like Ravel’s nearly impossible Gaspard de la Nuit and Franz Liszt’s bang-bang pieces, as well as his Sonata in B minor, are common.
“None of the applicants get to try out the piano ahead of time,” Marquis says. “If they are wise, they will start out with something that doesn’t require an intimate knowledge of how that specific piano responds so that they can get the feel of it.”
Of course, no one misses notes anymore. Technical perfection is a starting point. In this, it is like the four-minute mile, which was thought to be impossible until 1954 when Roger Bannister tuned in a time of 3:59.4. Now, it is common. Similarly, nimble fingers are not enough to get to Fort Worth. “We heard one pianist who had amazing technique,” says Marquis, “but he had no idea what the piece was about or where it was going with it.”
From this field, 30 pianists were selected to participate in the competition in Fort Worth (two of them dropped out weeks before the event, and have been replaced). “That is a wonderful pat of my job,” Marquis says. “I get to deliver the good news.”
“Back at the first competition,” Votapek adds, “they didn’t hold preliminaries. If you had a good recommendation, you came to Fort Worth. Some were, shall we say, better than others. Some were Russians, and they played very well, but they certainly went through some culture shock, being dropped into Fort Worth. This was right before the Cuban Missile Crisis and Van had just won in Moscow, so I didn’t know how these factors might influence the outcome. However, after hearing some of them, I thought that I had a chance.”
“Of course, you never know,” Feghali says. “You tell yourself that it doesn’t really matter, it is honor enough just to be a contestant in the actual competition, and you just try to do your best. But it is nerve-wracking.”
How the competition plays out
In the first round, the 30 selected each play two 40-minute solo recitals (in Phase 1 and Phase 2; the order of playing is decided at the "draw party" on Wednesday, May 23) and then wait for the results. Twelve go forward to the semifinals, which also has two parts. First, they play a 60-minute recital, with different repertoire from the earlier round that also must include the newly commissioned work. Next, they play a piano quintet with the resident string quartet. They can choose between the quintets by Brahms, Schumann, Dvořák and Franck.
“Now, they have a professional quartet,” Votapek says. “This year it is the Brentano Quartet, one of the best in the world. When I played in the competition, it was an ad hoc quartet from the Fort Worth Symphony and they weren’t on that level. I played the Brahms and it is famously difficult. Still, we did a credible job and I was confident that I would advance. I did.”
Feghali has a different story. “The quartet my year was the Tokyo [String Quartet]; they were fantastic. I chose the Dvořák, but in the rehearsal, I pulled a muscle in my back. I went to a local doctor who gave me a muscle relaxant that caused an allergic reaction, making things worse. Complete disaster.”
Feghali went ahead and played the round, even though he was in a considerable pain. “I had to pedal with my left foot,” he says. “I was quite surprised when they announced that I would advance to the final round. I couldn’t believe it at first.”
The last round requires playing two concerti with orchestra. One is from a list: the five Beethoven and Mozart’s Nos. 20-24 and 27. The second concerto can be anything they want. The only limitations are ones they impose, knowing that there will only be one hour of a working rehearsal and a dress rehearsal.
“If they chose something that is unfamiliar to the orchestra, that could be a problem with such short rehearsal time,” Marquis says. “Also, if they pick something that is an hour long, they won’t be able to rehearse it at all.”
Thus, the same short and flashy concerti come back every year like old friends. You hear a lot of Rachmaninoff, Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Bartók.
“One choice was easy since I had just played the Prokofiev No. 3 with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops,” Votapek says. “Then I played Beethoven No. 4, which I had only played with two pianos back in college.”
“I started with the Mozart C Minor (No. 24),” Feghali says, “which was new to me. Next, I played the Tchaikovsky No.1. This is a piece that requires a lot of body strength, which my injury prevented and, when it was over, I knew that it was not my best effort. My only hope was that the scores were cumulative. I was very nervous afterwards. We were all sitting together in the audience when the big announcement came down.
“Of course there is countdown—when they got to second place, my name wasn’t called,” Feghali says. “ ‘Well,’ I told myself, ‘you can be proud you made it to the finals, what with the injury and all.’ When they announced I’d won, I just couldn’t believe it.”
Votapek’s experience was different. “When I heard some of the others, I thought that my chances were decent. Still, the actual moment of winning was a blur. I remember being given this huge silver cup and saying that I thought it would hold a lot of beer.”
What the organizers didn't know was that Votapek was hiding a secret. He had been drafted and had to report for duty one week after the competition. He told his host, Grace Ward Lankford, of this predicament. As Votapek tells it, she drawled, “We’ll see about that, honey” and promptly called Governor John Connally.
“John, darling, I need a favor…” And that, as they say, took care of that.
Beer or champagne in the winner’s cup, they cannot celebrate for long. This is it—the chance of a lifetime. A huge three-year concert tour starts right away. The garish spotlight of fate suddenly has them dead center. Everyone is eager to hear them play. From there, the story is theirs to write.
That can more nerve-wracking than the competition.
◊ A version of this article also appears in the May issue of Arts+Culture Magazine, which is on stands now.
◊ Look for complete coverge of the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in our special section on TheaterJones, beginning May 10. We'll have features, interviews, notes, and when the competition begins, reports on every single performance from the preliminary, semi-final and final rounds.
◊ To learn more about this year's competitors, go here.