Vadym Kholodenko with his gold medal
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Cliburn Impromptus

We find the interesting people and facts at the competition in this ongoing blog about happenings in and around the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

published Sunday, June 9, 2013

Everywhere you go during the Van Cliburn Competition, you meet the most interesting people—a cliché, but true. As it always happens at the Cliburn, some real communities are forming, as people who come day after day get to know the folks sitting around them. TheaterJones has been collecting stories, memories, even wisecracks—and finding out why so many people love to be here.

We'll be adding the newest Impromtus to the top of this list, so keep coming back for more.


Sunday evening, June 9, in the "Green Room" of Bass Hall:

Photo: Michael Warner
From left: Sean Chen, Vadym Kholodenko, Beatrice Rana


It really is green, this room we've never seen before. And here's the press corps, perched on chairs, crawling on the floor, working any angle to get close enough to chat with the three newly-minted Cliburn medalists: Ukraine's Vadym Kholodenko, Gold; Italy's Beatrice Rana, Silver; and the USA's Sean Chen, Crystal. 

Seated in a row at a small table, they look at us. We look at them. It's funny, really--after an exciting but long competition, they're just about too tired to talk, and the reporters are too tired to think of questions. Maybe we should just go for drinks? Finally, the questions start flying. 

How does this moment rank in your career and your life? The three exchange looks, then Sean Chen raises a long arm way, way above his head. High up there, he's saying, and we all laugh. 

"I keep telling people that when I entered Juilliard undergrad, if you'd told me I'd be a Cliburn medalist, I would have laughedand left," says Chen. "This is kind of a big deal for me."

Photo: Michael Warner
Vadym Kholodenko with his gold medal

Will you be entering more competitions after this? "No," says Kholodenko. "Maybe you notice I am very old," he says, looking mock-serious. At 26, he's hardly a "senior citizen"—the oldest competitors this year were 30. 

But to our surprise, both Chen and Rana say they're unlikely to compete again, too. "No, I think probably not," Rana tells us. "I think this silver medal is enough for a concert career." Rana also took first prize in Montreal in 2011. Chen says "This experience has been really awesome, but kind of the most stressful thing I've ever done in my life. That's the nature of [it]." 

What part of the whole competition did you enjoy most? "Practicing, performances, practicing--it's not very romantic," Kholodenko says with a wry smile. But he brightens up when a music journalist asks him if the cadenzas in his Mozart concerto were ones he composed. 

"I wrote them on the airplane coming to Texas," he says, and seems very pleased to talk about it. In a symposium on Saturday, one Cliburn juror said he'd been "fascinated" by young pianists like Kholodenko who were adding their own "free ornamentation" to Bach and Mozart pieces played in the preliminary round. 

Do they have a problem with their art being treated like a sports event? 

Chen says while "there's some sporting feel about it, the real attraction is the music, and you can tell this audience is there to listen to it." Rana sounds practical about it all: "Competitions are one of the main ways for us to have a concert pianist career. I don't compete very often, but I will be glad now to have many chances to play because of the Van Cliburn." 

When asked if they're disappointed at not winning the gold, Chen shakes his head and Rana laughs, "No, no." And how does Kholodenko feel? "Not disappointed," he says with an almost-smile, but then adds: "In my opinion, all six finalists did their job well. Who won which prize was the work of the jury. I appreciate their work, and am really thankful for this—but I don't think these rankings are so important." 

Photo: Michael Warner
Beatrice Rana with her silver medal, in her silver dress

How will you celebrate this win? "We were talking about whiskey," says Chen, nudging Kholodenko with his elbow. Rana, who is playing a concert in Italy this week, says she'll have to celebrate "three days after." 

As things break up, I go up to offer Beatrice Rana tanti augurimy best wishes. She leaves Texas on Monday to rehearse for a Wednesday night performance in Milan. "Busy girl," I say. She waves her Cliburn silver medal at me happily. "But with this, you know, all things will be easier," she says with a huge, happy smile. 

I have a sudden thought, and blurt it out: "Look how the medal..." she gasps, and then finishes the sentence with me: "matches the dress!" She's wearing a silver-on-silver sleeveless sheath. Then we start to laugh, and she says what we're both thinking: "Oh, no--I should have worn something gold!" 

And still laughing, we say goodbye. 

Thanks for reading, everyone—it's been fun! We hope you'll keep coming back to TheaterJones, and we'll meet you back here for the 15th Van Cliburn in 2017!


Saturday night, June 8, after the concert, backstage: 

Beatrice Rana is almost dancing toward us in jeans and sandals, finished with her last performance of the Cliburn competition, a rousing Prokofiev Second—and she’s laughing about a broken piano string. 

A string broke, we ask? “She puts a lot of energy into that piece,” her host dad Kevin Terry had just told us. Beatrice was surprised when it happened at a relatively quiet moment during the third movement of the concerto. 

“I’m sure in the recording [by the film crew] they will notice my face,” she laughs, showing her eyes opening wide. “Because I was playing and then TUUCK! [She imitates the twang of a string.] I look there, and think, Oh, my…that’s bad. I thought it was impossible to happen; usually good pianos like this don’t break a string in Prokofiev Second.” Her performance brought a standing O, plus a prolonged roar of appreciation from the packed-in Cliburn audience. 

 “Oh, my goodness, you brought down the house,” says host mom Mairin Terry

“I was not nervous at all,” says Rana. “And when you know you’re playing for the last time, you want to take advantage of every second in this performance, to enjoy every moment. So, I am done!” she cries, and is folded into a circle that includes her mother, the Terrys and other friends. 

But that wasn’t the end of it… 


Saturday night about 10:45, in the Press Room: 

We hope nobody thinks we’ve kidnapped a competitor. 

Two Japanese journalists from Chopin Magazine—in cahoots with TheaterJones—have walked Beatrice Rana over to the Cliburn Press Room next door to Bass Hall for a short interview. She’s been signing autographs and chatting with fans, and though she says she’s tired, she looks glowing and happy. On her way to the Press Room, she spots the Big Piano on the floor downstairs—but more on that later. 

How does it feel to be finished with the performing?

Photo: Michael Warner
Beatrice Rana playing on the Big Piano in the Maddox-Muse Center after her final Cliburn performance

“It’s strange, because I have worked so many months for this competition, and I was projecting everything toward it,” Rana says. “This competition is very demanding, and keeping to the practice schedule for it was hard. But I feel very happy also, because [in making it to the finals] I got to play everything I practiced. And I had the chance to play six times on this stage for this wonderful audience. I couldn’t be happier.”

She’s asked what the hardest part of the competition was for her. 

“The first round is difficult because it’s the first time you are on that stage, and you don’t know what to expect,” she smiles. “The second time is difficult because you do know what to expect, and you are nervous because you know. And the third round is difficult because you know you are a finalist and you have to show that you deserve such a result. The chamber music is difficult because you have to play music with people you just met for 90 minutes the day before. And the finals, well, it’s just all tension, and very big pressure, of course.” 

But she says this last performance of the Prokofiev Second in the finals is the one she enjoyed most. 

“Come on, when do we young artists have opportunities to play with such good orchestras and conductors?” she says. “It happens very rarely, and you have to enjoy every single moment. You cannot waste such opportunity.” She tells us she chose to play the Beethoven Third piano concerto in the finals because “in two days I have to play it in Italy—in Milano, as the closing concert of a very good season, and I couldn’t have in repertoire another concerto. Actually, it was also the newest piece of my repertoire. 

“Prokofiev Second I decided to play because it is a concerto that I love. Two years ago I did the Montreal competition, and won it with the Tchaikovsky concerto. After that, I was not going to do competitions any more, I thought.” She smiles. “But then there was this Cliburn, and I decided to apply, but I didn’t want to repeat myself [with the Tchaikovsky]. In the meantime I learned this Prokofiev Second, and thought it was a good idea to finish with that.” 

Photo: Michael Warner
Beatrice Rana playing on the Big Piano in the Maddox-Muse Center after her final Cliburn performance

We tell her a visiting—and eminent—music critic told us the Prokofiev Second used to be classified as a piece “For Men Only.” She laughs. 

“No, no, all the composers were men,” she says. “So why is Chopin a composer ‘for women’ and Prokofiev is not? They were both men.” It’s a powerful piece that takes control and strength. “I love this piece,” she says again. “I think it fits with my personality, and really, I think it’s a very good concerto for competitions, because it shows everything. This is such a dramatic concerto, 30 minutes of such a powerful feeling, but it also has these lyrical moments.” She tells us there was more rehearsal time for this concerto with “amazing” conductor Leonard Slatkin and the orchestra, and says she could feel the difference. 

“Today there was an idea that was comprehensive, of orchestra and piano and conductor. Everything was one piece. Which is the most difficult thing [to make happen], because when you share the stage with 70 other persons and one conductor, it’s difficult to unify one idea. I am glad for the work we achieved this day, and am very glad to have had the opportunity to play.” 

And the Cliburn audiences? “I don’t know how to thank them for such a big joy after the concert today,” she says. “I was so grateful. We put everything on the stage, and it’s so wonderful when the audience shows they appreciate that. The American audience is very different from the European audience; it doesn’t happen so much in Europe.”

And then, of course, we let her play on the Big Piano, watched from the stairs by her mother and host mom by now, and she has just as much fun as any lively 20-year-old should have…on one of the biggest nights of her life.


Saturday morning, June 8, 10 a.m. in the Maddox-Muse Center:

Photo: Ralph Lauer/The Cliburn
The Jury Symposium on June 8


Eight of the 12 Cliburn jurors—plus jury chairman John Giordano and Cliburn president and CEO Jacques Marquis—are up early to talk with a packed crowd at the Van Cliburn Recital Hall. Video of the jury symposium is available here from the Cliburn, but here's a sampling of what they say in response to audience questions:

On what Giordano calls “the globalization of pianism”: Joseph Kalichstein: “Yes, I think there’s been standardization of piano playing, but I think it’s been all the arts.” He relates the story of a violinist friend who showed his students “videos of the old guys”: Oistrakh, Kreisler, the young Isaac Stern. “Of course they were very impressed, but the thing that stood out for them was…how different they were from each other.” Dimitri Alexeev says there may have been a “Soviet school” of pianism when the Iron Curtain was in place (he mentions the word "banging") but that the “Russian school” is alive and well. Michel Beroff adds that he sees Asia taking up the great Western musical traditions in part because we aren’t giving young artists here “time to build a personal language.” As “we are losing [this tradition], in Asia they are gaining it.”

On whether knowing a composer’s spoken language helps in understanding the music: Juror Yoheved Kaplinsky says: “Music is a language with strict grammatical rules.” She says young pianists should be encouraged to study a composer’s vocal works: Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, Schubert’s lieder, and so on. Kalichstein adds that the sound of a spoken language is perhaps even more important than knowing the words: “You must know how Hungarian sounds to play Bartok,” he asserts.

On how the jurors reconcile differing opinions: “We don’t,” says Kaplinsky—to much laughter from the crowd.

Photo: Ralph Lauer/The Cliburn
The Jury Symposium on June 8

On the repeated playing of some pieces in the competition, and the surprises: In answer to someone in the audience lamenting that the piano competition repertoire is somewhat limited, Kaplinsky has one thing to ask: “Have you ever been to a cello competition?” It gets another big laugh. Juror Arie Vardi mentions his “fascination” with how many times the competitors played Bach this year, “and put in their own embellishments.” This kind of “free ornamentation” of classic work led, he says, “to many very beautiful discoveries” for listeners at the Cliburn—including him, apparently. Richard Dyer tells us the “repertoire from 50 years ago has changed…and the bar gets lifted all the time.” It used to be that the difficult Russian piece Islamey by Balakirev was a concert staple, he says. “Now 12-year-olds play it.”

Photo: Ralph Lauer/The Cliburn
The Jury Symposium on June 8

On the growing number of pianists, especially in the Asian nations: Juror Xian Zhang says China has the world’s highest percentage of piano students per capita. “Almost every Chinese family has a piano,” she tells us, but adds that the Chinese audience base is still learning and growing—to catch up with all those budding virtuosi. Beroff says that the last time he went to China, he was told the country now has 50 million pianists young and old.

On our joint responsibility to promote the arts: Juror Liu Shih Kun, beaten and imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution in China, recalls a visit with Van Cliburn shortly before his death earlier this year. [They competed together in Moscow in 1958.] “When you get better,” he remembers telling him, “You must write to the president of the United States to ask him for help in promoting the arts.” There is “a big wave of eagerness to learn piano music” in the Asian nations, he says—but implies that we must all do our best to keep the great traditions alive all around the world.

It’s left to Arie Vardi to thank the Cliburn audience. Every piano competition has a similar mix of expert jurors and hopeful competitors, he says.

“The difference [at the Cliburn] is you,” he says, gesturing to the audience. “You give such a wonderful warmth that you make them play better.”

And on that note—we break until the third concert of the final round in the evening.


Saturday morning, June 8, 9 a.m. in the Van Cliburn Recital Hall: 

At the Cliburn press conference: Jacques Marquis, president and CEO of the Van Cliburn Foundation; John Giordano, chairman of the jury; and the competition’s eminent visiting conductor, Leonard Slatkin. 

The press conference is a session open for any questions from the press, but Slatkin announces he’s giving all of us early-birds a bit of news. 

For the two last concerts of the final round, says Slatkin, they’ve decided to make some shifts in how the orchestra is seated onstage. They’ve had the violins grouped to the conductor’s left, the cellos massed on his right. Now they will return to the Fort Worth Symphony’s more usual configuration, with violins split into two sections, one on each side of the stage.

Photo: Robert Hart
Leonard Slatkin conducting the Fort Worth Symphony

Why? On the first night of the finals, Slatkin says, they felt the sound of the orchestra in that configuration was “becoming too boomy”—perhaps the word was “booming” but you get the idea. It was, he added, “overcoming” some of the piano’s upper notes. 

But because three of the six finalists had already played a concerto with this orchestra configuration, Slatkin and the Cliburn organization felt it wasn’t fair to make a change until all six had played—and beginning Saturday night, all six will play their second concerti with the new orchestra seating. 

Questions from the press ranged all over the map, and if you’d like to see and hear it all, the conference is available on video on the Cliburn site, on demand. 

Is it possible to win the gold if you do a bad job on the commissioned work? Not impossible, but better not to try, seems the consensus. 

“It would be a risk,” says Slatkin, to not try their best on the new work, which in this year’s competition is Christopher Theofanidis’ seven-minute composition Birichino

“For the time you have to learn it and play it, you must be totally committed,” he says. Giordano adds that he feels it’s a good test of a pianist’s temperament. Pianists are always going to need to cope with new works, conductors they don’t love, venues that they’d rather skip. “I like it when they engage, and show me their engagement, even if they don’t like the piece,” he says. 

Do the jurors discuss individual performances among themselves? “If we hear it, they are chastised,” intones Giordano with a smile—but he’s serious, too. “I used to allow that, and it was a disaster. It made enemies, and people would say, ‘you fool, how can you think that?’” He says juries like the no-discussion policy, and Slatkin agrees. 

“There’s no deliberation [together], they simply cast their vote,” he tells us. “Otherwise, it turns into so much subjective opinion.” 

Asked about the issue of jurors who have current or former students in the competition, Jacques Marquis defends the Cliburn’s policies in the same terms he used in our earlier interview with him. The Cliburn puts together a jury like a “chamber music ensemble” with the most brilliant, expert, diverse group he can find: artists in their performing careers, conductors, the occasional presenter, and yes, teachers. 

“The best teachers are going to have the best students,” adds Giordano—and those students are apt to turn up at the Cliburn competition. 

What about not putting information in the official program biographies about competitor’s teachers? Marquis again says the information is available to press and others, but he doesn’t want it in the program. Audience members often don’t know that jurors are not allowed to vote when their own students are under consideration. They may wrongly assume from a biography that because “he or she is a student of this juror—that will help!” says Marquis. 

All in all, these three major figures of the competition seem to feel the 14th edition is rocking along pretty well. Even some changes that worried them beforehand seem to be proving both effective and popular, says Giordano. 

In adding a second round of preliminary recitals where there had been only one, he says, “We thought we might be killing the kids.” But they realized in the end that the two recitals didn’t add up to much more time than one full-length solo recital—and Giordano says he’s had feedback, especially from former Cliburn competitors, that giving pianists a “second chance” is a good idea, a way to show more of what a young pianist can do, and at times, he smiles, giving them a chance to “redeem themselves.


About 10:15 Friday evening, June 7, in the hall by the stage doors: 

Vadym Kholodenko looks drained after his performance of Prokofiev's Third, and leans against the wall as he answers brief questions from overseas journalists. He tells a Japanese reporter that Prokofiev "wrote the music the people needed" in Russia.

Photo: Carolyn Cruz/The Cliburn
Vadym Kholodenko with his father, Timur, after his first performance in the Cliburn final rounds

Did he have an "image" about this concerto as he played, he's asked? "Yes, of Russian fairy tales." Does he hope his family saw or heard him play? "They are still asleep," he says—but we'd lay odds that they were up and watching, although his father is in town for the son's performances. (Kholodenko's performance came at about dawn in Moscow.) 

Outside the doors is a crowd waiting to greet him. His host mom, Imelda Castro, says he's tired—and clearly wishes everyone would go away. But the young Ukrainian has just received a roaring ovation inside Bass Hall, and there are Cliburn folk wanting to greet him.


Friday, June 7, posted on The Cliburn's Facebook page:

REGARDING FINAL ROUND VIDEOS: Because of our agreement with the American Federation of Musicians, we will only offer videos on demand of two Final Round concerts, those on Friday and Saturday nights. We are sorry for any inconvenience this may cause. This means we will provide a recording of one performance by each of the six finalists. Videos will be posted on shortly after the concerts end. For those able to watch in real time, every Final Round performance is being streamed live on

This has caused quite a stir among those catching up on the competiton through on-demand video, especially those watching internationally and who would be asleep (or at work) during the live stream. They won't be able to see the performances from Thursday, June 6, or on Sunday, June 9.

And they're voicing their concerns on the Facebook post.

Some are saying it was wrong for the Cliburn not to announce this decision sooner, others are suggesting that it's not only unfair to the fans, but to the finalists. Other Facebook users allege that it's a ploy by the judges for the on-demand watchers to not be able to question the final decision.

"Three hours later I am still terribly upset about this news, many of the finalists may have family, friends, lovers, [wives], that [will] not be in Fort Worth but were counting on seeing them online play the finals," wrote one Cliburn fan. "...and for us viewers how can we be convinced of who really deserved 1st prize, and convinced of the jury's decision?"

However, the Cliburn Foundation's hands are tied by the decision of the Musician's Union, who have control over the performances by the Fort Worth Symphony players and how they are released via audio and video.

"The contract [with the Musician's Union] has been in the works for three months," said Maggie Estes, Director of Marketing and Public Relations for the Cliburn. "We did not get it finalized until [Thursday]," the day that the finals began.

It's only been an issue with the finals because the Symphony is involved. The reason that the Friday and Saturday performances are being broadcast is because The Cliburn is paying the union's fees for those performances. Adding an additional fee for each pianist—and therefore six performances with the FWSO—awould be cost prohibitive, Estes said.

Regardless of who's at fault, piano fans around the world are not happy.

— Mark Lowry


Friday morning at the Maddox-Muse Center: 

As Taiwanese pianist Kuan-Tin Lin, 21, charmed a crowded Cliburn Piano Lunch on Thursday with excerpts from Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, we were watching his mother—seated nearby, and looking on with understandable pride—and thinking about the long, hard road she’s been on with her very talented son. And that’s why we jumped at the chance to interview Lin and his mom the next morning. They came with their hosts in Texas, Mark and Katie Kalpakis of Fort Worth, and son George, 10, who studies piano—but seems to be more interested in having found a big brother. 

Mei-Ying Lu, Lin’s mother (the tradition in Taiwan is for the mother to keep her family name), is a small, slim woman brave enough to make the enormous cultural leap from Taipei to Moscow seven years ago with Kuan-Tin and his younger sister. Kuan-Tin had been offered a spot at the famous Moscow Conservatory, and Lu, her son’s first piano teacher, moved with her 14-year-old son and young daughter into a tiny one-bedroom apartment, where much of the space was taken up by—what else?—a practice piano.

Photo: Jan Farrington
Kuan-Ting Lin and his real mother and adopted family

Lin remembers being drawn to the great art and culture of the city, but admits the adjustment was hard.

“It is very difficult to live in Moscow,” his mom tells us. “Not just because my children were very young, but because the weather is cold. I seldom go out; I always stay home and push them to study hard and practice more.” It’s hard to buy food for the dishes she wants to cook, and she says, in quite good English, that “I am getting older and learning the Russian language is very difficult for me.” Kuan-Tin and his younger sister speak it fluently; she will probably begin studying at the Moscow Conservatory next year. 

“We just respect this huge sacrifice so much,” says host Mom Katie Kalpakis. “But as Kuan-Tin puts it, he didn’t really choose the music, the music chose him.” Husband Mark says Lin and his mom are their “extended family” now—Mei-Ying has been giving George piano lessons every day—and that he and George have bonded like big and little brothers. 

“They play hard together,” Kalpakis tells us. “When Kuan-Tin can take a break, you’ll find them playing chess, Legos, chasing the dog or bonding over late-night James Bond movies.” George has been teaching Kuan-Tin a new sport, lacrosse, he adds. Impatient with the small size of the net on his lacrosse stick, “Kuan-Tin improvised and got the net from the [swimming] pool—and they were playing lacrosse that way. It was insane!” 

The family would love to continue the connection with visits to Moscow or Taipei, and have promised to be “in the front row” at Carnegie Hall when Kuan-Tin’s dream of playing there comes true. 

“I think we got the luck of the draw when we got the two of them,” says Mark Kalpakis. “George has become very emotional during the competition following him.” He admires the “incredible force” Mei-Ying Lu has been in her children’s lives—as well as the dedication of “their father in Taiwan, who works hard and sends money to give his children this chance at success.” 

Kuan-Tin told us in an earlier interview that he hoped to make the people of Taiwan proud of him. Next week, he’ll be an honored guest—and featured musician—at a Dallas dinner hosted for the Taiwanese ambassador to the United States and other dignitaries, says Katie Kalpakis. Then it’s off to another competition, a major one in Japan’s Sendai City; then to a recital date in Taiwan, and in the fall, back to Moscow. 

What is Lin taking away from the Cliburn experience? “I learned from every performance I heard,” he told us. He isn’t sure, but might think about applying to the Cliburn again; at age 21, he would be eligible for the next two competitions. And he says he’s noticed a few pieces of the piano repertoire he might try himself in future competitions. 

Which ones, we ask? 

“It’s a secret,” he says with a small, mischievous smile.


Thursday noon, June 6, at the McDavid Studio east of Bass Hall:

So many music lovers are swarming into the room for the Cliburn’s free Piano Lunch that Cliburn staff are hauling chairs out of nearby offices—and the Press Room—to meet the demand for seats. On the program are four Cliburn competitors offering yet another “gift” to us all, says Maureda Travis, head of the Cliburn’s host family committee. The performers: Oleksandr (“Alex”) Poliykov (Ukraine), Jayson Gillham (Australia/UK), Alexey Chernov (Russia) and Kuan-Tin Lin (Taiwan).

Each pianist is seated behind a screen bearing a large photo of the young Van Cliburn playing in Moscow in 1958—a poignant reminder that this is the first Cliburn competition without Cliburn.

Poliykov begins the 90-minute program with selections from Moussorgsky’s much-loved Pictures at an Exhibition. In such an intimate room, the slowly building momentum of the piece—ending majestically at the “Great Gate of Kiev”—is wonderful to hear. Poliykov, who in fact is from Kiev, later tells a young questioner in the crowd that although the wall around the city has been torn down, the great gate still stands.

Gillham introduces a fleet and engaging performance of Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata by explaining it was written just after the composer had received a new-fangled pianoforte with more “pedal effects” and some “extra keys” at the higher range. It’s a small teaching moment, but the minute he begins to play, we hear Beethoven playing with his new toy—ending passages with a little “tickle” of those extra high keys.

Chernov adds even more to our education. He will begin with three waltzes by Grieg, he says, “in whose simplicity we hear true beauty.” Then he will move on to Ravel’s Ondine from Gaspard de la nuit, adding that if we listen, we will hear some of the same effects Beethoven discovered in the “Waldstein” just played. He plays the Grieg with a lovely ease and clarity, and the tinkling water sounds of Ondine drop like a daydream into the quiet room.

Photo: Michael Warner
The set-up for the piano lunch

Lin says he will follow Chernov’s lead—did these four get together on the program?—by playing the rest of Gaspard de la nuit; first, the haunting Le Gibet with its faraway bells; then the scampering of the evil imp Scarbo. Under Lin’s precise, delicate touch the first piece has a mesmerizing stillness, and he launches into the pounding rhythms of Scarbo at a blistering pace. As the final number, it’s a rouser.

All four competitors get a huge round of applause, and we get a bonus: a chance to meet the four pianists’ host families, and some “real” family, too. Alexey Chernov’s wife Elena is smiling from the back rows; Kuan-Tin Lin’s mother, who has followed her son to Moscow and around the world, stands and smiles at everyone; and Jayson Gillham introduces his “mum and grandmum”—who wave happily from the west side of the room.

There are questions from the audience, and Alex Poliykov is quick with a quip; to be fair, Jayson Gillham had departed by this time, and Poliykov’s Boston-honed English is better than Lin’s or Chernov’s.

How do you approach and get used to a brand-new piano? “Don’t fight with it—it’s going to win,” says Poliykov. What’s your favorite piece of music? “You have to love the one you’re playing right now,” he smiles. Who is your favorite composer? “Christopher Theofanidis,” says Poliykov, with Lin and Chernov nodding, and the crowd chuckles. Theofanidis wrote Birichino, the work commissioned for this year’s competition and played 12 times during the semifinals. Of course he’s their favorite: he’s written some great and interesting music they might want to play—and unlike Beethoven and Mozart, Theofanidis is, well…alive—and worth buttering up.

FREEBIE ALERT: There is another free Piano Lunch at noon on Friday, June 7, with competitors Steven Lin, Gustavo Miranda-Bernales, Yury Favorin and Ruoyu Huang performing. Let’s be clear: the music is free, and wonderful…but it’s a Bring-Your-Own-Lunch event.


Wednesday evening, June 6, at the Fort Worth Zoo:

Photo: Michael Warner

Last night, a few of the Cliburn competitors made a not-half-bad attempt at dancing the “Cotton-Eyed Joe," a Texas perennial at celebrations. They were learning the steps as they went along, from the young dancers performing at the Cliburn’s Zoo Party on Wednesday evening during the “down time” between the semifinal and final rounds. Italian competitor Luca Buratto gave it a whirl, though he frequently stopped to laugh at his own efforts; and though we were too far back in the crowd to be sure, we think Steven Lin caught on pretty well, too.

On a warm, humid, not-quite-summer night, we were given colorful bandanas with the circular “VC” logo, boarded the miniature zoo train, and were whisked away to a theme-parkish “Texas town” tucked away inside the zoo. Cliburn jurors, VIP invited guests, donors, volunteers, media, and many of the Cliburn semifinalists still in town mingled over pulled pork sliders, tiny wedges of apple pie, frozen margaritas, and bottles of Shiner Bock. A C&W band played dance tunes, Willie Nelson ballads and more.

Sean Chen was the only one of the "final six" we saw—though it was a big crowd, and we might have missed someone. Not surprising that they’d choose to spend the evening in practice and rehearsal: the final round begins Thursday evening with concertos from Beatrice Rana, Nikita Mndoyants, and Fei-Fei Dong.

Photo: Michael Warner
Andrew Power and Oleksandr Poliykov ride the zoo train to the event.

Among the other pianists attending were always-sociable competitors Oleksandr (“Alex”) Poliykov, Gustavo Miranda-Bernales, Kuan-Tin LinEric Zuber, and Yury Favorin, as well as semifinalists Nikita Abrosimov, Jayson Gillham and Alexey Chernov, whose wife Elena was at his side. We asked Chernov about the couple’s three children back in Russia.

“Their names, it’s difficult to pronounce in English,” he told us. “One is Varvara, it’s like Barbara. The second is Piotr—like Peter, I think. The third is Anastasia.” I don’t catch that last name at first, because the Russian pronunciation places the emphasis differently from English: Ah-nah-stah-SEE-ah. It’s a particularly beautiful name; the word in Russian means “resurrection.”

Attorney Daniel Siff of New York City, here with wife Joan to attend the Cliburn with their in-laws, Hollace and Bruce Weiner, told us he was thrilled to have the chance to tell legendary pianist and Cliburn juror Menahem Pressler how much joy his music had given him over many years.

“He told me he’s busier now with concerts and recitals than he ever was during the height of his career,” Siff said. Pressler, who will turn 90 in December, spent the evening talking animatedly to others at his table and to the many people who came up to greet him.

Photo: Michael Warner
Otis Lee and Michelle Lee

Retired Virginia attorney Otis Lee, Jr. and wife Michelle said the Cliburn competition came on their radar when he traveled to Fort Worth “to try a case” a few years ago. After he retired from law practice, the Lees attended the Cliburn’s amateur competition, and then decided to return “for the big one,” he laughed. He says their experience at the Cliburn has exceeded their expectations—not just for the “incredibly high quality” of the performances, but for the village atmosphere that’s grown around them during the competition.

“People truly get to know each other after a while,” he told us. Lee said he especially liked hearing the piano quintets after a long preliminary round of solo performances. “The competition is very well designed,” he said. “And now we’re looking forward to hearing the concertos with the orchestra [for the final round].”

At the Zoo Party, we also made contact with a couple of “yellow tag” invited visitors to the Cliburn. Look for that Impromptu soon.

You can also see more photos from the Zoo party here.


Also at the Zoo Party:

“Who’s that tall guy talking to [finalist] Sean Chen?” we were asked—twice.

We decided to find out.

“I’m Edward Francis of the Thousand Oaks Philharmonic Orchestra,” he says. “And I was Sean’s teacher from age eight to 18. I prepared him for Juilliard.”  

Photo: Michael Warner
Edward Francis, the former piano teacher of Cliburn finalist Sean Chen

Francis, another “yellow tag” VIP guest at the Cliburn, is the founder “and chairman of the board” of Thousand Oaks, a young California orchestra formed to offer exceptional young pianists the opportunity to play with a professional symphony. An accomplished pianist and chamber musician, he teaches privately and also is connected with Oxnard College, Moorpark College and Pepperdine University. His students have gone on to Juilliard, Eastman, Indiana, the New England Conservatory and other top-flight schools of music. He is involved with the Ventura Music Festival, and says “we usually have some of the [Cliburn] laureates play at the festival.” A busy man.

“This is big,” he says of the competition. “The Cliburn is huge, not just in this country, but perhaps even more in Europe and Asia. And it’s very hard to send anyone home, but that’s the animal—it’s so much a matter of both skill and some luck.” He says “nobody embarrassed themselves” in the competition, and adds that he felt every one of the competitors had “something to say” musically.

Sean Chen is his first student to compete at the Cliburn.

“He’s always been a quick learner, extremely intelligent. He knows how to work, and he has excellent ears,” says Francis. “And he’s somebody who likes to explore different parts of the art—symphony, chamber music, solo, opera.” Francis says that after Chen’s 10 years with him, he’s gone on to “fabulous” teachers at both Juilliard and Yale.

Because Francis is a chamber musician of some note, we ask him about the Cliburn’s semifinal round, which includes a chamber performance, this year with the Brentano String Quartet. From time to time, a rumor floats around that the Cliburn may eliminate the “chamber” element of the competition. What’s his view?

“I like it,” he says emphatically. "I thought it showed off who was comfortable, who was able to meld well, and I loved the fact that the jury could talk afterward with the Brentano and get their feedback.”

Francis says that a piano career today must be “multi-faceted, and include solo work, symphony, chamber music, and also teaching. There are only a few who’ll be lucky enough to make a whole career from performing. The idea at the Cliburn is to choose not just a winner, but a group of laureates who are prepared for a career.” He sees chamber music as part of the whole “package.”

Francis says the Cliburn competition is an “impetus”—a shining goal that helps him as a piano teacher move students in that direction. And he talks about a longstanding appreciaton of the “aura” of this particular competition.

“Growing up in music and piano, Van Cliburn was an icon for me,” he says.

We’re also delighted to hear him say “I read TheaterJones all the time. I don’t always agree, but the reviews are thorough and not overly mean, if I can use that word—because these are young people just establishing their careers. I don’t mind criticism at all, as long as it’s constructive, and aimed at helping them become better artists.”


More from the Zoo Party:

Let’s play the game: How many “degrees of separation” are there between the Van Cliburn competition and the atomic bomb? Only two or three, we think, as we chat with “yellow tag” VIP visitor Ann McLaughlin, artistic director of the Los Alamos Concert Association in New Mexico. She’s here with husband Bill Wadt, and says the invitation to the Cliburn is “one of the great perks of my job.”

But back to the bomb—in a fun way, of course. In an earlier Impromptu, we talked about how many great scientists and mathematicians were also talented musicians, Albert Einstein being the classic uber-example. The Los Alamos Concert Association, says McLaughlin, is 67 years old, and was indeed founded by the world-changing “wonks”—it’s my word, but she laughs and then uses it herself—who lived and worked together on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos during World War II.

Photo: Michael Warner
Ann McLaughlin and Bill Wadt of the Los Alamos Concert Association in New Mexico 

“The town was full of all these well-educated people from universities and big cities, and they wanted some high-class entertainment,” McLaughlin tells us. And they’d make the music themselves if necessary: theoretical physicist Edward Teller, a lifelong musician, had his own piano brought up the steep roads to Los Alamos to keep him company during the war. The town is still full of scientists who are passionate musicians.

“Los Alamos has a very active community orchestra, a choral society, the Los Alamos Winds—and it’s all wonky,” she laughs. There are a higher percentage of PhDs per capita in Los Alamos, she notes, than in any other community in the United States.

The all-volunteer concert association, she says, arranges “a small series of mostly chamber music, small ensembles and soloists.” Los Alamos, though now open to visitors, is still an isolated town perched on a collection of narrow, finger-like mesas rising from the desert north and west of Santa Fe. It’s probably a good thing McLaughlin isn’t trying to book a symphony orchestra; it would be hard to fit them in.

But McLaughlin is being modest about her “small series”: plenty of Cliburn medalists have performed in Los Alamos; and she mentions a recent concert by the world-famous Borromeo String Quartet, “who do this whole thing with projections of composers’ manuscripts as they perform—and I think our wonks got a big kick out of that.” At the Cliburn, she’s been busy talking to managers and musicians about upcoming dates.

She would love, she says, to book the Brentano String Quartet, who played at the Cliburn throughout the semifinal round.

Though tiny Los Alamos is a bit off the usual path, says McLaughlin, “We have a very well-educated audience, and artists seem to love to come”—even if they have to zig-zag up some twisty mountain roads to get there!


Tuesday night, about 11:45, inside Bass Hall:

Photo: Carolyn Cruz/The Cliburn
The finalists and The Cliburn's Jacques Marquis


Chen, Dong, Kholodenko, Mndoyants, Rana, Sakata. 

How long does it take to say that? About six seconds. 

And that's how the Cliburn organization should do it next time, in our opinion. The quiet exhaustion on the faces of the 12 semifinalists was the best argument for a quick and merciful announcement--not a drawn-out session of applause and appreciation to all the usual folks, worthy as they are. 

In reality, all that congratulating took about 15 minutes—but to the competitors, it must have felt like having a Band-aid pulled off a wound...very slowly. 

And in the end, it had to be said: Sean Chen, Fei-Fei Dong, Vadym Kholodenko, Nikita Mndoyants, Beatrice Rana and Tomoki Sakata were moving on to the finals. 

Standing close together onstage, Chen and Mndoyants both said, almost in unison, that it was "a great honor" to be chosen. 

"If you'd told me six months ago that I'd be a Cliburn finalist, I wouldn't have believed it," said Chen, who told us he had listened to a lot of the other competitors online and knew the competition would be stiff.

Photo: Ralph Lauer/The Cliburn
Fei-Fei Dong congratulates Nikita Mndoyants

"I can't trust to find words," said Mndoyants. Someone called to him from nearby: "Now you're even with your Dad!" He smiles and nods; his father Alexander was one of the six Cliburn finalists in 1977.

Beatrice Rana got a huge hug from her mother, then told us she was "feeling so happybut super-tired, too, because I didn't sleep at all last night!" She said she had loved playing with the Brentano String Quartet in the semifinals. 

"I had thought having only one hour and a half to rehearse with them wouldn't be enough," she said. "But music flows so naturally with them. They made it easy and challenging at the same time." 

Vadym Kholodenko, asked the inevitable "what are you feeling?" question, waved his hands across his middle. "Emptiness," he said with a tired smile. 

And that was probably the most honest and heartfelt answer of the night. Each one of these young pianists have given their all in this competition. And now, they need a few hours to rest and recharge for the nextand finalround. 

It's been quite a ride since May 24. Hold on tight.


Tuesday night about 11:00, in the manic minutes before the finalists are announced: 

The Cliburn press room has an unexpected late-night visitor: semifinalist Alessandro Deljavan of Italy, full of nervous energy just before the announcement of the finalists. Just moments before, he met me on the street and demanded to be taken to our intrepid music critic, Gregory Sullivan Isaacs. 

"Ah, TheaterJones," he calls out. "Why is this man so mean to me?" He's talking about Isaacs' mentions of his engaging habit onstage of talking and singing along with the music he's playing. And since Deljavan looks more "I'm having fun" than "I'm going to kill him," I agree to play along.

Photo: Mark Lowry
Gregory Sullivan Isaacs and Alessandro Deljavan in the press room

We blast across the street from the hall and into the Maddox-Muse press room, where he and Isaacs come face to face.

"It's you!" cries Deljavan. "It's you!" says Isaacs, caught completely by surprise. They hug, then pose for a couple of photos. Deljavan says Gregory's remarks have "made him think"—but that in Italy, "I am really not so eccentric at all." Isaacs says he loves that Deljavan seems to be "telling a story" in his music, and that he appears to understand the role of every single note he plays. 

Whew. No bloodshed tonight in the press room. And we really think each of the 12 semifinalists needed something to distract themfor just a few minuteson this wonderful/awful night. 

It's almost 11:30; and then, we'll know.


Monday mid-afternoon, June 3, perched on the eastern stairs at Bass Hall:

I’m sitting on the marble stairs (it’s quieter over here) with Dr. Wojciech Marchwica (his name is pronounced “VOY-chick MARK-veets-ah”), Deputy Director of the Fryderyk Chopin Institute in Warsaw, organizers of the hugely important International Frederic Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw—and we’re talking about piano competitions, both his and ours. We ask him what he likes about the Cliburn…and what we might want to change.

Marchwica is one of the “yellow tag” visitors who began to appear at the start of the semifinal round: specially invited visitors from around the world. He’s here, he says, for meetings about technical and organizational issues; to do some great networking with other piano competitions (from Miami to Moscow); and to take in “some lessons” about how the Van Cliburn is organized and prepared.

Photo: Jan Farrington
Dr. Wojciech Marchwica, Deputy Director of the Fryderyk Chopin Institute in Warsaw, Poland

“You have a little bit different system, and especially incredible and surprising is this great number of over 1,200 volunteers,” he says. The longstanding tradition of volunteerism in the U.S. doesn’t exist in Europe, he explains, and developing a piano competition volunteer corps in Poland, where households routinely worry about “how to find the money for tomorrow’s breakfast and lunch” would be very difficult. Someone here at the Cliburn, he tells us, suggested an idea that appeals to him: “Maybe we should look for volunteers among the music students of many other countries outside of Poland—bring them to Warsaw.” Marchwica would also love to begin streaming “live” performances of the Chopin competition, as is done at the Cliburn.

“This can have a wonderful effect throughout the world,” he says. There’s something about being able to participate “in the moment”, he says: people who could never come to Warsaw, or even buy a ticket to a classical performance, can be caught up in the experience by “watching just an hour or two” of the music. He’s passionately interested in exposing “general education” kids (music students are already well provided for in Poland, he says) to classical music in the most engaging and fun ways possible.

“This thinking in education now that everything must be practical, it’s crazy,” he says. “Great scientists and mathematicians are often also musicians or singers. It’s all connected in our brains, and to let children play and sing with music, to activate this part of the brain which is responsible for abstract thinking, it must happen.” He says we must not raise children who are “deaf” to music because they have lacked exposure to it.

But back to the competition: Marchwica is also very complimentary about everything the Cliburn does to care for and promote the career of its winners.

“To have a career organized for three years for a young pianist of 22 or 23, it’s incredible, worth much more than the cash of the official prize,” he says. “The Cliburn is one of the best at this.”

But? Well, he doesn’t like our system of voting—and he makes some reasonable points.

“The Cliburn’s voting system, as you know, has been changed, modified, simplified,” he says. “But I don’t like this ‘yes, no, maybe’ system. It’s perhaps good for the first round, but not for the finals. If you have six finalists, and three of them each get 33 percent, then what do you have? The start of a big discussion. Or you have a ‘conclave’ like the election of a pope, with voting over and over again.”

What would be better? Marchwica says the Chopin’s system is “more complicated, but in the end better.” Chopin scoring seems to be a hybrid of both the “numerical” and the “yes/no/maybe” system. If the score is a number higher than a set “borderline” number, let's say 14 [he uses the number 14 as a hypothetical], that counts as a “yes” vote for the competitor to move forward; below 14 means “no” and exactly 14 is counted as “maybe.” What’s different is that, when necessary, the jury can go back behind these “yes/no/maybe” votes and come up with a numerical score for each competitor. “Immediately they can see who is first, second, and third,” Marchwica says. Also, and possibly even more importantly, voting at the Chopin is numerically cumulative: scores for earlier parts of the competition stay with the competitor until a final score is reached.

“Someone is not the best because they gave one fabulous performance in a concerto or a chamber piece, but because they have been the best in all these stages,” says Marchwica. (During our talk, he also brings up the current discussion of jury members whose students are competitors at the Cliburn, but we will include his thoughts in an “Impromptu” tomorrow on that topic.)

But all in all, Marchwica says he’s delighted with what he’s seen, and very interested to finally visit Texas.

“I try to explain to people in Poland, who think a visit to New York means they have seen America, that they are wrong,” he smiles. “New York is a very special, strange place, but California is completely different. Connecticut is England, really. And Texas is another country, too, isn’t it? I appreciate America; it is a country for people.”

Marchwica would love to have American visitors to the Fryderyk Chopin Institute’s website, There’s information about the Institute’s activities, including a wonderful yearly “Children’s Day” celebration in Chopin’s home town; a look at their museum collections and archives; recordings of Chopin competition pianists to hear; and a shop full of great publications and recordings. He’s especially proud of a best-selling DVD of pianist Martha Argerich and collaborators performing a piano quintet from 19th-century Polish composer Juliusz Zarebski. Argerich herself found this almost-lost masterpiece. (You can also hear that in this video/audio clip below:)


Monday afternoon, 4:45, June 3, inside the stage doors: 

"Now I understand what all that practicing was about," says Renie Steves, Nikita Mndoyants' host mom. Mndoyants has just finished his chamber performance of the Brahms Piano Quintet in F minor with the world-famous Brentano Quartet—and apparently, he'd been working on it quite a bit at the Steves' home.

Photo: Carolyn Cruz/The Cliburn
Nikita Mndoyants

"It's really odd to just hear just one part of a quintet," says Steves. "This afternoon, it all came together, and was beautiful."

Mndoyants is surrounded by a group of lovely older Fort Worth ladies, many who remember his father Alexander competing in the Cliburn competition of 1977. He tied for fifth placethe Cliburn awarded fourth, fifth and sixth place prizes in those daysand in fact, stayed with the same couple, Sterling and Renie Steves, who are hosting his son. 

He speaks careful, simple English (he does better than most of us would do in Russian, for sure!), and laughs when Steves says he told her that the Fort Worth street called "White Settlement" is the only thing here that reminds him of Russia. (The "Reds" and the "Whites" were opposing sides during the Russian Revolution.) 

Mndoyants says he is still so happy to be able to play with "these fabulous musicians" of the Brentano quartet. He has composed a number of chamber music works, in fact, and says he thinks "perhaps" that being a composer helps him see some things in a piece that other musicians might miss. 

"Do you get nervous before a performance?" he's asked by a young Japanese journalist. 

"Yes," he says, with a small smile. She says he didn't look nervous to her. "Well, I think it shows on my face," Mndoyants adds, "But if you tell me not, that is good."


Sunday afternoon, June 2, in the Press Room: 

We’ve had plenty of Russians and Italians, and Asian pianists from China, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan. We’ve heard Americans (of course), and pianists from Australia, France, Poland, Ukraine, and Chile. But why, we wonder, are there no German pianists at the Cliburn this year—and so few in competitions past? 

Was it something we said? 

That can't be right. Germans tend to like Texas, and there are some longstanding Texas connections. Many of the state's earliest settlements were founded by groups of eager German pioneers (think Fredericksburg, New Braunfels, Bastrop). And because of Karl May, a popular German author of the late 1800s (he wrote highly imaginative adventure stories set in the American West), generations of German tourists have trekked to south and central Texas, where they stay on dude ranches and yearn for the Real Texas experience. 

We posed our "why no Germans?" question earlier to Dutch researcher Dr. Gustav Alink (interviewed in an earlier "Impromptu" for his encyclopedic knowledge of the world of piano competitions, below), but he felt there wasn't an easy answer. This year, he mused, the Cliburn’s dates overlapped with the big-gun Queen Elisabeth International Music Competition in Brussels. [It ended on June 1, with Israeli pianist Boris Giltburg as the winner.] Maybe that was the kink in the pipeline. 

But when we checked the roster of the performers at the Queen Elisabeth, we found there weren’t any German pianists competing in Brussels. Hmm. Perhaps they’re all waiting for Germany’s biggest competition, The ARD International Music Competition, coming up this September in Munich.

Christoph Hiller

In the Cliburn Press Room, we talked with German journalist and editor Christoph Hiller, who works for the multi-channel German TV/radio entity BR (it stands for “Bayerischer Rundfunk” or “Bavarian Broadcasting”). Hiller has been filing reports on the Cliburn with classical stations in Germany. He noted that for the 2013 competition, the Cliburn held a screening audition in the biggest little piano town in Germany, the very musical city of Hannover. It ‘s home to the Hochschule für Musik, Theater und Medien, where semifinalists Claire Huangci and Beatrice Rana currently study--both wonderful pianists, but they are American and Italian, not German. (According to Cliburn officials, two young German pianists did apply and were screened in Hannover, but neither ultimately was selected.) And, as also is true in the United States, Hiller noted that Germany’s piano competitions draw (and are often won by) players from all across the world, many of them pianists who study with teachers in Germany.

We ran the numbers: from 1962 to the present, a span of 51 years, we found 19 Cliburn competitors from Germany. At the 1966 Van Cliburn, German pianist Benedikt Köhlen won sixth place; in 1973, Christian Zacharias took the silver medal; in 1985, Hans-Christian Wille won sixth; and in 1997 Jan Gottlieb Jiracek was a Cliburn finalist. By comparison, there have been 61 Cliburn competitors from the territories of the former Soviet Union: Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Uzbekistan, Belarus—even though none came during stretches of the 1970s and 1980s when travel was restricted. 

Perhaps the bottom line is that it’s time to stop counting. Even the music world today is “global”—and national affiliations seem to matter less and less. And yet, we would still love to see (and hear!) more young virtuosi from the land of Beethoven, Schumann and Schubert. 

And if it’s cowboys you want…trust us, we can round ‘em up.


Saturday afternoon, June 1 in the Bass Hall lobby: 

Are pianists athletes? 

We’ve been pursuing this question around Bass Hall: should pianists be considered athletes…and do they need a set of injury-avoidance techniques (just as a soccer or tennis player might) to help them avoid what are, essentially, sports-related injuries? 

Watching the young competitors at the Cliburn, we’re awed by the incredible volume of piano repertoire they have in their heads, and can hardly imagine the endless hours of physically demanding practice time that brought them here. (We touched on the subject in an earlier “Impromptu” with pianist and teacher Támas Ungár, see below.) In fact, pianists have been called “elite athletes of the small muscles.” Because they repeat finger, arm and shoulder movements thousands of times (sometimes in the course of one recital!), they are subject to repetitive strain injuries. 

After the first mid-day session of the semifinals, we catch up with Shields-Collins Bray, pianist and artistic consultant with the Van Cliburn Foundation. (As part of his varied and long career, he’s also the principal keyboardist for the Fort Worth Symphony.) 

“I think it’s so very important to talk about this,” he tells us. “Young pianists are so driven to succeed, and the pace they set is extremely challenging. They sometimes will get into a situation where they’re experiencing pain or some other physical symptom, and they feel they can’t stop, and they can’t say anything about it. They just try to play through it, and get themselves into a worse situation.”

Photo: Michael Warner
Buddy Bray, backstage

Bray believes young players are reluctant to seek help because they feel it might put a black mark by their names, and impact their chances of being taken on by the best teachers, the best competitions, and so on.

Injuries happen more often than you might think. Bray himself went through a significant part of his career playing with pain; so did Dallas-based Cliburn competitor Alex McDonald, who dropped away from the piano competition circuit for several years to recover from a bad bout of tendinitis. And what they needed, says Bray, wasn’t a doctor, but a piano teacher who knew what body movements they needed to change. 

“Both of us,” Bray says firmly, referring to himself and McDonald, “were ‘fixed’ by Veda Kaplinsky. And a lot of other pianists, too.” Yoheved (or “Veda”) Kaplinsky, famed pianist and Juilliard professor (she also is affiliated with TCU) is a Cliburn juror—and her name surfaces almost every time the subject of pianists and pain comes up. 

What Kaplinsky is able to do for young pianists is “part Veda, and part Dorothy Taubman,” says Bray. Kaplinsky worked extensively with therapist Dorothy Taubman, who developed a revolutionary set of techniques that essentially showed pianists a better, safer, and stronger way to play—through retraining of body movements and other methods. Taubman, who died at the age of 95 this year, famously brought pianist Leon Fleisher back to the piano after decades when Fleisher was able to play only with his left hand. 

This week, the rising young pianists here to attend both the Cliburn and the PianoTexas Academy & Festival on the TCU campus will have a chance to hear Kaplinsky talk to them about “sensible practicing” techniques—and it’s certain she will touch on the subject of avoiding injury. It’s a great opportunity to teach “best practices” to rising young players. Several of this year’s Cliburn competitors participated in PianoTexas within the past few years, including semifinalist Beatrice Rana, who was a “Young Artist” in the program during the 2009 Cliburn competition. 

We mention one example to Bray—that we’ve noticed great variation of finger positions among the Cliburn competitors, with some fingers held curved, and others much more flattened on the keys. 

“You’ll see that [Kaplinsky’s] students don’t play with curved fingers,” says Bray, demonstrating a run on the keyboard with fingers held fairly straight as they move. 

Classic piano technique, as recalled in one song of The Music Man, was to have fingers “curved as nice and high as you possibly can.” But that finger position, say some modern researchers, involves “co-contracting”—two sets of muscles working in opposing directions, similar to pushing both the brake and accelerator pedals in a car. Over the long run, that’s a lot of unnecessary wear and tear. Other body movement retraining can involve changing a pianist’s posture at the keyboard to reduce muscular tension, and methods of moving wrists and forearms to avoid strain and inflammation. 

Long ago, travel took longer, and concert-level pianists might have weeks or months between “engagements.” But now, when a young Cliburn competitor can leave Fort Worth and report to another competition within a day or two (this year, some of the pianists who didn’t move on to the semifinals headed directly to Japan’s Sendai City competition), there’s less and less down time to let the body recover. 

It’s a subject many young artists don’t want to think about, says Bray. 

“It’s hard to catch their attention on this,” he admits. But that’s why having a “teaching moment” from Kaplinsky could be a game-changer for the crowd of young players who will hear her speak at PianoTexas.


Saturday, June 1, 3:15, at the northeast corner of Bass Hall:

Photo: Van Cliburn Foundation
Claire Huangci

Waiting for the light, a couple with a slight, dark-haired girl between them, carrying a little shopping bag. She's wearing a little gray T-shirt, a pair of teal running shorts with white stripes up the side...and a pair of black high heels. 

It's the shoes that give her away...because I've just seen those shoes, working the pedals of a grand piano inside Bass Hall about an hour earlier.  

The little lady in the running shorts and heels is American pianist Claire Huangci, casually strolling away from her recital for the semifinal round of the Van Cliburn competition. Her host parents pat her on the shoulder, bend their heads to chat, and keep walking north.


Thursday evening, May 30, inside Bass Performance Hall: 

The hall is brightly lit and filling up fast with Cliburn host families, audience members, officials, families, friends. There's a high-pitched hum of voices filled with tension and anticipation. What's going to happen? 

The jurors of the competition, high in a box along the west wall, are introduced and applauded. Volunteers and donors are thanked by Cliburn President and CEO Jacques Marquis and Board chair Carla Kemp Thompson. Then jury chairman John Giordano is up at the podium. 

Briefly, he remembers four decades of standing in the wings with Van Cliburn before this same announcement. Giordano's voice breaks a bit as he tells us Cliburn would always ask the same simple question: "Did they do a good job?" This year, he says, the quality has been astonishing. The jury could "flip a coin," he says, and come up with 12 competitors who would do honor to the competition. But here are the semifinalists, he says, and the names are greeted by little explosions of cheers, shouts, and applause: Nikita Abrosimov, Sean Chen, Alexey Chernov, Alessandro Deljavan, Fei-Fei Dong, Jayson Gillham, Claire Huangci, Vadym Kholodenko, Nikolay Khozyainov, Nikita Mndoyants, Beatrice Rana and Tomoki Sakata. As each name is called, one more competitor climbs up onto the stage.

Photo: Ralph Lauer
The Cliburn Semifinalists

Alexey Chernov's wife Elena is applauding, laughing, and hugging their host mom, Peg Pokrifcsak. Alessandro Deljavan, who was looking casual and calm in a sky-blue shirt, suddenly has cheeks that are bright red, but he's holding in the excitement. Jayson Gillham stands quietly, and stares out across the hall with bright eyes. Nikolay Khozyainov looks around him with a certain shyness. Fellow Russian Nikita Mndoyants, son of a former Cliburn competitor, is relaxed in a plaid shirt and jeans, and wears a small and very pleased smile that he won't let turn into a grin. 

None, in fact, are laughing too loud or smiling too broadly; they have many close friends among the other competitors, and understand their disappointment. But the 18 competitors who won't move on aren't being left out in the cold; after the announcement, each of them seems to be surrounded by a warm and comforting group of friends, fans, and well-wishers. 

I catch up with Italian pianist Beatrice Rana, still onstage with the other 11 semifinalists, who are fielding questions from reporters, getting hugs, waving hello to friends. Rana is looking out into Bass Hall, still lit up like a Christmas tree and swarming with excited Cliburn fans comparing notes about the jury's choices. 

"It is wonderful to be able to play again on this stage," Rana says with a smile. "I am so happy and excited—but I feel I should run back to practice now!" 

Rana is glowing in a quiet, self-contained way, but it's clear she is already thinking about what is to come. 

"When we are young, we would like to work with great musicians," she says. But for young performers (Rana is only 20), those chances can be all too rare. She seems delighted about performing with the Brentano String Quartet in the next round of the competition. 

"It's a wonderful opportunity, to play with them. I will learn so much!" she says. Then her mother (the real one, not the "host" mom!) comes to claim her, and they're dashing offstage.  

The Van Cliburn Competition's semifinals begin Saturday afternoon, June 1.


Thursday early evening, May 30, downstairs in the Maddox-Muse Center near Bass Hall:

Photo: Michael Warner
Sean Chen and Alex McDonald tap some tunes on the Big piano in the Maddox-Muse Center

While we all wait, many of the competitors walk over to the Maddox-Muse Center to attend a party (see the item below about Dr. Gustav Alink). But just inside the doors, they're distracted by (what else?) a giant piano, à la the movie Big. You know the drill: when you step on a key, it plays a note.

They can't resist. 

American pianist Alex McDonald taps out a tune, joined quickly by Tomoki Sakata of Japan. As they try to peck out a classical melody together, they collide in the middle like a pair of pinballs, and lurch away from the piano, laughing. 

McDonald and American competitor Sean Chen try a duet next. We aren't sure what they're playing, but they're jumping in unison, legs wide like a pair of Justin Timberlakes. They're being egged on by a small, growing crowd of other competitors, Cliburn officials, host parents, and the media, who are hanging out of the windows of the nearby press room, snapping pictures like mad.

It's a light, wonderful moment on an evening that will be full of serious news.


Before the last session of the preliminaries, May 30, outside Bass Hall: 

We catch up with famed pianist and educator Dr. Tamás Ungár, Professor of Piano at Texas Christian University, and founder and executive director of the PianoTexas International Academy & Festival. This four-week festival is known around the globe as a great place for up-and-coming pianists to work with master musicians—and to be noticed by the music world. We’ve seen Ungár’s students at Bass Hall throughout the preliminary rounds—and he notes proudly that of the 30 Cliburn competitors this year, six were once among the elite “Young Artists” invited to PianoTexas. 

Is it hard to have a working piano academy and festival during the competition, we asked? Not at all, he says—it was always meant to be this way. 

Photo: Michael Warner
Tamas Ungar

“This is how it started originally in 1981,” Ungár tells us. “We wanted to be surrounding the competition, because we felt that jury members were so wonderful and had a lot of knowledge, and they have several days off when we thought we could do master classes with them. And it turned out there were also a lot of managers and presenters, even the psychologist who trained the United States Olympic swimming team. Because this is the Olympics of piano, of course,” he laughs.

“We have now refined it a great deal. We chose 18 out of 96 applicants [for the Young Artists slots] as students. They got a scholarship from TCU to enable them to come, but also the Van Cliburn Foundation gave them 18 complimentary tickets to the competition, so they all attend. Last night, in fact, we had our discussion, and they presented their choice for the 12 semifinalists.” 

But he’s not naming names? “No,” he says, with a head shake and a smile. 

We’ve noticed that one class session at PianoTexas, offered by Cliburn juror and Juilliard/TCU teacher Yohaved Kaplinsky, will focus on “sensible practicing”—a topic that frequently includes a discussion of movement training and other techniques to help pianists avoid repetitive-motion and overuse injuries. Sometimes, in fact, sports medicine and music seem to collide—and we ask Ungár: are pianists athletes? 

“But they are, of course,” he smiles. “Not only do they have to be physically fit, they must be mentally fit, especially for something like this. We have asked [Kaplinsky] to talk about how to practice this huge repertoire, which is four hours long.” In one hour of piano performance, by some estimates, a pianist may make tens of thousands of finger movements—and that’s just the performance; it doesn’t count the days, weeks and months of practice that came before. A competition, in fact, is the musical equivalent of a marathon run. 

What does sitting through a top-level piano competition do for a group of eager young virtuosos? Ungár says that while the young pianists are attending as auditors this time around, “they are preparing themselves mentally, continually thinking about what they have to face” in the high-voltage world of piano competitions. 

“It lets them know what the aim must be,” he says. “Unless you know the standard of playing, you don’t know what you’re working towards—because when you are practicing, you are by yourself. All of them have talked about the high level [of performance at the Cliburn]. They never, ever felt that there could be such a high level from every pianist. Finding out what’s ahead of them, smelling the air of Bass Hall, all this gives them a tremendous boost.” 

The PianoTexas Academy & Festival for 2014, says Ungár, “will be centered on Mozart” and will include master classes, chamber music, and a whole series of solo performances and concerts with the Fort Worth Symphony. Dates are June 5-29 of next year.


Thursday mid-day, May 30, inside the stage doors: 

Photo: Michael Warner
Sara Daneshpour and her host family Stuart and Melissa Murff after her second performance in the preliminary rounds

Sara Daneshpour is changing out of her long black dress, and host parents Stuart and Melissa Murff are waiting for her to come out of the backstage dressing room. They have four kids of their own, and are now referring to the young pianist as “our fifth child.” The Murffs live outside Fort Worth, raising horses on a spread that is giving Daneshpour a glimpse of Texas’ wide-open spaces and wildlife: white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, even a bobcat who crosses the property every so often.

When Daneshpour appears, she’s smiling from ear to ear, and runs directly into the couple’s arms for a hug. She signs an autograph for a fan, and exchanges a few words with a Steinway rep who wants to shake her hand. And then they’re off—the proud (if temporary) “parents” and their very talented “fifth child.”


Thursday noon, May 30, near the stage doors: 

We meet Renpeng Dong of China, a doctoral student in piano at Penn State. He’s been studying in the U.S. since 2005, has a master’s from the Manhattan School of Music, and this is his second visit to a Cliburn competition—he was here in 2009 as well.

Photo: Michael Warner
Piano enthusiast Renpeng Dong of China

He’s come around to wait for American pianist Sara Daneshpour, who has just finished her second performance of the preliminaries. And he speaks about how special she is to him as a pianist. 

“In this competition, there are all kinds of styles—the Russian style, the Juilliard style, and so on,” he tells us. “And she is the one who is special, who has the bravery to play soft. She has a variety of tools, like weapons—not only the crescendo. Harmonically, she knows the difference between each part, and she gets everybody interested in listening; it is not just pounding, climbing one mountain and then another and another. After a while, people get tired if you only have one weapon. But her loudness has many different sounds, and her softness has them too.” 

He’s so excited by her he almost can’t speak fast enough. 

“She has all kinds of colors, and her line draws so, so long. She makes people wonder ‘what will she do next?’ She is totally amazing. People try to show, oh, how crystal I can play, how fast, how loud. But she is a thinker, and has such depth to her playing.”


Wednesday evening, May 29, at the doors leading into the hall:

The slightly built usher in her burgundy jacket is looking worried as she watches a classic "irate patron" stomp away from the closed doors of the orchestra section. 

"I wish it was written on every ticket in big letters," she sighs. "If you go out, you cannot come in late for the next performance." This man is furious with her, she says. 

"It's absolutely, always been the policy," she tells us. "This isn't just entertainment for the audience. It's a life-changing performance for these pianists, and nobody gets a chance to interrupt that, or cause any kind of distraction by coming in late."

Photo: Van Cliburn Foundation
Van Cliburn

Most people are nice about being shut out of a performance, she adds. "But I guess it's the few nasty ones who stay with you. I had one lady the other day who argued, and then said, 'I'm going to let my sister in anyway.' I said, 'No, you're not', but she suddenly lunged for the door and let her sister go in before I could stop it."

In case anyone's wondering, this is a policy that's been enforced not just on "ordinary" Cliburn patrons, but on the rich and powerful as well. One former Cliburn official told us a story from about a decade ago, of two major donors to the competition demanding they be let in late. The Cliburn official stood firm, but there were voices raised, and loud enough that the doors opened, and Van Cliburn himself came out. (He loved to sit in the very back rows near the door; if anyone would hear a ruckus, it would be him.) 

These were friends of his, but Cliburn backed the competition official one hundred percent: they absolutely could...not...enter...until the performance had finished! 

Good man.


Wednesday evening, May 29, in the Cliburn Press Room at the Maddox-Muse Center:

Chris Wilkinson, the media guru overseeing the Cliburn Webcast (and also the director of the upcoming documentary film on the competition), has somehow persuaded the various music critics who blast in and out of the press room between performances to sit still for a few minutes. He's interviewing them for a short piece on the role of the music critics, especially during a competition.

Photo: Michael Warner
The critics' table, from left: Scott Cantrell, Kristian Lin and Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

Who's in the lineup? Scott Cantrell of the Dallas Morning News, Olin Chism of the Star-Telegram, Gregory Sullivan Isaacs of TheaterJones and Kristian Lin of Fort Worth Weekly. And even though you can tell they are worrying about deadlines and dinner, they try to answer all the questions he's throwing at them: What is your role as a critic? Do you see your job as simply judging the quality of a performance, or relating the whole experience to your readers? What does the Cliburn competition do for both the pianists who win it, and for the classical music world? Do you feel the public's interest in classical music has changed in a world full of reality shows?

He asks them to name their favorite competitors. Our own Gregory Isaacs proves a hard nut to crack. "Not a chance," he says, refusing to talk about favorites...yet, at least. (Note to readers: we're going to work on him, perhaps by plying him with boxes of Dots, his favorite candy.)  

They chat for a while about competitions present and past, and whether they hang out socially. They agree that because they see one another so much at venues all around North Texas, they feel like they socialize...but maybe not. Olin Chism trumps everyone by telling them he's attended 13 of the 14 Van Cliburn competitions—and on that note, they all head back to the evening's next concert.


Wednesday late afternoon, May 29, by the Will Call window in Bass Hall: 

Elena Chernova, the tall, brown-haired wife of Russian competitor Alexey Chernov, has just dropped her husband off at the Cliburn's backstage waiting area. Dressed for the humid Texas weather in walking shorts and sandals, she's standing with Peg Pokrifcsak, the couple's host mom. 

I ask Peg if she speaks any Russian, since I know Elena doesn't speak English. "No, not a word," she laughs. "But Elena has a very well-used little translation book from Russia, and we go to the computer pretty often and type in things we need to translate. But we get into some funny situations. This morning I thought Elena was asking for strawberries, but Alexey said, 'No, no, she wants a dish!'" 

Peg gets a little teary-eyed thinking about "how really, really important" this competition is to the young couple. "Alexey is 30," she says. That means he can't come again—the age ceiling for the Cliburn (and many other competitions) is 30. "So, we hope and pray for him."


Wednesday afternoon, May 29, inside the stage doors:

Photo: Michael Warner
Jayson Gillham and his possibly lucky red shirt

Australian/U.K. pianist Jayson Gillham walks out from the wings with flushed, rosy-red cheeks after his second-round performance, but looking cheerful and calm. As he drains a glass of water (thirsty work, this classical stuff!), we comment on his lapel pin, which says "Chopin 2010.” 

"It's from the [Chopin] competition," he says. "It was Chopin's anniversary that year [the 200th anniversary of his birth], so I wore it for that." We also comment on his dark-red shirt, very similar to the one he wore for his first performance at the Cliburn. Is that his lucky shirt? 

Gillham shrugs a shoulder and smiles. "Well, I suppose it will be—if I move on." 

The preliminary round finishes the next day...and we'll know the names of the chosen 12 then. 


May 29, outside the stage doors:

Photo: Michael Warner
Alessandro Deljavan signing autographs after his second phase performance in the preliminaries

Alessandro Deljavan of Italy is being mobbed by fans: excited teenagers, piano students, Cliburn veterans. He’s one of the most original stage presences at the Cliburn: engaged, joyous, and apparently singing along (and sometimes making up lyrics, we think) to the music he’s playing. After a second-round preliminary performance, he’s signing programs and posing for photos as fast as people can come stand next to him.

As we’ve noted before, Deljavan is the only returnee from the 2009 competition, and we’ve been in touch; he answered some questions for TheaterJones before the competition (see our bios of the 30 competitors by clicking here), so he’s been exposed to my “brutto” Italian before. I tell him his Mozart was “molto felice” (very happy). He switches into English—“So nice to see you!” 

Erica Kafka, who’s the fiancée of Deljavan’s host Jon Suder, says Suder spent Deljavan’s performance time out in a California court, trying a case. “If he could have been here, he would have been,” lamented Kafka. “He really was in the courtroom, too, so there was just no way he could have the video [stream] up!” 


Late morning, Tuesday, May 28, in the lobby:

They draw the eye: a slim, lively teenage boy and his mom, heads close together over a music score during a performance—clearly having a fabulous time. We’d spotted them in their seats at an earlier performance; but when I see them chatting in the lobby, I have to get the story.

We ask them if they have scores for all the performances. “No, we don’t have all the music, but we have three drawers full of scores with us,” says young pianist Noah Hardaway, 17. “We’ve packed up our music library and driven up here—and we’re staying in our 1963 Airstream trailer at an RV park between TCU and Bass Hall.” Noah is here with his mom Lisa Hardaway, who teaches world music at Rice University in Houston. (His dad, Paul Hester, is an architectural photographer who also teaches at Rice.) Together, their company Hester + Hardaway Photographers produces books on architectural subjects.

Photo: Michael Warner
Diehard Cliburners Noah Hardaway and his mother, Lisa Hardaway

“It’s been great,” says Lisa of the Cliburn experience. “I had no idea I was going to love this so much. I am so impressed with this audience full of people who come every day and are really, truly listening. It’s a wonderful thing.” 

She and Noah drove to Fort Worth to let him participate in the PianoTexas program for young artists on the TCU campus—which because of the Cliburn, has been heavily focused on attending sessions of the competition. 

“And because we’re here [at the Cliburn] from 11 to 11 almost every day, there hasn’t been a lot of practice time,” Noah adds. Before, between and after sessions at Bass Hall, Lisa says she drives Noah over to TCU for some all-too-short “power practicing.” 

Noah was involved as a small child with Kindermusik (a method of teaching music to very young children through “kinetic body movement” and “social interaction—you have a community that you make music with,” says Lisa) and had a piano teacher on and off, but he didn’t take piano up seriously until a little over three years ago, at age 14. “And so many of the kids started when they were three!” his mother tells us. Now, he’s immersed in piano “24 hours a day, working, reading, listening, angsting.” 

And apparently, after only three years of serious study, Noah is good enough to be invited to be a student with famed Irish pianist John O’Conor at the Aspen Institute and Festival in Colorado. The Hardaways met him at a private piano institute in Vermont last summer, and Noah and O'Conor have since had the chance to work together at Shenandoah in Virginia, and in Austin. 

Lisa Hardaway hadn’t been able to find a Houston-area teacher she felt was just right for Noah, so O’Conor’s encouragement and interest came at the right time. 

“Noah is a very young player, but he has something, and O’Conor recognized it. ‘Let him come work with me!’ he said, and so we’re going up to Aspen for eight weeks, right after we leave Fort Worth.” 

And where is she planning to park the Airstream up there in the Colorado mountains? Of course, she has everything planned. “We’re parking it on a ranch I found,” she says with a grin. And in the meantime, you’ll find them at the Cliburn, listening, looking at their music scores, and perhaps dreaming a little about Noah being “up there” onstage one of these days.


Mid-afternoon Tuesday, May 28, in the lobby:

Photo: Michael Warner
Backstage Mom Kathie Cummins and her birthday flowers

Andrew Power, whose family is hosting Russian competitor Oleksandr Poliykov, says “Alex” is a great, “easygoing guy” who arrived at Bass Hall a bit later than scheduled today—but in plenty of time for his Phase 2 performance of Brahms and Liszt.

Why? He had to buy flowers. 

“As we were driving over here, Alex said he was remembering it was the [Cliburn] backstage mom Kathie Cummins’ birthday,” Power told us. “We had to stop and let him look for a bouquet—and that’s why he was a little bit late in getting here.” 

Nice guy.


Monday, May 27, on the mezzanine:

Photo: Michael Warner
Dr. Vicente L. Jocson and Zita Tayengco Jocson

We climbed up high in Bass Hall (and the view of the keyboard from there is 88 kinds of heavenly!) to find Dr. Vicente L. Jocson and his wife Zita Tayengco Jocson, both originally from the Philippines. After his medical work took them from New Haven to San Francisco, the Jocsons settled in Pittsburgh. And every four years, they vacation in Fort Worth during the Cliburn. Since 1997, when Jon Nakamatsu won the gold, they have attended every competition in its entirety: in 1997, 2001, 2005, 2009, and now in 2013.

They're both music lovers, of course, but their connections to the Cliburn go way back—and are very personal. Zita Jocson's older sister Henrietta Tayengco was a contemporary of Van Cliburn at The Juilliard School in the 1950s. And at the second Cliburn competition in 1966, the daughter of a close family friend, Maria Luisa Lopez-Vito, competed and won fourth place. (The Cliburn awarded fourth, fifth and sixth-place prizes until 1993.)  

The Jocson's quadrennial trip to the Cliburn is clearly a treasured part of their lives. "It's like watching the Olympic Games for piano playing—it's wonderful!" says Dr. Jocson. 

As we say here, y’all come back next time!


Monday evening, May 27, near the east doors: 

Here’s where we met American competitor Alex McDonald's piano teacher, Lois Nielson of Dallas. She’s age 89 (and counting), full of life and opinions—and still teaching piano. McDonald was performing that night—a challenging program of Ravel, Liszt, Chopin and Stravinsky.

Photo: Ralph Lauer
Alex McDonald

"I began with Alex when he was four, and taught him until he was 18," she told us just before the night’s performances began. "From the time he came in, he always brought me a good lesson. I knew there wasn't just talent there, but somebody who was disciplined and determined."

For all those years, Nielson says, McDonald's lesson was at the same time: dawn. 

"Alex came at 6:30 in the morning every Tuesday and Friday, never late, always with his music lined up," she recalls. "And if you’re a teacher getting up early like that, you want it to be a good lesson. You want it to be a student who's worth getting up for—and Alex certainly was." 

"I turn 90 in September, and of course I'm still teaching piano," she says with a smile. "Right now, I have four little five-year-olds who are just like Alex was. Teaching, if you love it, energizes you, and what God gave me, I live to give back to my students." 

Nielson started teaching piano 70 years ago. "I was 20 when I started, first in Boston, then in Kansas City. I got down to Texas in 1953 and stayed." 

She remembers when McDonald won first place in the nation at the National Music Teacher’s Convention in Los Angeles as a high school sophomore. “So we knew then he was going to make a special career in music, and he’s loved it.” 

“I’m proud of all my students, not just the famous ones,” Nielson adds. “I have 93 students who are music professionals: orchestra conductors, composers, teachers. And there are others who are doctors or ambassadors, but music did wonderful things for them all. Music raises self-discipline and our sense of beauty. It raises up our lives.”


Monday afternoon, May 27, at the stage doors: 

Italian pianist Scipione Sangiovanni has just finished his second performance of the preliminaries. While he changes into more comfortable clothes, we ask host mom Mary Curnutt how it’s been. “Easier than any child I ever raised!” she laughs. “I keep asking him, ‘Can’t I do something for you?’” Sangiovanni comes out in a cheerful blue jacket and I try out my rusty Italian. “Voglio visitare Lecce!” I say, telling him he’s made me want to visit his home city of Lecce in far southern Italy, known for beautiful weather and gorgeous Baroque churches. My Italian is so bad Sangiovanni saves the day by answering in English: “It is a most beautiful place. If you do come, you will please to find me,” he says with a smile.


Sunday, May 26, in the Press Room in the Maddox-Muse Center, next door to Bass Hall:

We had the chance to talk to Dr. Gustav Alink, a Dutch researcher and author who is here at the Cliburn for a very special reason: to throw a party for the competitors. We asked him about the party, of course; but because he’s something of an expert on the “standing” of piano competitions all over the world, we also talked to him about the Van Cliburn competition’s place in that world. 

Alink is co-founder (with pianist Martha Argerich) of the Alink-Argerich Foundation, a Netherlands-based “independent worldwide information and service center for musicians and competitions” headquartered in The Hague. It was created by Alink and Argerich to help young pianists negotiate the complex world of piano competitions, and Alink (literally) wrote the book on this stuff: the foundation’s guide to  Piano Competitions Worldwide is issued annually, and other information is available at

Oh, back to the party. To celebrate the foundations’s 10th anniversary in 2009, they picked 10 piano competitions (more or less out of a hat), and offered to fund and host a reception at the end of the preliminary round of the competition. They’ve done this at 10 competitions worldwide every year since, says Alink, and this is the first time it’s been held at the Cliburn. 

Photo: Michael Warner
Dutch piano competition expert Dr. Gustav Alink

“We were trying to do something special for the contestants, who are always our focus,” Alink explained. “This moment is the most critical and difficult for them. They are waiting for the results, and some of them will have to go home. So the idea was to give them some comfort, some nice food and drink, and a chance to come together and exchange experiences, because they are not always together so much during their practicing.” The reception will be held in the Van Cliburn Recital Hall (across the street from the Bass) early Thursday evening (May 30) as competitors wait to hear which 12 of the 30 will move forward into the semifinals. 


Alink, who lives in The Hague with his wife, a Japanese pianist, says he travels to around 20 piano competitions a year; that’s just one of many reasons why this trained mathematician’s own musical instrument, a violin, is “oh, somewhere—I don’t know any more,” he says with a smile. Alink, in fact, has been more or less on the road since the early 1980s, when he began collecting data and crunching numbers for his evaluation of piano competitions around the globe. 

So what’s going on in that competitive world—and where does the Cliburn stand these days? We asked Alink for his thoughts. He mentioned first that economic woes, particularly in Europe, had forced some competitions to cancel or be postponed in recent years.

“The big Athens competition, the Maria Callas, had to be postponed,” he mentioned, “as well as the Iturbi competition in Valencia, which was suddenly cancelled last year because of Spain’s difficulties.” Some of the smaller competitions have been hardest hit, he says. “Often they are organized by musicians themselves, who are maybe too optimistic by nature, and then the cuts in funding come and they are in trouble. But eventually most will come back, often because a competition has such a strong history, and people want to preserve that.” 

And the Cliburn itself? About 10 years ago, Alink says, he undertook a huge numerical evaluation of 420 competitions. (Did we mention he was a math whiz?) While he came up with a hard number for each competition, weighing hundreds of different factors, he chose to publish the ratings in groups. 

“In the five-star group, there were 32 piano competitions,” Alink told us. The Van Cliburn was in that top group. But thinking back to the numerical data, he has this to say: “The Warsaw Chopin competition was at the very top, because I also weighed things like the long history of the competition, the past winners and the careers they made, and so on. 

“But the Van Cliburn was number two, right after the Warsaw, very much on top. And that is mainly, of course, because of the care taken of the winners after the competition, which is incredible: concerts, management, and so on. Even if the winner should not be the absolute best in the competition, in fact, he or she will have a career. You can make a concert pianist by giving him or her a lot of experiences that might not have been open to them before. It’s an incredible opportunity.” Thanks For Reading

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Cliburn Impromptus
We find the interesting people and facts at the competition in this ongoing blog about happenings in and around the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.
by Jan Farrington

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