Four years after Van Cliburn's passing, we explore the genesis and legacy of one of the most prestigious international solo piano competitions in the world as we approach its 15th quadrennial cycle.
"Horowitz, Liberace, and Presley rolled into one." - Time Magazine (1958)
Inspired by Chris' Intermezzo feature this week about the 1928 International Columbia Graphophone Competition, it came to my attention that the 15th Cliburn International Piano Competition is coming up in May/June. Not only that, but a pianist familiar to Winnipeg audiences will be the first to both sit on the jury and to have composed the competition's commissioned work: Marc-André Hamelin.
But, we should start at the beginning... ish.
At the age of 23, Harvey Lavan Cliburn Jr. won the hearts of classical music lovers the world over and became an icon of peace in the midst of the cold war. Welcomed home with a ticker-tape parade in New York city on his return from winning the Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow, Time Magazine hailed him as "The Texan Who Conquered Russia" on the cover of their May 19, 1958 issue.
Van Cliburn's love for Russian culture started young. It was first the architecture, then the music. Listeners imbibed his passionately elegant playing like sweet wine; he broke through the pragmatism of music making in an exceedingly repressive political climate and brought beauty back to the fore. The jury was so compelled by this young American's playing that they consulted with Soviet government officials before offering him the award. He was too obviously worthy.
He played for every American president from Truman to Obama.
Van spoke so fondly of the Soviet people, remarking that they were as warm as the people in his home state of Texas. It was, in fact, a warm and wealthy Texan with a penchant for piano music who funded the first competition in Cliburn's namesake. Whether he was more inspired by the music or the opportunity to out-do the Russians doesn't matter at this point.
It is with that spirit, however, that the Cliburn competitors are cared for once they step foot in Forth Worth. The competition has changed that city's cultural landscape; you can find burly men in ten gallon hats and spurs who will talk to you about their favourite Brahms sonatas. Competitors are billeted with exceedingly generous Forth Worth families who smother them in southern hospitality (and offer them a high quality piano and practice space steps from where they sleep).
Interestingly (but not surprisingly, I suppose) they have been one of the most technologically progressive competitions in the world. The folks at the Cliburn started trying to figure out how to live-stream in the late 90s. Now, they broadcast the competition live in cinemas all over the world. They also have their own YouTube channel with loads of fantastic performances from past competitions (including the amateur and junior competitions) in addition to a live performance series featuring contemporary classical heroes (who are not all pianists)!
Ultimately, the competition embraces complete musicianship. Through multiple rounds of repertoire including solo recitals, concerti, and chamber music; these pianists are run through the ringer. Cliburn understood the intensity of preparation, the profound anxiety that goes along with (performing and) competing, and what these pianists need in key moments of their careers. He also understood the diplomatic power of music and the immense responsibility that comes with the gift to wield it. Yes, there is usually only one grand prize winner, but six pianists are awarded commission-free representation for three years in addition to cash prizes.
And for you oustanding amateur pianists out there who are inspired by these sorts of things, there's good news for you! In 1999, the Cliburn established an auxiliary competition for you, too!
Fostering the legacy of classical music was his purpose.
"I'm only a witness and a messenger. I'm only one of many who believe in the beauty of music."
Just five months before bone cancer claimed Cliburn's life at the end of February 2013, PBS' The Cliburn: 50 Years of Gold was released. Interviews with and clips of Cliburn himself, past winners of the competition, and a few other people of interest (not to mention a whole lot of amazing musical moments) illustrate the intricacy and impact of Van and his competition.
I may have cried a little.
Watch it below.
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