At the Van Cliburn Competition, Perfection Is Subjective

Before every pitch in a major league baseball game, there's a moment of stillness. The pitcher nods to the catcher, then maybe he goes through a ritualistic hat tug or arm shake. Before he winds up, he stops and he prepares. The eyes of the crowd rest on him, waiting.

On May 24, 23-year-old Claire Huangci walked onto the stage of Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth and took her seat in front of a massive shiny black Steinway grand piano. She adjusted the bench once, then again. Her hands rested in her lap, smoothing the red satin of her gown. She took a deep breath and then she lifted her fingers to the keys and paused, soaking up the silence of the hall.

It's important to take a moment of stillness before you do something amazing. You have to stop and collect yourself because people are watching you, and you need to put that reality out of your mind. You have to center yourself and remember that the only thing that matters is you and the ball in your hand or you and the keys in front of you.

The finalists at this year's Van Cliburn Piano Competition.
Ralph Lauer/The Cliburn
The finalists at this year's Van Cliburn Piano Competition.
Fei-Fei Dong during the semifinal round.
Ralph Lauer/The Cliburn
Fei-Fei Dong during the semifinal round.

Huangci was the first of 30 talented young pianists to take the stage at the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. The musicians (all between the ages of 18 and 30) came from around the world — Australia, Chile, China, France, Italy, Japan, Poland, Russia, South Korea, Taiwan, the Ukraine, the U.K. and the U.S. — for 17 days of intense musical competition.

The Cliburn, which ran from May 24 to June 9, takes place once every four years in Fort Worth. It is one of a handful of big international piano competitions that attract hopeful young virtuosos eager for a chance to perform on a big stage. If they are lucky, exposure from this kind of high-profile competition can help them launch a demanding career playing with professional orchestras and performing recitals in great halls around the world. Preparation for the Cliburn is rigorous, but then again these pianists have spent the majority of their lives (typically since they were four or five) practicing and preparing for this kind of high-stakes performance.

From close to 200 applications, a Cliburn selection committee chose 133 pianists to perform in front of a live audience in a series of screening auditions held in Hong Kong, Hannover, Moscow, Milan, New York City and Fort Worth. The committee then chose 30 of those pianists to come to Texas and compete. The winner of the competition — this year it was Ukrainian pianist Vadym Kholodenko — received more than $60,000 in addition to three years of commission-free management and concert engagements. All told, the Cliburn awarded $175,000 in prizes to its competitors this year.

Huangci wrapped up the first recital of the competition with a relatively short piece by Russian composer Nikolai Kapustin: Prelude, op. 40, no. 1. It's full of swinging, jazz-like rhythms, but it's also a complicated technical workout. Huangci's fingers flashed across the keys, electrifying the hall. As she tossed off the final notes, her arms flew into the air and the audience jumped to their feet. It was a masterful performance, with excellent technique, a singing tone and obvious musicality. But there were still 29 equally prepared and talented pianists to follow. And there were the judges to contend with.

A panel of 13 judges, each with his or her own tastes, preferences and opinions, determines the Cliburn competition winners. Most of the panel have had successful recording and performing careers at the piano themselves. A few are teachers at esteemed conservatories; some are seasoned classical music critics.

In many competitive events, a clear, objective system of point-keeping determines the winner: Someone scores more points, drives in more runs or crosses the finish line first. With music, evaluation is more subjective. At the piano, technical displays of skill are a means to an end; the goal is expression, and each performer imagines that differently. When a pianist like Kholodenko or Huangci dives into the keyboard, pounding through massive chord patterns, one listener might perceive it as powerfully expressive and another might write it off as pedantic banging.

Sometimes, the choices are clearer than others. At the Cliburn competition, there is no room for a major mistake because the level of technical skill across the board is exceptional. If a pianist has a bad afternoon, botching a difficult scale passage or rushing through a piece at too quick a pace, they likely lose their chance to move on to the next round. Then again, what one judge considers too fast a tempo, another might consider just right.

So why do we have competitions at all in the world of classical music? Is it really fair to judge these young artists — potentially making or breaking careers and dreams — based on a handful of performances? Wouldn't it be better to just have a two-week-long piano festival? "Here are 30 amazing pianists under 30," cries the advertisement you'd inevitably ignore. "Come one, come all and hear them play!"

Veda Kaplinsky, one of this year's Cliburn competition judges and a professor of piano at Juilliard, defended the competition format for one reason: People like it. "If we called this the Cliburn International Piano Festival, people wouldn't buy tickets or sit, glued to their computers, to watch," she says. Competitions create drama, and humans are drawn to the spectacle, the stakes of winning or losing.

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