Elite classical musicians are often compared to pro athletes, at least by other classical musicians. We make the comparison because when we see a pitcher hurl a perfectly placed fastball into the strike zone at 97 mph, watch an Olympic gymnast flip backward through the air and land solidly on a 4-inch-wide beam, or observe the blur of a pianist's fingers as they fly across the keyboard, somehow hitting all the right notes at exactly the right moments, we feel a common sense of wonder.
There is a difference, though. In sport, there's usually a very definitive way to determine the winner. Someone reaches the finish line first, accumulates more points, scores more runs. In music, athleticism is a means to an end: the goal is artistry, beauty, and communication. For better or worse, there's an element of subjectivity involved.
On Sunday night, one of the world's most competitive classical music events -- the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition -- came to a conclusion after 17 days of intense music-making on the stage of Fort Worth's Bass Hall. At the awards ceremony, 26-year old Ukrainian pianist Vadym Kholodenko was awarded the gold. Beatrice Rana, a 20-year old Italian, received the silver, and American Sean Chen, 24 -- the first American to medal in the competition since 1997 -- took home third.
With winners announced and crowds dispersed, it's worth taking a moment to evaluate this year's Cliburn. What is its value (to the competitors, the audience and the community)? And how is the event (and the organization) performing in its 50 year?
Why Competitions? There's a general understanding that winning an international piano competition doesn't mean a particular performer is "the best" pianist in the world. It can mean the winner had the best week, made the best programming choices, hid their mistakes most eloquently or performed in a way that the majority of the judges found appealing. There's so much subjectivity involved, some people question the very nature of the competition. How can music, which is essentially art, be judged?
On Thursday afternoon, this question was posed to Veda Kaplinsky, one of this year's Cliburn judges and professor of piano at Juilliard. She 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 said. Competitions inherently conjure drama, and humans are drawn to the spectacle, the stakes of winning or losing. For those involved, Kaplinsky said, losing isn't really losing. All the competitors receive a $1000 award and loads of media attention. The audience is entertained, the performer essentially "paid" and given an opportunity to showcase their talent. It's a win/win.
The Cliburn in the 21st-Century Too many classical music organizations are way behind in terms of social media and online presence. The Cliburn has kept up. Their online webcast streamed each of the 96 concerts to a huge international audience. If you missed a performance, it was immediately available for on-demand streaming. In between performances, Jade Simmons, a smart, sexy choice for webcast host, interviewed competitors and gave thoughtful post-performance play-by-plays.
Thanks to Oscar-nominated director Christopher Wilkinson and producer Lori Miller, the quality of the webcast was exceptional. Eight different cameras were at times distracting in person, and there were moments where I felt the glossy quality of it all felt a bit over-produced, but I'll take a shiny finish over your average shoddy webcast any day.
Simmons and the Cliburn Foundation also interacted with their broad online audience frequently on Twitter, posting viewers' opinions and taking their questions for the pianists. Even though I watched much of the competition live, I found myself grabbing my phone at the end of each recital, addicted to the stream of commentary.
So Much Piano The Cliburn is a little like a piano-recital marathon. During the preliminaries, each of the 30 contestants played two 45-minute long recitals (a total of 45 hours of piano music in seven days). After that, the 12 semi-finalists performed another 60-minute solo recital as well as a chamber music performance with the Brentano quartet. The six finalists then performed two piano concerti with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra and conductor Leonard Slatkin before the final round concluded.
That's a ton of music. And a huge opportunity for local audiences. Even if you only snacked on the offerings, a single ticket to the preliminary rounds gave audience members the chance to hear three recitals. In years past, performers have only played one recital during the preliminaries. The idea in asking them to play twice was that judges can more fairly assess a pianist with a second performance.
I think this is worth reconsidering. Even with just one preliminary recital, the amount of music is mind-boggling. This extra recital felt like an unnecessary 10 miles tacked onto the end of a marathon. Do we need the finalists to be so mentally and physically exhausted at the end of the competition? An International Audience The world-wide appeal of Van Cliburn's celebrity and the international draw of this event brings a huge influx of diversity to downtown Fort Worth every four years. I met more than one person in the last few weeks who came from other continents for the duration of the competition. "It's been a life-long dream," one blogger from Taiwan told me.
It's important for Fort Worth and for Texas that this -- one of the world's most important piano competitions -- happens here. By Sunday night, the national and international media presence was huge, with reporters from around the globe on hand to hear the final performances and interview the medalists.
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Texas Hospitality Despite the fact that the Cliburn competition is shiny and international, there's a sense of local pride and homespun hospitality that runs throughout the event. Each contestant is given a host family -- a local Fort Worth family who volunteers to feed, house and transport them for the duration of the competition. The other night, one host family assured the mother of a performer that her son had a huge casserole the night before and got to bed early. A "backstage mom" encourages the pianists as they step off stage, giving them a quick snack or supportive hug. When they arrive in Fort Worth, each pianist is fitted for their own custom pair of Justin's boots. A distinctly southern hospitality runs through the entire event, down to the free cough drops handed out by ushers as you find your seat.
An Enduring Legacy For the first time in the event's 50-year history, the competition's namesake, Van Cliburn, was not on hand to congratulate the medalists at Sunday night's award ceremony. The iconic pianist, who captured the attention of the world in 1958 when he won the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, died of bone cancer at his home in Fort Worth in February.
His absence -- or maybe his presence -- was palpable on the last day of the competition. Finalists Tomoki Sakata and Sean Chen gave the final recitals of this exhaustive event. The pieces they performed (Tchaikovsky's 1st and Rachmaninov's 2nd piano concerti) were famous in the hands of Van Cliburn. His recordings of both works are iconic. It takes serious guts for a 19 year old and a 24 year old to attempt them at this competition. But then again, when Van Cliburn played this music in Russia at age 23, it was also a bold move.
This year's competition ultimately felt like a celebration of beautiful music at the fingertips of brave and talented young people. It is a big, classy, shiny, international event that somehow still feels intimate and homespun. In other words, it's still a lot like Van Cliburn himself.