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.

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.

And anyway, for those involved, Kaplinsky explains, losing isn't really losing. All the competitors receive a $1,000 award and loads of media attention. The audience is entertained, and the performer is essentially "paid" and given an opportunity to showcase their talent in front of a large international audience.

Huangci made it into the semifinals, but was eliminated before the final round. "What were they thinking?" some in the audience asked. Possessed of our own biases and prejudices and moods, we whine about the judges' ineptitude. And then we head back in for more because we can't take our eyes off the human drama unfolding before us.

On one page of the score for Igor Stravinsky's 37-page long Trois mouvements de Pétrouchka, there are some 498 individual notes a pianist must strike, accurately, in the span of just a few quick moments. This particular piece — a clashing, dancing monster of modern music — was performed seven times during this year's Cliburn competition. It is a technically demanding showpiece characterized by eccentric rhythmic patterns and bizarre harmonies. It is also, not incidentally, a piano rendition of one of the composer's most famous ballet scores. It is music that, in the right hands at the right time, dances.

Vadym Kholodenko, this year's gold medalist, performed Stravinsky's Pétrouchka at the end of his second preliminary-round recital. For many in the audience, Kholodenko's recital came at the end of a long afternoon of listening. His was the last of nine recitals that day. He didn't even take the stage until 9:25 p.m. For weary ears, the thought of sitting through yet another banging, clanging Pétrouchka rendition, even for the most dedicated fan or critical judge, had to be tough to swallow. Kholodenko shook out his wrists and arms and then launched into the sea of notes. Fingers flew as they had all week, but as he played, the audience grew more attentive. They woke up from a collective daze and sat forward in their seats.

In Kholodenko's hands, the music danced. It lilted and twirled and zipped and jolted with dizzying speed and accuracy. After so many examples of sheer technical skill, this was a virtuosic display not of piano playing, but of thrilling music-making. It was mesmerizing not because it was impressive (although it was), but because it took you to the edge of exhilaration and then jumped back, leaving you breathlessly waiting for the next sonic rise to whip your ears around the psychedelic dance floor of your imagination.

Kholodenko was not the only musician who turned notes into spellbinding musical moments during this year's Cliburn competition. He deserved to win, but he also was not the only pianist who did. Others, like Huangci, were less lucky this time. And that, well, to adapt some words of wisdom from Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington, that's the way piano competitions go.

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Katie Womack
Contact: Katie Womack

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