Aficionados of piano music in Texas and around the world are probably experiencing something similar to post-partum depression these days. On Sunday, June 5, the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition ( [inactive 7/08]), the most prestigious keyboard contest in the US, concluded after a period of seventeen days during which young pianists (ages 19-30) demonstrated stunning technique and sensitive interpretation. Playing for an international jury and a Fort Worth audience, thirty-five competitors representing thirteen different countries were invited to “The Cliburn.” Notably, for the first time in the history of the event female pianists outnumbered the males. This year also marked a geographical shift toward the East, with the largest number of pianists coming from China eight (seven of them women). Five Americans competed, although none advanced to the final round.

Narrowing the field

2005 marked the twelfth staging of this quadrennial piano Olympics. It began in 1962 to honor Fort Worth’s native son, Van Cliburn, and his victory in Moscow at the 1958 Tchaikovsky Competition, a Cold-War victory tantamount to the American hockey team’s win over the Soviets at Lake Placid in 1980. Since the 1960s, the competition has grown to incorporate three rounds, the first of which centers on a 50-minute recital. Twelve pianists then advance to the semifinals.

The semifinal round also requires a recital without repeating repertoire as well as the performance of one of four piano quintets (Brahms, Op. 34; Dvorák, Op. 81; Franck [no opus]; Schumann, Op. 44) in collaboration with the Takács Quartet, ensemble in residence at the University of Colorado. In the solo recital, the pianist must include one of five newly composed works chosen out of twenty-nine submissions to the Cliburn Foundation’s “American Composers Invitational.” Although the competition has commissioned new works since its inception (premiering works by such names as Copland, Barber, and Bernstein), this year marked only the second ACI, which is developing into a thriving forum for the performance of new music. The composers recognized were Sebastian Currier (b.1959), Jennifer Higdon (b.1962), Daniel Kellogg (b.1976), Jan Krzywicki (b.1948), and Ruth Schonthal (b.1924).

From the twelve semifinalists, six are chosen to compete in the finals, in which (you guessed it) they must perform another recital, again without repeating any pieces from previous rounds, and also play two concertos with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra over the course of five days.

I was fortunate enough to be present for the final round, attending The Cliburn in conjunction with a music critics’ institute supported by the Fort Worth Visitors Bureau. As a member of “the press,” I was able to get a real sense of the international attention paid to the event. A journalist named Thomas Vitzhum blogged daily for a German website; another named Ripan Biswas sent updates to the Seoul Times. It came as no surprise that, in our own country, the coverage was generally anemic outside of the Dallas/Fort Worth area, but those frustrated by the paucity of information could at least follow the event on the Internet. For the first time in the history of The Cliburn, a live webcast was available online, allowing folks around the world to see and hear every performance. Apparently over 10,000 people registered, and during any given performance of the final round, at least 600 computers were logged on worldwide. Fort Worth residents could also watch the competition live on a 25′ x 25′ screen in a large recital hall just across the street from the main hall. This free venue was standing-room only on a daily basis, offering an intimate view of the performers through camera close-ups of hands and faces.

I was struck by the fact that The Cliburn isn’t just about attending the competition; numerous social gatherings and panel discussions fill the time between concerts. One morning the eleven members of the jury held an open forum in which they discussed the processes by which they approached their decisions. A mix of pontification and stand-up comedy, this event was revealing in many ways.

Jury Duty

One judge began the session with the comment, “It’s quite fascinating what’s going on in our minds.” (Those who disagreed with the selection of finalists probably answered mentally, “To say the least.”) The topic of subjectivity ruled the morning. To some, the issue might have seemed self-evident, given the understanding that a pianist does not impart empirical data while playing Debussy. Nevertheless, it was interesting to hear the jurors comment about the critical dilemma in which they sometimes find themselves: where one member hears virtuosity, another hears impersonal technique; where one hears expression, another hears self-indulgence. Because of this subjective scenario, instead of orally debating the quality of one pianist’s playing over another’s, the jury uses a point system to score each performance. The numbers are then adjusted in ways only statisticians can appreciate, and a list materializes of the pianists advancing to the next round. Although the points are not cumulative, the jury considers all the performances when awarding the top prizes. Further, before announcing their final decisions, the jury consults with the quartet and with James Conlon, who conducts the orchestra. Given the complexity of the system, one wonders what a high score actually represents. One member of the jury, offered a profoundly simple answer to this question: “What we are looking for is someone we can trust to be the caretaker of the composer’s works.”

Endearing and eloquent as they were, the jury was not without controversy, particularly with respect to its homogeneity. Ten of the jurors were male, leaving only one female. (While it is true that a second female judge would have attended, except for the fact she had several pupils in the competition, the gender discrepancy would have remained.) A second element at issue with the jury’s uniformity was related to age, most of the judges being contemporaries of the competitors’ grandparents. By no means were any doubts raised about someone in his or her 70s having the capacity for the task; instead, it was again a question about a lack of diversity. To be fair, some potential middle-aged jurors were apparently invited but declined because of schedule conflicts, another reason The Cliburn juries may tend to favor senior adjudicators.

For some, the issue of diversity became even more troubling when Richard Rodzinski, President of the Van Cliburn Foundation, explained to members of the critics’ institute that in forming the jury, the Foundation had in mind a “somewhat unified aesthetic preference.” Rodzinski elaborated on this euphemistic phrase with a practical justification: in order to avoid the potential situation of a jury divided by vast differences of opinion, individuals are chosen for the compatibility of their criteria. In other words, it seems everyone is from a similar “school.” Although some considerations are built into the voting process for so-called controversial competitors, obviously such artists are at a considerable disadvantage when the jury is so monolithic, as was the case this year.

The Concerts of the Final Round

Whether or not someone agreed with the makeup of the jury, or with its decisions regarding the finalists, most members of the audience put aside their grievances once the last round began. The pianists who remained were: Davide Cabassi, 28 (Italy); Sa Chen, 25 (China); Alexander Kobrin, 25 (Russia); Chu-Fang Huang, 22 (China); Roberto Plano, 26 (Italy); and Joyce Yang, 19 (South Korea), the youngest competitor at The Cliburn. These six competed not only for prestige, but also for the substantial cash awards ($20,000 for each of the top three), career management, and recording contracts connected with the gold, silver, and crystal (formerly bronze) awards.

Each weekday evening or weekend afternoon followed relatively the same pattern. Ticket holders made their way to Bass Performance Hall, chatted in the lobby about whom they thought was impressive or disappointing, and then filtered slowly into the 2,000-seat hall, the interior structure of which resembles an 18th-century European opera house. First position on each program was a 50-minute solo recital.

The opening recital was, for me, the most enjoyable portion of each section of the competition. We heard a lot of Brahms and Liszt, as one might expect, but some of the most memorable performances were those of 20th-century works. Davide Cabassi played Schoenberg’s Opus 19 piano pieces in a way that was elucidating; Joyce Yang performed John Corigliano’s “Etude Fantasy” with such passion that she knocked several strings out of tune; and Sa Chen tackled the Barber piano sonata fearlessly (some thought a little too fearlessly. . . ).

After each recital came two piano concertos, each performed by a different finalist fulfilling half their requirement in the genre. Although the pianists are allowed a concerto of their own choosing, they must also pick one from a list of works by Beethoven, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Mozart, and Saint-Saëns. By coincidence, five finalists decided (months earlier) on Beethoven, and of these, three picked the C-minor Concerto. For comparative purposes it was interesting, but hearing the piece three nights in a row grew a bit tiresome. (“You should have been here four years ago,” people told me. “Everyone played the ‘Rach Three.’ Everyone.”) One might have expected the concerto of the performers’ choice to yield a variety of repertoire, but it didn’t. We heard Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto on two occasions and his “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” two times as well. I suppose it smacks of a listener’s selfishness to crave a broad sampling of repertoire from the performers; one must remember that it’s still a competition.

Among those “keeping score,” opinions varied in terms of overall leaders, but over the five-day period one pianist began to separate himself from the others. Alexander Kobrin began his final round with a flawless but sensitive performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor (K. 466), followed it two nights later with a moving interpretation of Rachmaninov’s aforementioned rhapsody, and finished on the afternoon of the final day with a superb recital that included Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit and Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Sonata. Few doubted Kobrin would capture first prize, and the judges as well as the online voters saw it the same way.

The surprise, however, came when second place was awarded. I seldom heard anyone speak of the possibility of Joyce Yang taking the silver medal, but the jury thought differently. Yang’s second-place finish at the age of nineteen may be even more significant than Kobrin’s gold in terms of defining the purpose of the competition as a means to open the door on a career, rather than to certify greatness. Yang also won individual prizes for her performances in the second round, receiving additional cash prizes totaling $11,000 for best performance of a new work (Currier) and best chamber music performance (Dvorák). Sa Chen placed third overall, a sign from the jury, no doubt, that the Chinese piano schools are institutions to watch closely. To my ears, Chen’s playing lacked the feeling demonstrated, for example, by Cabassi, but her approach was bold, sometimes even overpowering. Her performance of Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto, for example, though technically impressive, was so assertive that the character of the Rondo finale lacked any sense of dance. Although the jury recognized outstanding technique, clearly they expected more in terms of musicality.


During a public session similar to the one hosted by the jury, Maestro Conlon revealed his ambivalence about the idea of competition among artists, pointing out that that the champion may be only one type of pianist: perhaps the person who wins performs well under stress, or perhaps he or she is simply not controversial. Conlon’s point is certainly something to keep in mind. For the audience, however, the competitive aspect of the event naturally diminishes with the realization that all the performers are incredibly talented, and that, cliché though it may be, the jury has no easy decisions. True, many enjoy keeping tabs on the “horse race” from concert to concert, but the derby pales in comparison to the celebratory atmosphere surrounding The Cliburn. It’s more of a piano festival than a contest, and the highlight of the gala was Alexander Kobrin.

Ironically, someone in the press room referred to Kobrin as “a marketing nightmare,” because of his restrained and seemingly cool personality. While it is true that Kobrin eschews grand physical gestures and facial histrionics, the emotion in his playing is unequivocal. Indeed, the variety of stylistic expression of which he is capable, demonstrated in Fort Worth through his interpretations of Mozart, Ravel, and Rachmaninov, argues for the “marketability” of this artist (if one even considers commercial success important in the first place). When Kobrin visits the Carolinas, make every effort to hear this young genius.

N.B.: A documentary on this year’s Van Cliburn competition, “In the Heart of Music,” airs on PBS on October 3.

Updated 6/13/03.