United States Sixteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition: Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra / Marin Alsop (conductor), Bass Performance Hall, Fort Worth, TX, 2-18 June 2022. (RP)
Sitting in Fort Worth’s Sundance Square with the temperature nearing100°F on the last day of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, you could feel the excitement mounting. Later in the day, Bass Performance Hall would be filled to capacity for the final concert of the competition, followed by the awards ceremony. Both events would be broadcast live to the square with a party open to all, celebrating not only the winners but also rejoicing in the pride Fort Worth takes in hosting one of the world’s premiere classical music competitions.
I was part of a contingent of North American music critics who traveled to Fort Worth courtesy of the Music Critics Association of North America, with the generous support of the Van Cliburn Foundation and the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce. For the critics, presenters and others, the Cliburn offered much more than concerts and press conferences. There were illuminating symposiums on classical music and social impact and building a career in music in the present day, as well as one with the judges that shed little light on the selection process but provided invaluable insights into the life of a top tier concert pianist.
We arrived on 14 June as the final round was about to begin. One in our group described the experience as akin to showing up at a baseball game after the eighth inning. Over the previous 12 days, 30 contestants from an original field of 388 applicants had been winnowed down to six finalists: Anna Geniushene (31) and Ilya Shmukler (27) from Russia, Dmytro Choni (28) from Ukraine, Uladzislau Khandohi (20) from Belarus, Yunchan Lim (18) from South Korea and Clayton Stephenson (23) from the US. Nonetheless, it was some ninth inning.
Van Cliburn and Fort Worth are synonymous. The 23-year-old Texan skyrocketed to fame when he won first prize in the first Tchaikovsky Competition held in Moscow in 1958 at the height of the Cold War. Apparatchiks thought it best to consult Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev prior to giving the award to an American. Upon his return to the US, Cliburn was given a ticker tape parade in New York, and he remains the only musician ever granted that singular American tribute.
A group of volunteers held the first Cliburn competition in 1962. Sixty years later, it seems as if the entire city of Fort Worth embraces it. If your Uber driver is a Fort Worth native, you are bound to hear a story about it or perhaps even about Cliburn himself. The over 600 volunteers are the backbone of the competition: host families welcome not only a competitor into their homes for almost a month but also a Steinway baby grand piano.
The pianists who participated in the competition, which had been postponed from 2021 due to the pandemic, represent all that is right in the world, although hope was the word more frequently employed. The competition came to be in an era of geopolitical tensions, and this one took place in equally difficult times. Just as Khrushchev assented to the Tchaikovsky being awarded to the best performer in 1958, Jacques Marquis, Cliburn president and CEO, held firm on the resolution that in 2022 competitors from all countries would be permitted to participate and be judged solely on their artistry.
The competition has global appeal. At the awards ceremony, Marquis stated that 8.5 million viewers from 170 countries had viewed the streams of the concerts, while more than 50 million people from 51 countries engaged with the competition via social media.
Conductor Marin Alsop, who led the final round of concerts in which each of the six finalists performed a concert, chaired a jury made up of some of the most renowned pianists in the world. The jury votes without any deliberation, which is not unique in musical competitions, and the jury chair only votes in the event that there is a tie. Alsop repeatedly jested that keeping the jury in check was like herding cats, although she quickly added that they talked about everything except the contestants, which is forbidden by the rules.
In 2022, the competition was open to pianists born between 12 June 1990 and on or before 2 June 2004. It is one of the most prestigious piano competitions in the world and has especially rich prizes. The first-prize winner receives a cash award of $100,000; three years of individualized career management including US and international concert tours; a Steinway Recording Prize Studio Album; a promotional package that includes press kits, videos and a website; and performance attire provided by Nieman Marcus, the iconic Dallas-based, luxury-brand department store. Albeit the cash prizes are less, the second and third prize winners fair well too, as do many of the other competitors who receive awards at the discretion of the judges.
The six finalists had already proved their mettle, and their technical abilities were not at issue. More than once, the judges stressed that a few smudged notes or a memory slip would not factor into their ranking, as they had all been there themselves. What they were looking for was a connection with the music so deep that it was conveyed to the audience. All six pianists had that ability but, of course, there could be just one winner.
It was a fluke that three of the finalists performed Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No.3. Khandohi had played it at the first of the four concerts, while Stephenson and Lim did it at the third one. Khandohi and Stephenson gave fine accounts of what is generally acknowledged as one of the most difficult works in the repertoire, but Lim’s performance caught fire and propelled him to first prize.
Lim’s dazzling playing in the finale of the Rachmaninoff, which transfixed the audience in Bass Hall, inspired Alsop and the orchestra to heights unsurpassed in any of the other performances. The applause that followed was endless: a star had emerged before our eyes.
The young South Korean pianist garnered two other awards for Best Performance of a New Work: Fanfare Toccata by Sir Stephen Hough, who was also one of the judges; and the Audience Award, presented by medici.tv, which was determined by more than 13,400 votes from 84 countries.
Second prize went to Geniushene, who is pregnant with her second child. She had played a stately Beethoven Piano Concerto No.2, but Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1, which was the last work performed in the competition, revealed the power of her playing and the depth of her artistry. The finale of the Tchaikovsky was thrilling, and the audience immediately leaped to its feet.
Geniushene’s exhilarating performance of the Tchaikovsky was an appropriate end to the competition. It was one of the works that Van Cliburn played in Moscow in 1958. The other, unsurprisingly, was the Rachmaninoff Third.
The audience response to Choni might have been fueled in part by compassion, but good will doesn’t win a top prize at a competition. Choni gave a towering performance of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No.3 in the opening concert which propelled him to frontrunner status from the start. His playing of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.3 was exceptional for its elegance, but even more so for the emotional arc that he created from beginning to end.
As for the remaining three finalists, there are moments that will long be remembered. The ease and fluidity of Stephenson’s playing, to say nothing of his charisma, stood out in Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F major. On a more intimate scale, Khandohi revealed his romantic soul in the second movement of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No.1 in E minor.
None of the six pianists summoned the sheer volume of sound that Shmukler did in his riveting performance of Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor, or his penetrating performance of the Rachmaninoff Third. This pianist is far more multi-faceted, however, and was awarded the prize for Best Performance of a Mozart Concerto for his Piano Concerto No.20 in D minor in the semifinal round.
The awards ceremony opened without fanfare. Vadym Kholodenko, who won first prize in the 2013 Cliburn Competition, walked on stage, sat down at the piano and began to play the Ukrainian National Anthem. He, like Choni, was born in Kyiv. Few in the audience would have recognized the music a few months ago but, after a measure or two, the entire audience rose to its feet.
During the press conference with the judges, Lilya Zilberstein, who captured the spotlight when she won the Busoni Competition in 1987, said that there were two things which she did not comprehend. The first was weekends, as she had none, and the other was quality time. The time most precious to her was when she was able to practice.
After receiving the gold medal, Lim was asked by a member of the press how he would be able to balance his education with a performance schedule. He responded that he would have to discuss that with his teacher. For now, however, he had to focus on practicing. For a critic whose beat is New York, I can’t help but think Carnegie Hall is in his future.
For more on the Van Cliburn Competition click here.