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Cliburn: Searching for Rough Among the Diamonds

From a global screening, 30 competitors are selected for the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas. Can the world's preeminent piano competition anoint a truly original artist?
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Can the world's preeminent piano competition anoint a truly original artist?

Every four years the Van Cliburn Foundation sends a panel of pianists and preeminent keyboard pedagogues to cities around the world. At each stop they spend days listening to brilliant conservatory students and early-career virtuosos in solo recital programs. From this global screening, 30 competitors are selected for the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas. 2013 is a Cliburn competition year, and the Olympian event started this week.

Every pianist who gains entrance to "the Cliburn" through this narrow portal is a superb player, and many already have enviable track records as competitors and performers. Still, clambering to the top of the Cliburn's global audition heap is hardly a culmination. In a process often likened to athletics, an invitation to the Cliburn competition is a ticket to an exhausting and monumental test of ability and endurance. Winners end up playing nearly five hours of unrepeated solo, chamber, and concerto repertoire. They receive cash, concert appearances and the rigors of navigating an industry unbalanced by an over-supply of talent and shrinking demand.

The Cliburn's opening round requires each contestant to play two solo piano recitals totaling 90 minutes. That first phase, a seven-day exhibition featuring 45 hours of music, is a manifesto of modern piano playing in its gleaming exactness and insistent standardization. To a casual listener, the field of 30 competitors might sound undifferentiated, each musician equally equipped for an international career. An aficionado with experienced ears and lifelong familiarity with the music would hear expressive differences that are imperceptible to most music consumers.

Is standardized excellence a good thing? It's easy to argue that this is the best of times for classical piano. Technical accomplishment has never been at a higher and more uniform level. An opposing view argues that an industry-wide dedication to piano technique has eliminated the quest and reward for uniquely personal artistry and new interpretations of familiar pieces.

The Competition Era

In 1958 Van Cliburn ventured to the Soviet Union and bowled over Russian music-lovers by winning the first Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition, a headline event that started the modern piano competition era. In the ensuing years, as meticulously trained conservatory students began flocking to prestigious piano playoffs, hoping for quick career launches, sheer technical command began to establish itself as an independent value in the music marketplace. Immaculate playing, scrubbed of accidental wrong notes even in the pressure of performance, worked its way down to a baseline of qualification for aspiring pianists.

If music conservatories around the world have succeeded in establishing a high bar of instrumental proficiency, most concert-goers will not complain. Along the way, though, artistry has suffered from a creeping stylistic sameness. Today's young pianists sound pretty much alike in technique and temperament, command and color. Unique musical conceptions have lost value. Nowhere is this vanilla conformity more apparent than in a concentration of emerging virtuosos, such as at the Cliburn competition.

Piano competitions are widely blamed for the modern trend of cookie-cutter pianism. The criticism is that contest judges favor stock over daring, orthodoxy over originality, sterile accuracy over messier passion. Jury decisions do seem to bear out the accusation, at least sometimes, but the complaint loses steam when the competitors sound so similar. The judges are not given much variety from which to choose risk-taking originality.

A self-fulfilling spiral is created when pianists bring safe, orthodox, antiseptic performances to the competition stage. When nobody is taking chances by radically individualizing performances, the competitors seem complicit with the judges in rewarding prefab musicianship. One competitor in the 1986 Tchaikovsky competition was caught in a documentary saying, "Whoever makes the fewest mistakes gets through. I didn't try to play like a robot [in the first round], but I think I took less chances musically."

Facing the Music

The judges in competition juries have a tough job moderating an artistic event whose performance standards are sky-high. We might think their job is to bestow awards, but the larger task is elimination. The Cliburn's first cut goes from 30 the 12; more than half the field must be "sent home," as they say on American Idol. In the 1986 Tchaikovsky, a gigantic group of 224 pianists was winnowed to 63 for the second round. In this setting, when judges must remove many candidates on the basis of finely nuanced variations of skill, it is natural to pounce on any reason to dismiss someone. Imperfect technique, even expressed as a single smudged note, can be a quick reason to put someone on the discard pile.

Richard Rodzinski, former President and Executive Director of the Van Cliburn Foundation, welcomed 30 competitors to the 2001 Cliburn competition with three crucial points of advice: "Don't play for the jury; don't play for the jury; don't play for the jury." The counsel to play as if it weren't a scorekeeping contest, and to bring one's most personal inspiration to the fore, is noble but difficult to follow. And possibly unwise.

Alongside the pianist's fear of note-perfect nitpicking, there is a reason to carefully constrain one's artistic originality. Piano contests are decided by fairly large committees. This year's Cliburn competition will be judged by 13 experts. The pianist's instinct is to please the entire panel. A distinctly personal style that embodies a new way of thinking about centuries-old piano repertoire is going to split the jury, irritating some judges even if it thrills others. Pianists aim for the broad center, and are trained to hit the mark.

Anyone who cares about the evolution of art can see an intrinsic problem with a committee judging whether a performer stirs the soul. Around the edges of that central disconnect fly recurring charges of corruption, rumors of vote-trading collusion, national favoritism, and occasional open revolts within the juries. One sticking point involves conservatory nepotism, when a jury member has a student in the event. Yoheved Kaplinsky, chair of the piano department at the Juilliard School, was a juror in the 2005 Cliburn, where seven of her students competed and one of them, Joyce Yang, was awarded the silver medal. Judges abstain from scoring their own students in piano competitions. But Kaplinsky reportedly received email and telephone threats in 2005, serious enough to warrant police involvement.

The Echo Chamber

Piano competitions carry responsibility for standardizing classical piano, but the entire recording era might be an even more coercive force. The record industry, progressive as it has been in bringing concert music into the home, has created a hundred-year echo chamber in which musical conceptions have become static.

Nobody who loves music would wish that phonographs had never been invented. But some apostles of the piano wish that modern performers had the interpretive conviction and blazing individuality of the pianists who preceded records and radio.

If there is one word that describes past-generation pianists like Alfred Cortot, Josef Lhevinne, Heinrich Neuhaus, Artur Schnabel, and later throwbacks like Vladimir Horowitz, Glenn Gould, and Georges Cziffra, it is idiosyncratic. Classical music is a literal art form, yet surprisingly malleable and open to tremendous interpretive range. Rare old recordings reveal the large extent to which those old-world pianists, who were closer in artistic lineage to the composers, took liberties with the scores.

On the technical side, pianists in the early twentieth century had impressive skills, but with greater specialization than today's well-rounded conservatory graduates. Technical detritus such as wrong notes and smeared passages were put in the shadow by the fierce glare of imperious musical personalities. (Alfred Cortot, who lived from 1877 to 1962, was a notoriously messy, yet powerfully persuasive, pianist.)

Those personalities were forged in a world where classical music was consumed only in the concert hall. Pianists were free of the overbearing influence of records and radio. Audiences that heard piano pieces once or twice in their lives had few preconceptions of how they should be interpreted. Even in 1965, when Vladimir Horowitz famously performed Chopin's Ballade in G minor in his commanding Carnegie Hall return from retirement, it was for many listeners a previously unheard work. The piece has since been recorded hundreds of times. In a 2007 conversation, a competition judge referred to the Ballade as "a top-40 piece."

The Role of Competitions

Piano technique has been plumbed. Today's dazzling conservatory hotshots are consistently infallible, but even they do not surpass the voltage of Horowitz (including scorched and smoking wrong notes) or the unearthly mastery of Cziffra, who not only played the most difficult pieces ever composed, but toyed with them. Yet music competitions seem to be searching for performers who best represent the rote perfectionism produced by music schools.

Why cannot modern piano competitions attract and promote great minds, not only great fingers? Why must winners fit molds instead of breaking them? Even pop music, despite its plastic output and superficial audacity, seems to dig deeper. There was a time when mere proficiency and ordinary musicality would not distinguish a pianist on the world stage. Can the modern star system produce new and titanic musical personalities?

Reviving a more trenchant brand of pianism requires participation by the entire classical-piano value system -- a talented and courageous competitor, trained by free-thinking teachers, judged by an open-minded jury, and embraced by a foundation willing to risk its reputation on blazing individuality. Let's see what the Cliburn comes up with this time around.

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