The Cliburn Report 17: Les Adieux

Fort Worth, Texas

The 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition is now history and I’m winging my way home, using the flight time to record some post-competition thoughts.

First, I want to congratulate the Cliburn organization and the Fort Worth Convention and Visitors Bureau for making our delegation from the Music Critics Association of North America feel so welcome and for doing such an impressive job of catering to our every need.

Our Cliburn contact, Maggie Estes, was unfailingly helpful, as were all of the volunteers back in the pressroom. How helpful? Well, on Sunday night, a button popped off my sports coat on the way to the awards ceremony. Not wanting to look like a slob at the black tie reception afterwards, I asked a volunteer if she could locate a sewing kit for me. Within minutes, one of the mangers had located a lady identified as the “backstage mother” who repaired the coat for me in time for the ceremony. That, I think, it going above and beyond the call of duty.

The Cliburn organization also threw one heck of a party for everyone Sunday night at the Worthington Hotel.

CVB’s Jessica Dowdy also threw a great party for us at the Zoo, bought us a first-class dinner at Reata, and gave us a chauffeured tour of the Fort Worth museum and stockyards districts. She even took my wife and I to CVS. I’d heard great things about Fort Worth’s hospitality towards journalists in advance of our trip. Clearly, they were all true.

Fort Worth itself proved to be a fascinating city. Their downtown comes to life after dark with restaurants and bars, and we all felt completely comfortable walking back to our hotel after the concerts. Bass Hall is an excellent concert space, with good sight lines and acoustics, and conveniently located. My wife, the naturalist of our family, also had a great deal of praise for the city’s botanic garden and nature areas.

Seen outside Bass Hall on Sunday

The Cliburn is a great source of pride to Fort Worth, and understandably so. It brings the world to Texas every four years and is one of the highest-profile piano competitions on the planet. That said, I found myself wondering what impact it and other competitions have had on the larger concert world.

A Cliburn medal, as Joseph Horowitz pointed out in his 1990 book The Ivory Trade, is no guarantee of a concert career. When asked at the Friday symposium whether or not he would offer a concert engagement to the Cliburn gold medalist, for example, Maestro Leonard Slatkin said he would not—but that he might make an offer to “one or two” finalists. Indeed, if you look through the list of prior winners in the Cliburn’s fat press information book, you can’t help noticing that most of them have not achieved particularly high-profile careers, and many left public performance altogether.

To a certain extent, that’s unsurprising. There’s no reason to believe the Cliburn jury is any better at predicting the future than any other group of professionals—including those who make their livings at it (economists, for example). But I think it’s also possible that piano competitions don’t prepare their participants for concertizing so much as they prepare them for entering piano competitions. In much the same way that our public school system seems to be creating generations of professional test takers, piano competitions may be creating generations of professional competitors, many of whom go on to careers teaching the next generation of competitors. It starts to look like a keyboard circle game.

That’s not to say being a Cliburn winner (or finalist, for that matter) isn’t important. It provides international exposure, and the medalists get three years of valuable career guidance. I just can’t help wondering whether or not the concert piano world is better or worse off for the many competitions that take place every year. It’s an unanswerable question, of course, but that doesn’t stop one from asking it.

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