The Cliburn Report 8: Here, There, and Everywhere

Jade Simmons

[I will be covering the final round of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in June.  Meanwhile I’m picking the best of the current press coverage for you dining and dancing pleasure.]

I’m a bit late with this one, but I have an excuse: I had to write up and record a review of the tour of Anything Goes that’s playing the Fox Theatre locally. That’s the disadvantage of being both a music and theatre critic.

Anyway, I’ve been concentrating on mainstream media outlets so far, but I don’t want to give you the impression that the blogosphere isn’t paying attention to the competition as well. Here are a couple of recent examples:

Chang Tou Liang’s Pianomania blog has been covering the competition at least as assiduously as mainstream critics Scott Cantreel and Gregory Isaacs (see below). It’s interesting to compare their picks with his.

I have mentioned the fine job pianist Jade Simmons has been doing as host of the Cliburn live webcast. Her Emerge Already! blog is worth a look (and listen—it includes audio blog entries).

Giuseppe Greco
Photo: Ralph Lauer

Back on the mainstream media beat, The Fort Worth Star-Telegram continues its daily photo coverage of the competition, including both performance and backstage pictures from day 6 (May 28th).

Gregory Isaacs’s coverage for TheatreJones continues. His favorites from the first, second, and third Tuesday sessions were:

Oleksandr Poliykov
Photo: Ralph Lauer

Scott Cantrell of the Dallas Morning News singled out the following contestants in his morning, afternoon, and evening reviews:

The Cliburn Report 7: Da Capo

Claire Huangci

[I will be covering the final round of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in June. Meanwhile I’m picking the best of the current press coverage for you dining and dancing pleasure.]

No matter where you stand on the question of the validity of piano competitions in general and The Cliburn in particular, you must admit that the folks behind the Fort Worth-based competition/festival are always looking for ways to improve it and raise public awareness of it (not necessarily the same thing).

This time around, for example, they have doubled the length of the preliminary round by allowing each contestant to perform two 45-minute recitals instead of one as they used to do. It’s more work for the pianists and (especially) the jury, but it does give every performer a second chance.

François Dumont

For an example of the importance of that second chance, one needs look no farther than Claire Huangci (23, USA), who opened the Phase II preliminary session Monday afternoon. As Gregory Isaacs notes in his TheaterJones review:

Her performance of excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Sleeping Beauty, in a virtuoso arrangement by the Russian pianist Mikhail Pletnev, has surely caused the judges to reconsider her. Marquis said that the second recital might make up for an off day in the first round. In this case, it allowed Huangci to have a spectacular day after a good one. Also, it helped to make up for her falling, by luck of the draw, into the dreaded first position in the competition.

As it happens Ms. Huangci’s Sleeping Beauty suite was one of the few performances I’ve been able to catch on the Cliburn’s live webcast, and I heartily second Mr. Isaac’s comments.

Alex McDonald

Meanwhile, wall-to-wall coverage by Mr. Isaacs and Scott Cantrell of the Dallas Morning News continues. In addition to Ms. Huangci, Mr. Isaacs’s favorites from the first, second, and third Monday sessions were:

Mr. Cantrell’s morning, afternoon, and evening reviews singled out:

By way of contrast, he named Mr. Favorin “most annoying player so far.”

And so it goes.

The Cliburn Report 6: First movement coda

Jayson Gillham

Photo: Ralph Lauer

[I will be covering the final round of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in June.  Meanwhile I’m picking the best of the current press coverage for you dining and dancing pleasure.]

As some of you may know, this is the first edition of the Cliburn in which the thirty semi-finalists are given a literal second chance to show their abilities as soloists. Previously, the field was cut from thirty to twelve after only one round of recitals. This year, each contestant gets to perform two forth-minute programs, beginning today. That’s a classic good news/bad news scenario, as Fort Worth Star-Telegram writer Tim Madigan observes. “For all the positives,” he writes, “the new format has brought scheduling challenges and intensified the already grueling nature of the preliminary round. In past competitions, with just one recital per competitor, the preliminaries started to feel like a slog for the media and audience members committed to sitting for every note.”

The Star-Telegram also has a photo gallery of day three for your perusal.

Alexey Chernov

Photo: Ralph Lauer

Mr. Madigan also has a nicely balanced article on what winning the Cliburn does—and doesn’t—mean to a young pianist’s career. It’s well worth a read.

Dallas Morning News music critic Scott Cantrell continues his coverage of the competition with reviews of the Sunday evening recitals as well as the morning and afternoon performances at the paper’s arts blog.

The pianists he singles out for special praise this time are Jayson Gillham (26, Australia-U.K.), Alexey Chernov (30, Russia; “the most riveting contestant so far”), and Sara Daneshpour (26, U.S., who “gets the prize so far for the most ravishing playing”).

Sara Daneshpour

Photo: Ralph Lauer

Gregory Isaacs of the Music Critics Association of North America continues his more detailed coverage of the first, second and third rounds on Sunday at the TheaterJones site. He shares Mr. Cantrell’s enthusiasm for Jayson Gillham, Alexey Chernov, and Sara Daneshpour, but has positive things to say about many of the others as well.

Phase two of the preliminary round began Monday, May 27, at 3 PM central. You can view the entire series live at, hosted with great charm by pianist Jade Simmons.

The Cliburn Report 5: Morning, Noon, and Night in Fort Worth

Nikolay Khozyaninov

[I will be covering the final round of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in June. Meanwhile I’m picking the best of the current press coverage for you dining and dancing pleasure.]

Note-for-note coverage of Phase 1 of the preliminary round continues with Dallas Morning News music critic Scott Cantrell’s reviews of the Saturday afternoon and Saturday night recitals at the paper’s arts blog. None of his reviews are unqualified raves although his comments on Russia’s Nikolay Khozyaninov (age 20) include praise for his “pretty amazing performance of Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit.” He also singled out Italy’s Alessandro Taverna (age 29) for the way he “managed to find some surprises in that Cliburn cliché, the Three Movements from Stravinsky’s Petrushka.”

Lindsay Garritson

Meanwhile, my fellow member of the Music Critics Association of North America, Gregory Isaacs, continues his coverage of the first, second and third rounds on Saturday at the TheaterJones site. He has something positive to say about nearly everyone, but his favorites so far are Ukraine’s Oleksandr Poliykov (age 25; Mr. Isaacs loved his Pictures at an Exhibition); Taiwan’s Kuan-Ting Lin (21), who did well by Liszt; American Lindsay Garritson (25) whose performance of Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 7 in B-flat Major, Op. 83 earned a standing ovation; Nikolay Khozyaninov (he loved the pianist’s Ravel as much as Mr. Cantrell did); and Italy’s Alessandro Deljavan (27) whose outrageous stage persona (he grimaces and hums along, a la Glenn Gould) nevertheless appears to come with good musical judgment. “Weird facial expressions matter not a whit,” notes Mr. Isaacs, “and he received a standing ovation.”

The Cliburn Report 4: Morning Mood

Beatrice Rana

[I will be covering the final round of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in June. Meanwhile I’m picking the best of the current press coverage for you dining and dancing pleasure.]

If you missed the first day of the Cliburn’s seven-day marathon of preliminary round recitals, never fear; the Fort Worth Star-Telegram has a huge photo gallery of the contestants in action, along with an article by Tim Madigan describing some contestant and audience reactions to opening day. Mr. Madigan isn’t doing any handicapping yet, but he did describe 20-year-old Italian pianist Beatrice Rana’s recital as “a highlight of the first day, particularly her exquisite sonata composed by Muzio Clementi…The piece featured slow, pianissimo passages requiring a delicate touch, interspersed with fast music that allowed Rana to showcase her speed and dexterity at the keyboard.”

Nikita Mndoyants

Scott Cantrell of the Dallas Morning News, on the other hand, is doing mini-reviews of each recital. His Friday report is less enthusiastic about Ms. Rana than Mr. Madigan’s (although it’s still mostly positive). His praise of Russia’s Nikita Mndoyants and Italy’s Luca Buratto mostly mirror my own impressions from the webcast (although I’m less bothered by Mr. Buratto’s presentation eccentricities than he is). His blog coverage of this morning’s concert singles out Taiwan’s Kuan-Ting Lin as “one of the most impressive performers so far, sensitive to melodic shape and harmonic nuance,” although he also has praise for the Ukranian Oleksandr Poliykov.

My fellow Music Critics Assocaition of North America member Gregory Isaacs is also doing wall-to-wall Cliburn coverage at the TheaterJones site. The link will be updated as he adds more reviews, so it’s worth a bookmark.

Finally, those of you wishing to escape the hype around the Cliburn (and competitions in general) might want to check out Brad Hill’s curmudgeonly (but thought provoking) article at Huffington Post. You may or may not agree with all of it, but I think you’ll have to admit he makes some telling points.

The Cliburn Report 3: Trial by Jury

[I will be covering the final round of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in June. Meanwhile I’m picking highlights of the current press coverage for your dining and dancing pleasure.]

This is the second in the grueling seven-day marathon that is the preliminary round of the Cliburn competition. Each of the thirty contestants will perform two 45-minute recitals in front of a live audience in the 2,056-seat Bass Performance Hall, located in the city’s Modern Art Museum on Commerce Street, and for a world-wide audience via the Cliburn Foundation’s professionally-produced live webcast at

The concerts start at 11:00 AM and run, with two 90-minute intermissions, until after 10 PM each day. It’s a killer schedule that reminds me of nothing so much as the old “continuous vaudeville” shows of a century ago.

For those of you who might not be familiar with the term (i.e. pretty much anyone who hasn’t made a study of the Vaudeville era), “continuous vaudeville” was an arrangement devised by producer Benjamin Franklin Keith in the early years of the 20th century whereby vaudeville theatres were kept open for twelve hours per day, with entertainment being offered continuously. The same bill of acts would cycle three of four times, with audience members coming and going at will. As Rick Easton notes in his on-line vaudeville history site, “[t]he continuous provided the illusion of a constant and thriving business, eliminating what Keith saw as ‘hesitancy’ on the part of patrons to enter the theatre until they were ‘reassured by numbers.’” It was a great deal for Keith; less so for his acts, who had time to do little else than perform and (maybe) sleep.

The Cliburn’s schedule may not be as punishing to performers as Keith’s was, but it seems to me that it must be every bit as hard on a group that’s equally as critical to the competition: the judges. They’re obliged to not just listen to almost eight hours of recitals per day but to listen attentively as well—a daunting task, to say the least. In his backstage look at the 1989 Cliburn, The Ivory Trade, Joseph Horowitz neatly summarizes the hazards of such a schedule: “Impressions, sharp at first, blur and refocus intermittently. The mind wanders. The ears tire.”

John Giordano

And yet listen they must, and with care. When the preliminary round is over, they’ll have to vote to advance twelve of the thirty contestants to the semifinals. If they take their jobs seriously (as I presume they must) they have to make sure that no nuance of any performance is missed. They need to feel confident that their twelve choices are, in fact, the best of the bunch.

I don’t envy them that task. Listening to some of the live webcast last night, I was struck by the stunningly high level of pianism on display. If asked to pick a “best” among the few I heard, I’d be hard pressed to do it with any degree of assurance. The members of this jury—headed by Fort Worth Symphony director emeritus John Giordano—have their work cut out for them.

The Cliburn Report 2: Preludes and Fugues

Image from

Ironically, only 5 of the 30 contestants are women

[I will be covering the final round of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in June. Meanwhile I’m picking highlights of the current press coverage for your dining and dancing pleasure.]

The first notes are only now being played by the first pianists in the preliminary round of recitals, which began yesterday at 11 AM central time (the order in which they’re playing having been determined by a lottery on Wednesday the 22nd), but there has already been plenty of press coverage. Here are a few interesting items.

Back on May 19th, Stephanie Allmon of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram assembled “14 Burning Facts About the 14th Cliburn Competition”, an article that is essentially a FAQ list for those attending in person.

The day before, Christopher Kelly of the New York Times did a brief piece on how the death of the competition’s namesake might affect it. He includes an overview of some of the controversies that have dogged the Cliburn over the years (including the high management turnover rate), which makes for interesting reading. A similar piece in the Idaho Statesman by Tim Madigan of the Star-Telegram is more sentimental and concentrates on memories of Cliburn by those who knew him.

Looking for a one-stop overview of the competition, including social media links? Dallas News music critic Scott Cantrell (who will be covering the entire event from start to finish) had a nice summary Thursday as did Katie Womack in The Dallas Observer yesterday. The day before the Observer had a profile of hometown contestant Alex McDonald by Ms. Womack, a fellow Dallas Music Teachers Association member.

Can’t get to Dallas but curious as to what the concerts look and sound like? Never fear. The Van Cliburn Foundation is streaming the entire business live. You might want to bookmark that one.

More to come.

The Cliburn Report 1: Background Music

Van Cliburn in Moscow, 1958

As some of you may know, I’ll be jetting down to Fort Worth, Texas, in June for the final round of the fourteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition as part of a team from the Music Critics Association of North America. Although my live on-site coverage doesn’t start until then, I’m doing my homework by scanning news coverage of the event right now and sharing here what I see as the highlights.

I’m going to start with some not-so-deep background.

For those of you not familiar with the event, here’s a very condensed and superficial overview. For more details and complete streaming media coverage of the competition, check out the Van Cliburn foundation web site. You can also check my favorite classical radio program, PRI’s Performance Today, which will broadcast competition highlights.

The Cliburn is an international piano competition held every four years in Fort Worth. It’s named after the famed concert pianist (and Fort Worth native) Van Cliburn, who stunned the world by placing first in the Tchaikovsky Competition at the age of 23 in 1958. It was seen as a major cultural victory in the Cold War since no non-Russian had ever placed first in the Tchaikovsky and, in fact, it was generally held that the entire business was rigged to guarantee that result.

Cliburn went on to a high-profile (if somewhat erratic) career. His victory sparked a determination to create an American equivalent of the Tchaikovsky competition. Heavily funded by Fort Worth’s movers and shakers, the Van Cliburn competition made its debut in 1962 and is now held every four years. It has not been without controversy. Probably the most notable of its critics is musician, artistic consultant, and teacher Joseph Horowitz, whose 1990 book about the Cliburn, The Ivory Trade, makes fascinating reading.

This year’s will, sadly, be the first one held without the public participation of its namesake; Mr. Cliburn died of bone cancer in February.

The first preliminary round recitals began this morning at 11 AM, but the weeding-out process of hopeful pianists from around the world began back in January and February when a panel of five judges traveled to Hong Kong, Hannover, Moscow, Milan, New York City, and Fort Worth to hear the 133 applicants for this edition of the competition perform a 40-minute recital. Thirty from that pool were chosen to compete from; you can see a complete list, including pictures and profiles, at the TheaterJones web site.

That might seem like an unfair process since it eliminates any pianist who can’t get to one of that handful of cities, but there’s probably no way to do something like this in a completely fair manner. Past attempts to use audio and video recordings submitted by hopefuls have had their share of problems as well. At least this way the judges get to see the contestants in a real-world setting with an actual audience.

Texas and international media are already cranking out coverage. I’ll skim what I see as the cream and post it here.


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