Amid pandemic and war, the Cliburn Competition still puts musical excellence first

May 27,2022


See full Fort Worth Star-Telegram article by Dalia Faheid here.

Music, above all else, is what defines the 16th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

That perhaps rings most true for the competition’s only Ukrainian pianist, 28-year-old Dmytro Choni. The Kyiv native is one of 30 finalists from around the world set to compete at Van Cliburn Concert Hall at TCU and Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth from June 2 to 18.

“It was kind of a dream to take part in the global competition,” he said in a phone interview from Austria, where he has been living for several years. “I just applied, sent my documents and tried my luck.”

As war rages on in his homeland, Choni prepares for an opportunity he’s been working for since he was 4 years old, when his older sisters first inspired him to learn piano. He plays four hours a day perfecting his repertoire for the competition, which attracts global attention, hundreds of visitors and a stepping stone for winners to launch their careers.

“If I have a piano to practice on, then I do practice,” Choni said, calling piano a way of life.

Six Russian pianists will also be competing this year. Jacques Marquis, CEO of the Cliburn, says the decision to admit them was based on the values of Van Cliburn, who brought different types of people together for the love of music. He said that, while the Cliburn condemns the war, it doesn’t want to leave a talented musician out just because of where they were born.

“I thought it was like going against our core of helping the world by bringing the best musicians of the world,” Marquis said. “I believe that muting these voices will be a big mistake.”

‘EVERYTHING KIND OF WENT ON BREAK FOR A LITTLE WHILE’

Choni, along with the other Cliburn finalists, was slated to compete in 2021. Because of the pandemic, the once-every-four-years competition was postponed for the first time since its inception in 1962.

The 30 competitors come from 14 countries, including three from the U.S. There are four rounds, where the list of 30 is narrowed to 18, 12 and six finalists. The gold medalist will take home $100,000, double the prize from last year. Silver will win $50,000 and bronze will win $25,000. Tickets can be purchased for each round, and performances will be broadcast on Facebook and YouTube.

This will be the first time since 1997 that the Cliburn competition will be held at TCU, the original venue back in 1962. The first and second rounds June 2-6 will be held at the new Van Cliburn Concert Hall at TCU, and the last two rounds will be at Bass Performance Hall, which has hosted since 2001.

Anne-Marie McDermott is one of the 10 jury members who will determine the winners this year.

“Since concerts have been back, it’s almost like everybody has rediscovered music making and performance, and there’s a level of joy and intensity because everybody missed it so much,” McDermott said.

Not only did the pandemic pause the competition, but it slowed down the careers of previous winners, who weren’t able to perform as much.

“COVID was tough,” said Daniel Hsu, one of the three 2017 winners. “Everything kind of went on break for a little while.”

Hsu, who was 19 at the time and from San Francisco, won a bronze medal for his performance at the Cliburn Competition, after he applied “on a whim.”

“The Cliburn often does documentaries of their competitions and I had grown up watching them, not ever thinking that I’d ever go to the competition or be qualified to compete in it,” Hsu said. “It was kind of unimaginable that I’d actually qualified to compete, let alone win a prize in it.”

Five years later, Hsu, now 23, is just starting to reap the benefits of winning the world-renowned competition. Cliburn winners are offered management and worldwide concert bookings for three years, along with cash prizes up to $100,000.

“It has allowed me to share music and perform all over in places that I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise,” Hsu said.

Hsu has been busy since the pandemic started easing. Over the last two months he’s played four different concertos with orchestras worldwide. In between all of those concerto dates, every weekend, he’s been playing recitals at various locations.

‘IT WAS JUST SUCH A WARMTH AND ENERGY’

Though he’s performed in several states and countries, Hsu still reminisces about performing in Fort Worth, surrounded by music-lovers from around the world.

“I still remember stepping into downtown Fort Worth for the first time, like walking around Sundance Square, walking around Bass, and just feeling like this energy in downtown where people were all like super excited and people were talking about the music,” Hsu said. “It was just such a warmth and energy in the city that felt so good and special and unique.”

Not only do competitors remember Fort Worth, but Fort Worth remembers them. Competitors forge long-lasting ties with the local families who host them for those three weeks while they’re here.

Fort Worth native Paige Hendricks has been involved with the Cliburn competition since its inception. In 1962, when Hendricks was 13, her parents hosted Lubbock competitor Thomas Mastroianni at their house, which led her to host several competitors herself when she grew up. She became friends with them and is still in touch regularly. Now, she works on a committee that matches competitors with local families, helps to accommodate them and sets up social functions.

There are 800 volunteers who help with the competition and work with competitors. They help with things like acting as interpreters for those who aren’t comfortable speaking English, introducing competitors to Fort Worth, and helping them get from place to place.

“The host families become surrogate parents for these young people,” Hendricks said.

Host families are exposed to another culture, which Hendricks says is like being able to “travel without getting a boarding pass.” She’s hosted finalists from Belgium, Ukraine and England. After hosting Andrew Wilde in 1989, she started doing afternoon tea. From hosting Alexey Koltakov in 2001, she learned what it was like to be a Ukrainian immigrant to Australia.

This year, the Cliburn is placing an especially strong focus on immersing young pianists into the community by having them perform at Fort Worth schools, libraries and parks, Hendricks said.

“Cliburn in the community is another way for anybody in the Fort Worth area to participate, to enjoy this music,” Hendricks said.

‘I’M TRYING TO TAKE EVERY PIECE VERY PERSONALLY’

Cliburn competitors are able to choose the pieces of music they would like to perform as long as they fit within a certain time frame. British pianist Stephen Hough was commissioned to compose a new work for the competition, which is the one piece that will be played by all competitors. The Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra will perform three concertos with the pianists in the later rounds.

Choni, the Ukrainian, says he will be playing pieces from his favorite composers, Debussy, Brahms and Prokofiev.

“I’m trying to take every piece very personally,” Choni said.

While performing hours of their favorite music allows the pianists to express themselves, Choni and Hsu say it can be challenging to play so many pieces together without much time in between.

“The Cliburn has one of the more demanding set of requirements to be able to compete. They require a huge amount of music and repertoire,” Hsu said.

‘WITH ART, PERFECTION DOESN’T EXIST’

McDermott, one of the 10 judges, also served on the jury in 2017.

“To hear the level of mastery and artistry from such young pianists is very inspiring for a fellow pianist, and it’s difficult because there is so much great talent,” she said. “So you just really have to listen incredibly closely.”

It’s up to each jury member how they want to judge the Cliburn Competition; there are no set of criteria or scoring categories.

McDermott takes a lot of notes on performances to help her keep track of each round. The No. 1 question she asks herself is, “Do I want to hear this person again?” She considers the beauty of the sound and how music choices tell a story.

Then, she asks, “Which pianists do I feel are ready to have the kind of career that the Cliburn Competition offers to the winners?” The winners should be able to sustain a demanding decades-long career, McDermott said.

“I like when I feel like the contestant gives a performance and doesn’t hold themselves back because they’re worried. With art, perfection doesn’t exist,” McDermott said. “I love to hear a young pianist who is courageous, who creates some magic, they’re not just playing it safe.”

Judges are told not to discuss their opinions with one another so that they’re not influenced by someone else. Judges choose the competitors that will advance into each of the four rounds. At the end, the winners are chosen based on who gets the most votes out of six finalists.

“The fact that they’re the best of the best, it’s because they transcend the technical thing and then it’s all about the music, and music speaks to everyone,” Marquis said.

‘IT SHOWS THAT YOU CARE’

Performing in front of a large audience, knowing you’ll be judged for every movement, can be nerve-wracking for young pianists. “I get nervous for all the young pianists.

I remember being a young pianist and doing auditions or doing a competition and just the amount of pressure that they’re under. I have a lot of empathy for every single pianist who walks out on that stage,” McDermott said.

Pianists often have routines that help ease their nerves before every performance. McDermott meditates to help quiet her mind so that she is able to be focus solely on the music. Hsu brushes his teeth and takes a nap.

“I think it’s actually a good sign that you’re nervous before a performance. I think it shows that you care about what it is you’re about to do. I think it shows that you understand significance of what it is that you’re doing,” Hsu said.

No matter where his future takes him, Hsu hopes that he can continue to share music with audiences.

“On your journey playing piano at any level, whether you want to go to a competition like the Cliburn or whether you are just learning it for the first time or whether you’ve been playing for many, many years, I think the most important thing is to remember why you’re doing it,” Hsu said. “Hopefully that reason why is because you love the piano and you love the music first before everything else.”


Locations Mentioned: Bass Performance Hall, Sundance Square Plaza