Going for Gold at The Cliburn in Texas 2017

Maria Roberts speaks to The Cliburn’s president and CEO Jacques Marquis about the competition’s global ambitions for 2017

The Cliburn is there to launch careers and we’re trying to put real-life conditions, like the stress of the concert hall, into the competition

This interview appears in the March issue of International Arts Manager featuring the 2017-18 music competition guide. Get your copy here.

When it comes to gold standard contests, The Cliburn in Texas really does reign supreme. The contest continues to carry the baton for excellence in honour of its namesake, the American pianist ‘Van Cliburn’ (so famous, his surname is enough). As the legend goes, Van Cliburn stole first place at the 1958 International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow during the Cold War – and triumphantly brought the trophy back to the US, where he was welcomed as a celebrity with a ticker-tape parade in New York.

It’s not hard to imagine this show of nationalistic pride happening again: should an American pianist beat the Russians at Tchaikovsky in Moscow today, Donald Trump would surely declare a national holiday and ticker-tape parade tomorrow.

Established in 1962 as the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition (now simply known as The Cliburn), the organisation has long held ambitions to be ‘one of the world’s highest-visibility classical music contests’ – and to all intents and purposes it has succeeded in that aim.

When Van Cliburn died of cancer in 2013, he must have been delighted with all the competition had achieved. Now, four years after his death, the foundation behind the competition (which also boasts a bounty of community, education and amateur strands) shows no intention of laying his legacy to rest – far from it, the quadrennial competition will burst onto the scene in 2017 in stronger form than ever before.

Jacques Marquis joined in 2013 as The Cliburn’s president and CEO (having taken up a position as interim executive director in 2012). He says his task comes with great responsibility because, as he knows only too well, the reputation of The Cliburn goes far beyond winning alone. It has modicums to honour such as talent, grace, excellence and stamina: all assets that are expected of the competition’s staff and ambassadors, as well as its world-famous laureates.

‘The Cliburn is a kind of icon. When I first joined I had to explain to my friends, who knew nothing about piano competitions, why I would move from Montréal to Texas,’ jokes Marquis. [A bilingual executive with degrees in business administration and music, he previously served as executive and artistic director of Jeunesses Musicales Canada, where he established the Montréal International Musical Competition, overseeing 11 editions. He played an instrumental role in Canada’s music scene for 20 years.]

‘I explained to them that a move to The Cliburn is the equivalent of going to Wimbledon if you love tennis! The prestige, the victories and the requirements of The Cliburn are exceptional and it’s a privilege to run the coordination of this competition.’

Cliburn Preliminary Recital

The Cliburn certainly does occupy a stratosphere of its own, but as new competitions burst onto the scene, is it harder to hold onto the top spot? Seemingly not: take a look at its plans and The Cliburn’s business model appears as agile and ambitious as its contenders. Not content to dominate the field of piano competitions in North America, the 2017 contest has set its global sights on unearthing the next best pianists on the planet – and broadcasting that fact to the world. This year it will welcome entrants from 28 countries, whilst audition screenings took place in seven cities: Seoul, Moscow, Hanover, Budapest, London, New York, and Fort Worth.

For 2017, some 290 online applicants have been whittled down to 146 screened auditionees – and from there 30 hopefuls will make it through to the preliminary rounds in Fort Worth this May.

Why travel for live auditions when so many others are using web portals? ‘The Cliburn is there to launch careers and we’re trying to put real-life conditions, like the stress of the concert hall, into the competition, you don’t get that with a recorded submission,’ explains Marquis. He adds that The Cliburn’s reputation is down to consistency and opportunity: ‘We focus on the music first and in all the rounds we provide enough scope for the jury to be able to evaluate the musicians.

Participants at the auditions have to play for 40 minutes. This sounds like a lot – it is – because this repertoire might include two major pieces or three different pieces from composers and eras.’

This is not a contest for the faint of heart. The gruelling nature of The Cliburn has a purpose – it wants to separate the very best from all the rest. It’s long been the case that The Cliburn commissions contemporary pieces, but the twist for 2017 is that all 30 participants in the preliminary round must also play a new piece selected by the competition.

Being disciplined is not easy – and they have to be OK with that. Yes, we are asking a lot of them but this is because we are also looking for stamina, as well as talent.

‘The piece is by Marc-André Hamelin, he is a skilled composer as well as an excellent pianist,’ says Marquis. ‘This, I think, will be a nice challenge for all of them.’

The scary part is that Hamelin will be on the jury to judge their interpretations for himself. The competition period itself is quite long (it runs from 25 May to 10 June), how do contestants stay the distance?

‘In the real-life world of being a professional pianist they have to deal with playing one day, taking the plane, and playing again the next. Being disciplined is not easy – and they have to be OK with that. Yes, we are asking a lot of them but this is because we are also looking for stamina, as well as talent. Some days they will play extremely well, and some days they will play fantastically well, I’m interested in looking at their floor level.’

This ‘real-life’ challenge might sound harsh but once a pianist becomes a Cliburn laureate the bounty is worth the perseverance. The 2017 gold medallist will receive a USD50,000 (€47,000) cash prize, three years career management with The Cliburn itself and London’s Keynote Artist Management, in excess of 100 concert performances, and a recording contract with Universal Music.

And there are benefits for those who go home without gold: all contestants will receive extensive media coverage via a documentary broadcast on PBS, along with broadcasts on American Public Media’s Performance Today.

The Cliburn has embraced digital opportunities with medici.tv, who will livestream the competition online. Meanwhile live simulcasts of the final round concerto performances will be broadcast in North American cinemas through Fathom Events, much like the Met Opera Live. The exposure for the competitors runs into millions.

Says Marquis: ‘Winning the Cliburn is the first step, and that’s the same for any competition, but this year’s laureates will benefit from even more support than ever before, such as seminars and exposure on the website. We’ll also work with the winners on how to manage their social media presence.’

The Cliburn also intends to provide pastoral support for the gold medallist: ‘We will provide a complete mentorship programme, including sending our director of artistic planning out for several of their concerts during the first season to provide support as they enter the life of a busy, touring artist.’

How important is the prize money in setting Cliburn winners apart? ‘It’s important, but I don’t think it’s the most important part. I think the most important part is the 100 engagements that really will open doors. However, it is down to the pianists themselves to play wonderful concerts and continue growing their artistry in pursuit of a lifelong career.’

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