Cliburn Piano Competition Embraces Internet

Watch The Competition

This year, the Cliburn Piano Competition is streaming all performances and rehearsals -- live audio

Cliburn Online: This year, the venerable piano competition is streaming all performances and rehearsals online, 11 hours each day. Cliburn Foundation hide caption

itoggle caption Cliburn Foundation

This year, for the first time, all performances at the 13th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition — even rehearsals — are live on the Web. Cliburn officials say they're always open to new ideas to build a broader — and younger — classical music base. In 2001, the competition offered music streaming online. Four years later, it added video streaming. This time, the Cliburn is streaming everything: live audio and video 11 hours a day, for the competition's full 17 days.

To pull it off, lead engineer John Johns basically built a TV studio.

"There's been a lot of big webcasts," Johns points out, "like the Olympics, that were on the air on multiple channels, and things like that. But this to me is the biggest Web-centric or Web-only event that I know of that's not affiliated with a broadcast."

Sitting in his Cliburn Foundation office, President Richard Rodzinski types "cliburn.tv" into his computer.

"That's where you'll have all the little buttons that will take you to the biographies, schedule information, everything," he says. "And then you just click on the big screen, and that's it — you get the actual performances."

Rodzinski is proud of the online extras, especially webcam access to all of the rehearsals. Not even the paying fans in the hall get this kind of behind-the-scenes access.

"It's like having webcams all throughout the theater," he says, "and kind of looking in on what's happening backstage putting this thing together. People love to know what's happening backstage. They love to go to rehearsals, because that's where so much is put together in a way that demystifies the experience."

But there's something of a Big Brother aspect to this that makes some contestants nervous. South Korean Kyu Yeon Kim appreciates the Web exposure her recital received, but as she readied for her performance with a string quartet, she didn't realize it too was live.

"Is it? Rehearsal?" Kim asked incredulously. Then she laughed, "That's going to be a little bit of pressure, I can say."

Russian semifinalist Eduard Kunz was not laughing.

"I don't like the public to follow me in the kitchen, if you know what I mean," he says dryly.

Contestants did agree in advance to live webcams throughout the event, and the video the cameras capture will also be used for a documentary on the competition.

Another Web extra this year is a sort of play-by-play commentary by Buddy Bray that scrolls along the bottom of the computer screen.

"I had to intuit this because it's really not been done much in the industry before," Bray says. "I think what [the viewers] like the best is a road map: 'Now we'll have a different theme. This is the second theme, and it's announced first by the strings and it's taken up by the piano.' Things like that."

Anne Demarest knows most of the music the contestants are playing this year. She's a successful composer in her own right. But at 89, she doesn't travel much beyond her small town of Arvada, Colo. So she's counting on her computer to take her to Fort Worth, Texas.

"I'm not coming up for air," she insists, but then moderates her position: "I might come up for air occasionally, but I'll be sitting here in front of this monitor watching. I still have many years ahead of me, but I'll spend them as much as I can involved in music. And now it's brought right to my doorstep."

And that's where Demarest says she'll be when the winners are announced Sunday night.

Cliburn Competition Awards Two Gold Medals

2009 Cliburn Finalists

Hear the six Cliburn Competition finalists in performances from the semifinal rounds.

Evgeni Bozhanov (Bulgaria, age 24)

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Yeol Eum Son (Korea, age 23)

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Nobuyuki Tsujii (Japan, age 20)

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Mariangela Vacatello (Italy, age 27)

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Di Wu (China, age 24)

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Haochen Zhang (China, age 19)

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Final Round Competition

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James Conlon Conducts the Fort Worth Symphony

Gold Medal performances

Haochen Zhang and Nobuyuki Tsujii both won the gold medal at the 2009 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Hear their final round performances.

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Van Cliburn stands with four of the six finalists in the 2009 Van Cliburn International Piano Compet

Nobuyuki Tsujii, 20 (left) from Japan and 19-year-old Haochen Zhang from China both took first prizes at the 2009 Van Clibnurn International Piano Competition in Fort Worthm, Texas. Van Cliburn Foundation hide caption

itoggle caption Van Cliburn Foundation

Two pianists have been awarded gold medals at the 2009 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas. In a surprise ending to the 17-day contest, 19-year-old Haochen Zhang from China and 20-year-old Nobuyuki Tsujii from Japan shared the top prize. Yeol Eum Son, 23, from South Korea, won the second place silver medal. The third place crystal trophy was not awarded.

Tsujii, blind at birth, had been a clear audience favorite, and for critics covering the event, he had clearly moved well beyond the inevitable label “the blind competitor” after strong performances of Schumann’s Piano Quintet in the semi-finals and Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in the final round.

Hoachen Zhang, the youngest of the finalists, celebrated his 19th birthday in June 3. Cliburn video web hosts Jade Simmons and Buddy Bray, awed by Zhang’s performances, called his preliminary round Petrushka suite (Stravinsky) “perfect” and judged his final round performance of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2, as having “a special feeling that can’t be taught.”

Three runner up awards went to 27-year-old Mariangela Vacatello from Italy, 25-year-old Evgeni Bozhanov from Bulgaria, and Di Wu, 24, from China.

This was the second time that the competition ended in a tie for first place. In 2001, both Olga Kern and Stanislav Ioudenitch shared gold.

About the Cliburn Competition

Every four years, eager young pianists from around the world make the trek to Fort Worth, Texas, seeking fame at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition — arguably the highest-profile piano competition in the world.

This year's contest began with 157 pianists, auditioning from various points on the globe. By May 22nd, 30 were chosen and ready for preliminary rounds as the competition officially opened.

The path to the top is steep for the six finalists, chosen May 31st. Each pianist was required to play two concertos with the Fort Worth Symphony, plus a 50-minute solo recital of music they hadn't yet played in the competition. The performances ran through late in the afternoon on June 7; then, a jury huddles for a few minutes and returns with a verdict.

The finalists this year were the 24-year-old Bulgarian Evgeni Bozhanov; Yeol Eum Son, 23, from South Korea; the 20-year-old Nobuyuki Tsujii from Japan; Mariangela Vacatello, a 27-year-old from Italy; and two from China, 24-year-old Di Wu and 19 year-old Haochen Zhang. Hear their semifinal and final round performances on the left-hand side of this page.

Every Cliburn Competition has appealing contestants with unusual backstories, and this year is no exception. Tsujii happens to be blind, but at age 7, he took home the top prize at the All Japan Blind Students Music Competition. After hearing Tsujii play Beethoven's punishing Hammerklavier Sonata, Greg Allen, blogging for the classical radio program Performance Today, wrote, "Whether you respond positively to his artistic intention, the fact remains that this young man has phenomenal abilities that the rest of us can only dimly comprehend."

And then there's the youngest competitor, Haochen Zhang, who just turned 19 on June 3. He gave his debut recital at age 5, playing all of Bach's two-part inventions, plus sonatas by Haydn and Mozart. He's already performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and reportedly swings a mean ping-pong paddle in his spare time. After hearing Zhang play Schumann's Piano Quintet with the Takacs Quartet (a semifinal-round chamber music requirement), Allen wrote: "Here, the question was, how much chamber music experience could he have, being so young? Well, my guess would be, quite enough to put across a sharply defined, freshly conceived interpretation that made the quartet come alive and play with more precision than they usually do."

As for Bozhanov, Vacatello, Son and Wu, they all appear to be extremely well schooled, with a variety of awards and competition prizes to their credit.

Competition Blues

For as glorified as the Cliburn appears, it's still a piano competition, and for some musicians and critics, that in itself is a dirty word. Skeptics routinely point to an array of past competition winners whose careers have flopped or faded prematurely, after being hailed as the next great thing. And there's a steady stream of complaints about timid jurists who reward only the "safe" performers, while the individualists eventually get weeded out.

Still, winning the Cliburn — or even placing second or third –- can launch a healthy, if not lasting career. Past gold medalists, from Radu Lupu in 1966 to Jon Nakamatsu in 1997 and Olga Kern in 2001, have carved out secure places for themselves in the piano pantheon.

This year's gold, silver and crystal award winners will each win $20,000 in prize money, plus three seasons of concert management, touring opportunities and the chance to record a CD. The jury also awards the best performance of a new work and the best chamber music performance.

New to the competition this year are some welcome technological advances, which help bring the music and the competitors up close and personal. For the first time, the Cliburn Foundation (which sponsors the event) is providing live webcasts of the entire competition at cliburn.tv, including all performances, plus backstage interviews with the musicians.

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