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The Cliburn Competition After Van
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The Cliburn Competition After Van

Ideas & Issues


Last night in Fort Worth, Texas, the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition announced its six finalists. The competition began 50 years ago. And this week, for the first time since its inception, it is taking place without its namesake. Cliburn died in February from cancer.

As we hear from Bill Zeeble, of member station KERA, the competition is dealing with other changes as well.

BILL ZEEBLE, BYLINE: Cliburn did not play publicly in these competitions, but for decades, he attended performances, met the players and happily handed out the medals every four years. But in a 2008 interview, he explained that no one - not even his mother - expected it to last.

HARVEY LAVAN VAN CLIBURN, JR: Little did we realize that in September of 1962, would be the first competition. To which she said, don't worry, Van. There will only be one and that will be all.

ZEEBLE: The event has grown into a year round organization with 15 full-time staff and some 1,200 volunteers. Louise Canafax participated in every competition; first, as a Fort Worth Symphony violist accompanying the pianists, then as the much-loved backstage mother who helped calm competitors with candy, aspirin, or thread and a safety pin to repair that broken strap, as she said four years ago.

LOUISE CANAFAX: It's just a matter of making sure that they're comfortable, whether they're giving me their wallets, their coats. Some of them have a routine, and I try to write down what their routine is. I take my cues from them.

ZEEBLE: Canafax died of cancer a month after Cliburn. Her friend since the 4th grade, Kathie Cummins, is the new backstage mother who knows she has some big shoes to fill.

KATHIE CLEMENS: We just encourage them and tell them that, you know, they're wonderful, they'll play their best, they're human. Don't worry. If something crazy happens, you'll be fine.

ZEEBLE: Cliburn managers say they'll be fine, too, despite other changes. There's a new board chair. Cliburn's past director stepped down after the last contest to run Moscow's Tchaikovsky Competition. The new director is French Canadian Jacques Marquis, who says he'll try to follow Van Cliburn's lead.

JACQUES MARQUIS: We decided to do this competition under his vision and legacy. And for me, I had the chance to talk with him. First, excellence. Second, passion. Third, sharing the music he loved.


ZEEBLE: Marquis believes the Cliburn will be around 50 years from now. And so does Italian pianist Alessandro Deljavan.


ZEEBLE: He competed here four years ago and met Van Cliburn. He competed again this year but failed to make the final cut. He says the death of the event's namesake will not harm the competition.

ALESSANDRO DELJAVAN: You know, the other big competitions in the world are the Chopin, the Brussels Queen Elisabeth. You know, every name of competition, people died many, many years ago. So it was the only one, the Cliburn, where the name from a live person. You know, I think his presence was very important. But, you know, the high standards will be always the same, I'm sure of that.

ZEEBLE: Other aspects of this 14th Cliburn competition have changed. Pianists are now competing for a top prize of $50,000, up from 20,000. And the gold medallist gets a professionally produced studio recording in addition to the release of live competition performances. Winners receive three years of worth of commission-free professional management, with bookings that can and have changed careers.

For NPR News, I'm Bill Zeeble in Dallas.

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