Pianist Di Wu performing at the 2009 Van Cliburn Competition.
Photograph used by permission; © 2009 Altré Media
From May 22 to June 7, the 2009 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition took place in Texas. Started in 1962 by Van Cliburn himself, who stunned the Cold War world of 1958 by becoming the first American to win the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, the Cliburn has become a major event in the world of classical music. The participants are chosen through an exhaustive process, and the winners receive enormous media exposure, professional management, and up to three years of worldwide concert engagements. Its prestige is increased by the fact that it happens only once every four years. Extraordinarily, this year, the entire competition was broadcast live on the internet. I watched a lot of the coverage, becoming more and more obsessed as it came down to the finals.
Every performance was archived and is still available for viewers to watch and hear - with headphones the sound quality is excellent - and in addition there are video portraits of the performers, a lot of other background material, and an official competition blog for information and discussion of the competition.
That's where I met Brad Hill, who seemed to be a like-minded avid observer and classical music lover. After the award announcement, which was definitely controversial, I wrote to Brad and asked if he'd like to discuss the Cliburn with me here, and he graciously agreed. Over the next few days I'll be posting our conversation. We tried to talk about the competition and related topics in a personal way that both musicians and non-musicians would find interesting. In particular, we both felt that the Cliburn's innovative and generous webcast format bodes well for the future of music and the other arts that so many of us are worried about, and toward the end of the conversation we talk about that some more. We'd both love to hear your thoughts, and are happy to try to answer any questions you might have!
Beth: Brad, I liked your comments on the competition thread and appreciated the fact that you had tracked me down on Twitter! Some of the topics I thought we might talk about are why the Cliburn is exciting, why we both watched it, what it means in classical music today, and how we felt about the vote. But what do you think people would find interesting? And are you a pianist yourself?
Brad: Most people would probably wonder why anyone would get obsessed with a piano competition online. I went to a music school and have done a bit of competing myself, so I have an endless appetite for piano music -- especially live piano concerts. And this one is like the Olympics. The foundation scours the globe for the 30 best pianists; each one must prepare five hours of music; and there is intense unfolding drama over about three weeks. They hold it every four years. I dug in last time (2005), and this year the webcasts were really well done.
What attracts you to the Cliburn? Do you have a musical background, or do you simply love piano music?
Beth: I've played since I was five, but not on anything like this level. I'm more of an all-around, avid amateur musician - I've studied piano, flute, and voice and sing now in a semi-professional choir. My piano playing is mostly classical and for pleasure, but I do practice! My hat's off to you for competing - you must be pretty good. Do you play a lot now?
Brad: I make some time to practice, and wish I could do more. I started when I was six, and went to the Manhattan School of Music. Garrick Ohlssoh, William Wolfram and I grew up near each other, at roughly the same time. They both took the piano a lot further than I did. :) In fact, I first got interested in piano competitions when Garrick won the Warsaw Chopin, in 1970. I was still in high school. I did some studying with the teacher who prepared him for the Chopin, then it was off to conservatory.
Beth: I admire that tremendously, and I'm glad you still find time to play and still enjoy it; I know some people who were very very good but somehow lost the love. Maybe they were pushed too much; in one case it was because of severe stage fright. For me, music is very personal but it's also a bit like doing a sport with people who are better - they spur you on and help you progress. I've always been around musicians; my aunt is a professional, my father is a good natural musician who plays and sings, so there was always music in our house; my college roommate and several close friends were piano majors. I was always trying to keep up, at least to some degree, and maybe that's still true. Even though I'm 56 now, I'm still working on it, and improving. Not many things in life give you that kind of pleasure and absorption all the way through.
first got interested in the Cliburn when I saw the documentary from
the year that Olga Kern won, and also from reading a great article in
the NY Times a while ago about the associated amateur competition. Last year in
Montreal I got very wrapped up in the international organ competition
and went to a number of the live sessions. There was also a piano
competition with the symphony, and I listened on the radio and went to
the finals. But this was the first time I've gotten into an online
experience of a competition. The webcast coverage was excellent, I
thought, and I have to admit I'm sorry it's only once in four years!
What did you think about the coverage? Did you really watch ALL of it?
Brad: I did watch all of it until the final weekend, when I left town for a wedding. One great aspect of the online presentation is the archive. I was able to catch up when I got back. Anyone can go there now and watch all the performances. It's an amazing body of recorded music,free of charge.
I love the community feeling fostered by the Cliburn Foundation. In 2005 and this year they put up a blog on which anyone could leave comments. That place got more populated as the contest went on. It also got pretty fierce in there, with plenty of arguments about the performances, who should win, etc.. At least two concert pianists that I know of were in the thick of it, and dozens of other people were expert listeners and lifelong lovers of classical music. The blog, by itself, was great theater even as the competition drama was unfolding on stage!
(to be continued tomorrow)
Evgeni Bozhanov, Bulgaria (official competition photo, c 2009 Astre Media)
Beth: So let's talk about the performances a little. What are the judges looking for in the early rounds? Do you think some very good players failed to make it into the semis and finals this time?
Brad: There is always lots of speculation, in piano competitions, about what the judges are looking for. At the Cliburn, the official line is that they are searching for mature performers who can step into a concertizing career immediately. It might be ironic, then, that the two winners this year were the two youngest competitors.
There were two players from the preliminary round that I wanted to hear again: Spencer Myer and Zhang Zuo. Going into the event, I was familiar with only one pianist, Stephen Beus, who has done some recording. I was rooting for him based only on familiarity, but he banged a bit in his preliminary recital and was eliminated. and we should always remember that everyone who gets to the competition is spectacularly accomplished -- the Cliburn Foundation has already winnowed down from hundreds of auditions around the world. And each of those applicants is excellent, too! There is a lot of talent out there.
We must talk about the final decisions. What did you think of the medalist choices? In 2005 I predicted the placement of the six finalists perfectly. This year I couldn't have been more wrong! My two favorites placed fifth and sixth. I think the silver medalist is unequipped for a major career. Then there is Nobuyuki Tsujii, the blind pianist who shared the gold medal and will probably get most of the headlines. What an amazing and inspiring display of human achievement. But (here it comes!) as a pianist, I honestly don't believe he should have won, or even been in the finals. He played very difficult programs almost flawlessly, but also, to my ear, without much dynamic range or special musical insight. It seems churlish to complain at all about that amazing young man (he is only 20!). But on the blog there was a wide range of opinion about him. Some people thought he was a gift from heaven, and others thought he should have been excused after the first round.
(official competition photo, c 2009 Astre Media)
Beth: I would have picked Vacatello for the gold, Bozhanov for the silver (I think those were your picks too, but in the other order) and Di Wu for third place. I wasn't impressed with the silver medalist at all and don't understand why some people felt she was the standout competitor, so that was one major disagreement. I do recognize what is extraordinary about both of the gold medalists - the enormous human achievement of Nobuyuki Tsujii, and the prodigy-like virtuosity of Zhang - but neither one moved me in their performances.
(As an aside - I was talking about the blind competitor with a composer-friend and said I felt guilty for not liking his playing more, because it seemed so astonishing to me that he could play so perfectly and learn all this music from memory. My friend said, "It's actually not that incredible. There's Braille music, and if he's been at it all his life, he probably has no more trouble learning that way than a skilled, sighted pianist learning from a printed score." I didn't even know Braille music existed, and probably many other listeners didn't either.)
What I was looking for, I guess, is that elusive quality we call "musicality." Vacatello has it in spades; no matter what period of music she was playing, she inhabited it and gave it to us; I would happily go and hear her perform anywhere. Bozharov was the risk-taker and the most original of the finalists, and I admire that and wish it were more often rewarded in competitions. Di Wu played extremely well, I think, and I felt there is evidence of a real musical intelligence at work; she's just young still. After four more years of maturing I bet she will be fantastic.
Brad: Yes, you and I are on the same page. In addition to Vacatello's ferocious technical command and unstoppable musicality (her Italian Concerto of Bach was to die for!), I like her intense concentration at the piano. Bozhanov was the most polarizing figure in this event. Wasn't it fun watching people argue about him on the blog? He stood out because of his individuality, which is rare in classical music. Casual concert-goers might not realize it, but their favorite pianist probably sounds very much like all the other touring stars. The modern recording era has established standard playing styles for different composers, and to win a big contest you can't play outside that mold. Bozhanov broke the mold! I thought he was sensational, and I'd rather listen to an unsuccessful performance that flies too close to the sun, than a safe performance that stays in the shadows. Bozhanov burned himself in the Cliburn, but many people will remember him and follow his career.
Mariangela Vacatello, Italy (official competition photo, c 2009 Astre Media)
Beth: I'm glad you mentioned Vacatello's Italian Concerto - it was stunning. What I felt in her playing, and in Bozhanov's, was their own depth as musicians and, frankly, as people. I simply don't think this is possible until one has grown up a bit and lived for a while as an adult. The video "performer portraits" included in the competition coverage were very good, I thought, and also revealing. When young Zhang, for instance, said "I feel safest at the piano, I was a very quiet child, I still don't like to talk much," and then we see him at the awards ceremony, in a tuxedo with his white ear buds on, completely in his own world, that says something. Meanwhile Vacatello and Bozhanov were laughing, talking, interacting with friends and colleagues. I'm not saying that a quiet introverted person can't be a great musician -- of course they can, there are many examples, and it goes without saying that one has to enter deeply into one's self to be great. But I didn't find the same depth or maturity in Zhang's playing, or Nobu's, as in these two older competitors, and I also worry about how the two gold medalists will hold up under a grueling three-year concert and travel schedule. I wish them the absolute best, of course!
--the conversation continues tomorrow, about how coverage like this might help classical music in the future.
Van Cliburn presents the gold medal to
Brad: The Cliburn requires chamber music performances in the semifinal round. I don't have much chamber experience, so I have trouble evaluating those performances. Have you played much chamber music?
Beth: I've never played chamber music for piano and strings but I've done lots of ensemble work, on flute as a younger person in bands, orchestras, and woodwind quintets, and then for many years singing with other people and various instruments, so I do feel fairly comfortable evaluating that category. However I didn't watch much of it - I need to go back and see more of the performances. I saw Son's semifinal chamber performance, and thought it was good but I just wasn't...captivated. Moved. Her manner at the piano is also too affected for me to really warm up to her. What did you think about this category?
Brad: I fade out a bit during that round. I like the pieces, but don't know them like I know the solo literature. I'd be perfectly content if the Cliburn eliminated the chamber requirement,
though I understand why they don't. They are searching for well rounded musicians. I thought Edouard Kunz looked about as comfortable as I would be during his quintet -- he appeared almost to be sight-reading!
I agree with you about age, and seasoning, and maturity. I was hoping the jury would give Zhang a discretionary award, then bring him back in four years to conquer the world. He hasn't figured out what type of musician he's going to be. Or, if he has, then his spectacular technical ability isn't being put to much purpose.
Beth: We should touch on the question of the future of classical music, and how competitions like the Cliburn fit into that - any comments?
Brad: The whole Cliburn experience dovetails in a peculiar way with the shrinking consumer market for classical music. Even as audiences in many venues get smaller, CD sales are miniscule, and regional orchestras are going out of business -- the Cliburn Foundation seems
to be growing ambitiously. They seem to be assuming that if they put the music out there in new media (internet streaming), the audience will appear. Sort of "If you build it, they will come." And apparently they had hundreds of thousands of people viewing the competition online. I love their approach!
Music contests are hundreds of years old. Mozart competed with his rival Clementi. Liszt was staged in a playoff against Thalberg. In more modern times, the Tschaikovsky Competition (the one Van Cliburn won in 1958), the Chopin Competition (Argerich, Ashkenazy, Ohlsson, Li), and others have trained the classical marketplace to expect superhero pianists, launched every few years. As music education has diminished in the U.S., audiences rely on juries to determine who is good, and provide them with instant careers. Much as I love competitions, that is a disturbing trend.
Beth: I thought the coverage was fantastic. If the arts are going to survive, the web will play a critical role, and I agree completely: this is a brilliant example of what can be done!
We've already established the fact that the Cliburn's web format, generosity, and open accessibility are tailor-made for classical music geeks like you and me, but what about those elusive "new" audience members? Can enough excitement be generated to make non-pianists want to watch piano competitions, the way non-athletes get excited about Olympic figure skating? And can events like this help inspire little Zhangs and Bozhanovs to take up the piano and practice long hours - or just learn enough to enjoy music all their lives?
Brad: Those are great questions, and probably unanswerable. Little Zhangs and Bozhanovs are born all the time, and if they get motivation and support at a young age, the practicing happens naturally.
As to attracting audiences, there are many parts to that puzzle in my opinion. I was exposed to classical music while growing up, which I think is increasingly unusual. Were you? And my school had a pretty big music department with an orchestra, band, and choir. I don't have kids, but I gather that's less common now, too. A piano competition like the Cliburn is a piece of dramatic storytelling like the Olympics, but if you have no background, and no context, and don't know the music, it loses meaning.
But I do think that distribution is key. It's no longer just a question of putting people in the seats; it's about putting the music where people are -- that means in their homes and on their digital
devices. The Cliburn Foundation seems to really get this.
Beth: There was always music in my home, and in my school, there was a big music program like yours: every kid learned to read music in elementary school, and we started on recorders in 3rd grade and could take an instrument in the 4th. Our marching band was one of the best in New York State and we competed all summer, and the town took as much pride in it as in sports. But you're right - there are so many other interests competing for kid's time, so much less funding for art education and appreciation, and so much less exposure as classical music has become expensive and perceived to be elitist. This seems like a huge step in the right direction.
Here in Montreal, the new orchestra conductor, Kent Nagano, is trying all sorts of new initiatives - last season they MSO played a concert above the ice in the Bell Center, in honor of the Montreal Canadiens and hockey! He took the orchestra on a Canada-wide tour, has a lot of family-oriented (and priced) programs - and has become quite a hero in the city. It's possible -- but takes work and creativity and an openness to change and experimentation and the possibility of failure - exactly the qualities you like in Bozhanov!
Brad, we've covered a lot of ground, and I want to thank you so much! It was a pleasure and I hope we'll stay in touch. Enjoy your playing and listening!