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Cliburn Pianists Change, Music Stays Familiar


by Olin Chism 21 May 2009

Most of the 29 competitors in the 13th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition will be new faces to the audience. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be a comfortable sense of familiarity. Pianists change, but competition repertoire is remarkably stable. A Cliburn without a La Campanella by Liszt or a Ballade in G minor by […]

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Most of the 29 competitors in the 13th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition will be new faces to the audience. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be a comfortable sense of familiarity. Pianists change, but competition repertoire is remarkably stable. A Cliburn without a La Campanella by Liszt or a Ballade in G minor by Chopin or Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrouchka wouldn’t seem quite right.

This has remained true even though there has been a trend down through the years to loosen requirements and give entrants greater freedom of choice. Set free, competitors tend not to wander down unfamiliar, possibly dangerous paths — although the few who do tend to be more clearly remembered, and not necessarily unfavorably.

The choices available are wide. The preliminaries consist of 50-minute solo recitals. The repertoire? Player’s choice. The same with the semifinalists’ 60-minute solo recitals, except that each pianist has to include one brand-new commissioned piece and choose one from a list of quintets by Brahms, Dvorak, Franck and Schumann for the chamber-music phase. Finalists again choose their own rep for a 60-minute solo recital (they can’t repeat preliminary and semifinal pieces). They also have to play two concertos with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, including one from a mandated list and one of their own choice.

Despite all this freedom, this year’s repertory wouldn’t have seemed out of place at past, more restricted, editions of the Cliburn.

By one way of counting, this time Liszt leads the pack of composers represented, with 36 potential performances. No surprise there. (I say “potential” because not everything is going to be played, of course. The selection of 12 semifinalists and six finalists eliminates programs by all those who didn’t make the cut.)

By the same method, Chopin and Beethoven are tied at 34 potential performances. But if you count the individual parts of collections — for example, Chopin’s Preludes of Opus 28 as 24 performances instead of just one — then Chopin zooms far out in front of everybody.

There are no major surprises among the remainder of the composers most likely to be performed. They include Debussy (26), Schumann (25), Rachmaninoff (19), Brahms (19 — though that’s skewed by the 11 potential performances of his quintet in the chamber-music phase) and Prokofiev (17). The appearance of Bach and Haydn on the list, with 21 and 14 potential performances, respectively, seems a little out of step with the past. Are we witnessing a trend here? Let’s hope so.

As for individual pieces, not including the piano quintets, those with the best chance of being heard are Liszt’s Sonata in B minor, Ravel’s awesome Gaspard de la Nuit, Beethoven’s Third and Fourth Piano Concertos, Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto and Chopin’s Second Piano Concerto, each with six potential performances. Obviously no surprises there.

The surprises are in the omissions. Nobody plans to play Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, for instance. The same with Brahms’ massive Second Piano Concerto. Even Rachmaninoff’s Third, one of the surest of the competition bets, is in danger of omission this year. Only two competitors have put it on their list; if they’re eliminated before the finals, that’s it. And there’s only one Liszt Mephisto, and one Balakirev Islamey. Is the competition world going soft?

Though new music is not a major factor at the Cliburn, it isn’t ignored. The commissioned pieces include Mason BatesWhite Lies for Lomax, Derek Bermel’s Turning, Daron Hagen’s Suite for Piano and John Musto’s Improvisation and Fugue. Bates has turned out to be the contestants’ favorite, with 13 hoping to play his work in the semifinals. Hagen got nine votes, Musto six, and Bermel one.

Other living composers represented include Elliott Carter (click here for a preview performance of his Caténaires), Pierre Boulez, John Corigliano, Nikolai Kapustin and Aaron Jay Kernis, each with one piece on the repertory list.

The chamber-music phase will revive several old Cliburn favorites. Besides the 11 possible performances of the Brahms quintet, eight contestants have chosen the Schumann quintet, seven have opted for Dvorak and three have listed Franck. They’re all great pieces, and hearing any of them will be a nice break from the solo-piano marathon.

By the way, the daily competition schedule, including who plays when and the specific works they’ll play, will be posted on this site before each round. All performances will be streamed live on the Internet and archived for viewing-on-demand. Click here for details.

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  • Kevin C.

    One additional living composer who will be represented is Carl Vine, whose 1990 Piano Sonata could potentially be performed twice (Joyce Yang also performed this work in 2005)

  • When I was in the Van Cliburn Amateur Competition — in 1999, the first year they had it — all the contestants got to know each other pretty well, and we had a great joke about how almost all of us were playing Chopin’s G Minor Ballade. At the farewell dinner we did a toast to it. I do not think I will ever be able to hear it again without laughing.