From the Cliburn Preliminary Round in 2005.

From the Cliburn Preliminary Round in 2005.

The Fourteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition will be held May 24-June 9, 2013, at Bass Performance Hall, just months after famed musician Cliburn died at his Fort Worth home. And while this year’s prestigious event is bound to pay tribute to his enduring legacy, the quadrennial contest’s humble beginnings were actually at the grace of several Fort Worth citizen who wanted to honor Cliburn for his sensational victory at the first Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow in 1958.

Even Van Cliburn, and his indomitable mother, Rildia Bee O’Bryan Cliburn, were surprised when the now-famous competition that bears his name was originally announced. Only two people knew of the proposal to start an international competition in Texas.

And neither confidant was named Cliburn.

As the story goes, the initiator of The Van Cliburn International Piano Competition was Dr. Irl Allison, founder of the National Guild of Piano Teachers. The other was Grace Ward Lankford, the Guild’s co-founder, who only found out moments before the rest of the world when Allison passed her a note that reportedly said, “Hold onto your seat, I have a startling announcement!”

1962 Gold Medalist Ralph Votapek and Van Cliburn.

1962 Gold Medalist Ralph Votapek and Van Cliburn.

This moment of history at a banquet in November 1958, shortly after Cliburn made history by winning the first Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, at the height of the cold war, Allison’s startling announcement was that he was going to start an international piano competition in Cliburn’s honor. In order to get the ball rolling, he wrote a check for $10,000 as the first prize.

The gift gave Lankford momentum to push forward, enlisted the support of an astonishing range of politicians, internationally-renowned composers, conductors, musicians, business leaders, and professional educators, in pursuit of what must have seemed an impossible goal — to create a world-class international piano competition in a city still affectionately known as ‘Cowtown.’”

The Cliburn competition is now one of the most prestigious in the world. It has launched the careers of such all-time greats as Barry Douglas, Olga Kern, Radu Lupu, Jon Nakamatsu, Jose Feghali, Cristina Ortiz and Ralph Votapek, who took home the gold metal in the first competition.

“It was my teacher’s idea I enter,” said Votapek in a recent phone interview from his home in Michigan. “Van and I both studied with Rosina Lhévinne at Juilliard and she thought I had a chance to win. Besides, the money was good.”

It certainly was. However, the money is only a small part of the prize.  Even at the first Cliburn, the winners got professional management. Now they get a recording contract and other gifts.

Ralph Votapek.

Ralph Votapek.

“It was a big prize,” said Votapek, “but the real prize was that Sol Hurok would take the winner on his management roster. He was the biggest in the business with artists like Arthur Rubenstein and Isaac Stern.”

Even right from the start, the competition was different in that it required the pianist to show their abilities in a number of different situations. They start with a solo recital that has some fairly strict repertoire requirements. Then they play a quintet with a string quartet and lastly, they play two concerti with the orchestra.

However, the real innovation was that the Cliburn commissions a new composition each time that the pianists only get in the last few weeks and then have to master it in short order. The first one was composed in 1962 by the great Lee Hoiby, who was a superb pianist himself.

Shields-Collins Bray, who is the pianist with the Fort Worth Symphony and allied with the Cliburn, said in a recent interview, “Hoiby’s piece, Capriccio on Five Notes, is challenging, but very showy.”

Votapek said that a rumor went around that a few of the competitors dropped out because the Hoiby piece was so difficult. However, Bray sees it differently. “Hoiby’s piano music, even the songs, fits so well under your fingers that you can tell he was a pianist.”

“Hoiby didn’t like the limitations,” said Mark Shulgasser, Hoiby’s friend and librettist, “but he wrote the piece. Serialism was all the rage at the time, but that wasn’t in Lee’s nature, so he picked a five note tone row and worked with that. He also said, that when he heard it played in the years that followed, nobody ever played it fast enough.”

“We aim very high when it comes to composers,” said Bray. “Bernstein, Corigliano, Copland, Rorem … all the best have written for us. However, many chaffed under the constraints. The work had to last so many minutes and has to show certain prescribed parameters.”

This year’s composer is Grammy winner Christopher Theofanidis, a Texan who holds degrees from Yale, the Eastman School of Music, and the University of Houston, and has been the recipient of the International Masterprize (hosted at the Barbican Centre in London), the Rome Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, six ASCAP Gould Prizes, a Fulbright Fellowship to France, a Tanglewood Fellowhship, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Charles Ives Fellowship.

“His piece is very different from all of the others,” said Bray. “There are no extra considerations, like a story behind it. Certain things are intentionally clumsy to play and Theofanidis wanted it to lumber along in a humorous manner.”

José Feghali, who took the gold in 1985.

José Feghali, who took the gold in 1985.

Another important difference about the Cliburn is that the contestants are housed in some of the grand homes in Fort Worth, all of which have a fine piano available for practice. José Feghali, who took the gold in 1985 (and is artist-in-residence at TCU’s School of Music since 1990), remembers his host family with great warmth.

“Judge George Crowley has passed on, but his wife Pat remains a close friend,” Feghali said. “The host families offer more than a place to stay. They offer support and assistance. Some of the contestants are in America for the first time, some still teens, and are a little bewildered. Best, though, you can practice anytime of the night or day.”

Want to be a contestant?

Well, the application requirements alone are a little discouraging to the faint of heart. You start out with a certified birth certificate.  This year, applicants must have been born after June 9, 1982, and before May 24, 1995. Then you need copies of programs from the last five years, including at least five recitals (easy to get) and five orchestral appearances with concerti (harder to get), and copies of all the reviews.

Then, a recommendation letter from a recent teacher, or if still a student, from the current teacher is required. No general letters of praise are acceptable. That is still not enough. They need, according to the website, “…a recommendation letter from a musician or musicians of acknowledged international standing.” Not easily obtained.

Jacques Marquis, President and CEO, said that the panel of distinguished judges carefully reviews the applications and then 132 of them were selected for this year’s screening auditions. These are held around the world and the entire jury travels to hear them. “This year,” Marquis said (in his delightful Québécois accent), “we heard auditions in Hong Kong, Moscow, Hanover, Milan, New Yolk City and Fort Worth. Each applicant played a 40-minute solo recital for us. It was a fantastic trip around the world.”

Marquis said that they heard a lot of Bach and Scarlatti but not much Mozart. The big pieces are always there, of course. Works like Ravel’s nearly impossible Gaspard de la Nuit and Franz Liszt’s bang-bang pieces, as well as his Sonata in B minor, are common.

“None of the applicants get to try out the piano ahead of time,” said Marquis. “If they are wise, they will start out with something that doesn’t require an intimate knowledge of how that specific piano responds so that they can get the feel of it.”

Of course, no one misses notes anymore. Technical perfection is a starting point. In this, it is like the four-minute mile, which was thought to be impossible until 1954  when Roger Bannister tuned in a time of 3:59.4. Now, it is common, at least for the men. Thus, nimble fingers is not enough to get to Fort Worth. “We heard one pianist who had amazing technique,” said Marquis, “but he had no idea what the piece was about or where it was going with it.”

From this field, thirty pianists are selected to participate in the actual competition in Fort Worth. “That is a wonderful pat of my job,” said Marquis. “I get to deliver the good news.”

2009 Gold Medalist Hoachen Zhang.

2009 Gold Medalist Hoachen Zhang.

“Back at the first competition,” said Votapek, “they didn’t hold preliminaries. If you had a good recommendation, you came to Fort Worth.  Some were, shall we say, better than others. Some were Russians, and they played very well, but they certainly went through some culture shock, being dropped into Fort Worth. This was right before the Cuban Missile Crisis and Van had just won in Moscow, so I didn’t know how these factors might influence the outcome. However, after hearing some of them, I thought that I had a chance.”

“Of course, you never know,” said Feghali. “You tell yourself that it doesn’t really matter, it is honor enough just to be a contestant in the actual competition, and you just try to do your best. But it is nerve wracking.”

In the first round, the thirty selected each play a forty-minute solo recital and then wait for the results.  Twelve go forward to the semifinals and the others go home. This next round has two parts. First, they play a 60 minute recital, with different repertoire from the earlier round, that also must includes the newly commissioned work. Next, they play a piano quintet with the resident string quartet. They can choose between the quintets by Brahms, Schumann, Dvorak and Franck.

“Now, they have a professional quartet,” said Votapek. “This year it is the Brentano Quartet, one of the best in the world. When I played in the competition, it was an ad hoc quartet from the Fort Worth Symphony and they weren’t on that level. I played the Brahms and it is famously difficult. Still, we did a credible job and I was confident that I would advance. I did.”

Feghali has a different story. “The quartet my year was the Tokyo; they were fantastic. I chose the Dvorak, but in the rehearsal, I pulled a muscle in my back. I went to a local doctor who gave me a muscle relaxant that caused an allergic reaction, making things worse. Complete disaster.”

Feghali went ahead and played the round, even though he was in a considerable pain. “I had to pedal with my left foot,” he said. “I was quite surprised when they announced that I would advance to the final round. I couldn’t believe it at first.”

The last round requires playing two concerti with orchestra. One is from a list: the five Beethoven and Mozart’s Nos. 20-24 and 27. The second concerto can be anything they want. The only limitations are ones they impose, knowing that there will only be one hour of a working rehearsal and a dress rehearsal.

“If they chose something that is unfamiliar to the orchestra, that could be a problem with such short rehearsal time,” said Marquis.. “Also, if they pick something that is an hour long, they won’t be able to rehearse it al all.”

Thus, the same short and flashy concerti come back every year like old friends. You hear a lot of Rachmaninoff, Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, and Bartok.

“One choice was easy since I had just played the Prokofiev No. 3 with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops,” said Votapek., “Then I played Beethoven No. 4, which I had only played with two pianos back in college.”

“I started with the Mozart C Minor (No. 24),” said Feghali “which was new to me. Next, I played the Tchaikovsky No.1. This is a piece that requires a lot of body strength, which my injury prevented and , when it was over, I knew that it was not my best effort. My only hope was that the scores were cumulative. I was very nervous afterwards. We were all sitting together in the audience when the big announcement came down,” said Feghali “Of course there is countdown – when they got to second place, my name wasn’t called. ‘Well,’ I told myself, ‘you can be proud you made it to the finals, what with the injury and all.’ When they announced I’d won, I just couldn’t believe it.”

Votapek’s experience was different. “When I heard some of the others, I thought that my chances were decent. Still, the actual moment of winning was a blur. I remember being given this huge silver cup and saying that I thought it would hold a lot of beer.”

However, Votapek was hiding a secret. He had been drafted and had to report for duty one week after the competition. Now, he had to tell Grace Ward Lankford of his predicament. As Votapek tells it, she drawled, “We’ll see about that, honey” and promptly called Governor John Connelly. “John, darling, I need a favor,” and that, as they say, took care of that.

Beer or champagne in the winner’s cup, they cannot celebrate for long. THIS IS IT  – the chance of a lifetime.  A huge 3-year concert tour starts right away. The garish spotlight of fate suddenly has them dead center. Everyone is eager to hear them play. From there, the story is theirs to write.

That can more nerve wracking than the competition.