The Van Cliburn International Piano Competition is a world-class performance contest for young professional pianists held every four years in Fort Worth. The competition was originated by Irl Allison, Sr., who formed the Van Cliburn Foundation for that purpose.
Allison had long supported excellence in piano playing—as a pianist, as a piano teacher, and especially as the founder of the National Guild of Piano Teachers. This organization sponsors the National Piano Playing Auditions, a program that brings professional musicians to cities and towns all over the country to judge the performance of students. The occasion for the founding of the Cliburn Foundation was Van Cliburn's winning the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958; victory in this contest is one of the most coveted and prestigious achievements to which a young pianist can aspire. When Cliburn won, he was widely hailed as a major cultural ambassador whose influence would help to nullify the Cold War.
Cliburn's fame was Allison's opportunity. At a dinner in Fort Worth, Allison and Mrs. Grace Ward Lankford brought together a group with interest in supporting young artists through an annual contest to be held in Fort Worth. They got the Chamber of Commerce and the local piano teachers involved. Allison announced the contest in 1958, and the first competition was held in 1962.
The contest is in effect a final competition in which thirty or so of the world's best young pianists compete. Contestants cannot be older than twenty-nine. Before they come to Fort Worth, they have already won the right to do so in preliminary competitions in their own countries. In 2001, for example, after six preliminary screenings in the Netherlands, Hungary, Russia, New York, and Chicago, 137 musicians were invited to Fort Worth for a seventh and final screening. The 137 were trimmed down to thirty after each played a solo recital judged by a panel of professional musicians and music educators. These thirty competed in the Cliburn Competition per se. Twelve of them advanced to the semifinals, and from the semifinals six emerged as finalists. Usually three medals are awarded to the winners of the final contest, but on occasion ties have been rewarded with dual medals; in 2001 and 2009, for instance, the jury bestowed the gold medal on two performers.
Over the years the performance required of contestants has varied. Originally, all were required to play the same commissioned work by an American composer, as well as chamber works performed with local professionals and concertos performed with the Fort Worth Chamber Orchestra and the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. The Cliburn Competition has rightly been noted for supporting American composers, some of whom have been brought to prominence through the contest.
For several decades the opening performances of the contest took place at Ed Landreth Hall on the Texas Christian University campus, with the final rounds occurring at the Tarrant County Convention Center. The contest was moved to the new Bass Concert Hall in downtown Fort Worth in 2001. By the 2000s the monetary award for the top three winners was $20,000—double the amount for the winner of the first competition in 1962. By the fifteenth competition in 2017, the prize money had increased to $50,000; $25,000; and $15,000 for the top three medalists, respectively. The other benefits of winning, however, amount to far more. These include publicity, live recording and other recording services, and, most importantly, career-management services through which the winners acquire a busy schedule of international performances for three concert seasons.
Logistics for the contest are formidable. They include transportation of contestants and judges, the lodging of contestants with host families, the acquisition and distribution of music to orchestra and jury members (sometimes the selected works are not published yet, and in these cases manuscripts must be reproduced), and many other demands. A "pit crew" of piano tuners is essential.
Perhaps the most famous of the Cliburn gold medalists is Radu Lupu (1966), originally from Romania; though others have been quite successful. The most famous "nonwinner" is said to be Barry Douglas of Northern Ireland, who finished third in the 1985 contest but later won the Leeds Competition in England and became a quite successful concert pianist. Two winners, Alexei Sultanov of Uzbekistan (1989) and Haochen Zhang of China (2009), were only nineteen years old. Catastrophically for Sultanov, a mere eleven years later a series of strokes quelled his "fiery virtuosity" and canceled his career. Stanislav Ioudenitch, one of the gold medal winners in 2001 (the other was Olga Kern of Russia), had to drop out of the 1997 contest because he burned his hand with boiling water. The 2001 contest also featured the first brother–sister contestants, Koreans Jong Hwa Park and his younger sister, Jong-Gyung Park. Russian Alexander Kobrin was awarded the gold medal in the 2005 competition. In 2009 Nobuyuki Tsujii of Japan and Haochen Zhang of China shared the gold medal honors. That year, the entire competition was webcast live on the Internet. Vadym Kholodenko of Ukraine was the gold medalist in 2013. A documentary film, Virtuosity, which followed the contestants of the 2013 competition, was aired nationally on PBS in 2015. Yekwon Sunwoo of South Korea won the competition in 2017 and was the first Korean to earn gold medal honors.
The year 2008 marked the fiftieth anniversary of Cliburn's remarkable victory at the Tchaikovsky competition and the formation of the Van Cliburn Foundation. The Cliburn Foundation has greatly enlarged its activities since 1958. It added a film festival to the 2001 competition. It facilitates educational programs for area public schools. Chief among the foundation's other activities is the Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition, which began in 1999. This contest is open to serious musicians who make their living at something besides music. Participants have included a massage therapist, a news producer, an astrologer, doctors, lawyers, housewives, and computer specialists. After 1999, competitions were held in 2000, 2002, 2004, 2007, 2011. and 2016, with another competition scheduled for 2020.
In June 2015 the first Cliburn International Junior Piano Competition and Festival took place. The event, for thirteen to seventeen-year-old pianists, occurred on the campus of Texas Christian University. Cliburn president and CEO Jacques Marquis explained, “This competition helped us establish relationships with the top international talent at an earlier age.”
The competition’s namesake, Van Cliburn, died on February 27, 2013. The Cliburn naturally has its detractors. Some say that the structure itself, of chosen contestants performing in a high-stakes contest before an ad hoc panel of professional judges and the glaring eye of the media, leads to rewarding empty virtuosity. Others, however, say that real virtuosity is never empty, but is a product of heart as well as head and hand. Although an affair as big as the Cliburn could hardly be without flaws, the spectacular contest continues to bring together large audiences and first-rate talent, and to enrich both Fort Worth and the state of Texas.