Sara Daneshpour was in a New York City grocery store when the call came — the produce section, to be exact. Jacques Marquis, interim executive director of the Cliburn Foundation, was on the phone to tell Daneshpour, a 26-year-old Juilliard student, that she was among 30 young artists selected for the prestigious Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, which begins in May in Fort Worth.
“I’ll never look at a produce section the same way again,” Daneshpour said last week. “I was just so happy, felt so fortunate because I know that there were so many other great pianists that auditioned. To be one of the 30. I’ve no words.”
Perhaps there is no better gauge of the Cliburn’s importance than that, the initial ecstasy of the musicians, ages 19 to 30, coming to Bass Hall for the quadrennial event. More than 130 hopefuls auditioned at screenings around the world that began in China in January. Many of them considered a Cliburn audition achievement enough.
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When the screenings concluded in Fort Worth in late February, the votes of five jurors were tallied and Marquis made the happy calls.
“The fun part,” Marquis said. “I wanted to congratulate them because the level was very, very high.”
Marquis said that a few of the pianists had previously been accepted at another prestigious competition, the Queen Elisabeth in Belgium, which takes place at the same time. They assured Marquis that they would be in Fort Worth on May 24, when preliminary round recitals begin.
Selection for this year’s competition took on added significance, given that it will be the first without its famous namesake, Van Cliburn, who died Wednesday at age 78.
One of this year’s competitors, 30-year-old Dallas native Alex McDonald, was a boy when he met Cliburn after a recital in North Texas.
“Someone with him was trying to get him into a limousine, and he hopped out the other side and kept talking to people,” McDonald said. “That was my chance. I said, ‘Mr. Cliburn, sir, could I have your autograph?’ He said, ‘Sure, sonny.’ I shook this giant hand. It’s one of my favorite memories, getting to meet him.”
“I was really sad,” McDonald said of Cliburn’s death. “He’s a lot of why the piano is so big in Texas.”
The Cliburn competition also has a lot to do with that — and with launching the careers of the next generation of pianists. Eight Americans have been selected for this year’s field, the most of any of the 12 countries to be represented. Italy has six competitors, Russia four, and China three.
The 2013 field is also dominated by men, 24 to only six women. The competitions in 2009 and 2005 were almost equally balanced.
“We take the best 30,” Marquis said. “We don’t look to see how many are coming from China or having a good balance between males and females. The only thing that is important is excellence. When you enter that path, you are not going to win the battle of having the best.”
The artists compete for medals and prize money. But much more important, a Cliburn win comes with three years of commission-free management and a steady stream of international engagements during that time.
“The exposure that it gives you on an international scale is really unique,” said one of the Americans, 25-year-old Lindsay Garritson. “You have that media coverage all the time, and if you get a prize, you’re set for three years. A lot of competitions will give you a lot of money if you get a top prize, but not a steady stream of engagements. That is really priceless, what makes the Cliburn so rare.
“I’ve done a lot of things [with the piano], but it hasn’t been full time,” she said. “Performing is my first love. Anything I can do to get to that point, I’m going to do. The Cliburn can help me with that.”
On a recent Sunday night, Garritson was watching the Oscars at her home in Connecticut when her cellphone started buzzing. She almost didn’t answer it, she said.
“It was Jacques,” she said. “It took me a second for me realize what was happening. There are so many great pianists, it almost seems like the odds are stacked against you. I felt like I had played really well [at her Fort Worth audition], but I know a lot of other people would be playing just as well. It was really a surprise.
“I mean it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing to have happen,” she said. “I’ve grown up watching the Cliburn competition and hearing about it. I think it is the most prestigious competition there is today, and that’s saying a lot because there are so many.”
One pianist selected this year will be making a return to Fort Worth. Italian Alessandro Deljavan, 26, who reached the semifinals of the 2009 competition, said he was having dinner with piano colleagues in Italy when his call came.
“It was very strange, because it was a great moment, and at the same time, it was something that completely changed the day,” Deljavan said.
He said he has very fond memories of Fort Worth people and audiences, and the majestic Bass Hall.
“It was a big, big pleasure for me,” Deljavan said.
But Deljavan understands the Cliburn pressures, perhaps better than anyone else in this year’s field. The biggest challenge is to prepare roughly five hours of music necessary to win a Cliburn gold medal.
“It’s very difficult,” Deljavan said. “It’s a lot of work.”
As is typical, this year’s Cliburn field is composed of musicians who are already highly accomplished. Many have their own websites and have performed around the world with prestigious orchestras. Daneshpour, who was born in Washington, D.C., to Iranian parents, has already performed at the Kennedy Center, Carnegie Hall and the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory.
She was one of eight semifinalists at the 2011 International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow.
Russian Alexey Chernov, 30, took fifth in that same competition, which was Van Cliburn’s springboard to international fame in 1958.
McDonald took a somewhat different route, earning a doctorate in piano from the Juilliard School after his performing career was sidetracked twice by tendinitis. He has been attending the competition as an audience member since 1997.
“I have dear friends in New York that I look up to that didn’t get an audition,” McDonald said. “That’s just the way these things go. I just feel really fortunate to have the chance. It’s already kind of a dream come true.”
Tim Madigan, 817-390-7544