Van Cliburn

May 19, 2013

Where are all the women in this year’s Cliburn?

With just five female competitors in a field of 30, this year's Cliburn seems to be a man's world.

In 2001, all of Bass Hall seemed to get swept up in “Olgamania,” the term of endearment coined for the fervent love affair that Cliburn-goers had with contestant Olga Kern.

The glamorous Russian pianist, who was known for wearing red performance gowns as striking as her virtuosity at the keyboard, would become the second woman in the competition’s history to win the gold medal. (She shared the top prize with Stanislav Ioudenitch.)

Before Kern, only two women had ever medaled at the Cliburn — Cristina Ortiz took gold 1969, and Blanca Uribe won the bronze in 1966. A Star-Telegram article headlined “Is this the year of the woman?” published June 1, 2001, as Kern entered the semifinals, said that historically, women had made up about 30 percent of the competitors, and that until that year, women had been nearly invisible in the semifinal and final rounds.

Kern triumphed in a year when three-quarters of the competitors were men.

This year, if a woman were to win, she would do so as one of just five female competitors in the field of 30.

In a post-feminist, 21st-century world of equal opportunity employment, Title IX in sports and heightened sensitivities about discrimination, some piano fans may be scratching their heads about the overwhelming dominance of men in the competition this year — especially when the past two competitions saw marked increases in the female contingent (14 of 35, or 40 percent, in 2005; and 13 of 29, or 45 percent, in 2009).

But piano competitions at the highest levels, like the Cliburn, still tend to be a man’s world:

• Of the 33 initial players at the 2011 Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition, 25 were men.
• In 2012’s Leeds piano contest, of 61 competitors, 42 were men.
• For the upcoming Cleveland International Piano Competition, the field will be 23 men and eight women.

Cliburn officials and jury members dismiss the notion that gender does or should play a role in selecting competitors. Their mission, they say, is to choose the best pianists to bring to the competition, and to award the top prize to the best of the best.

“When we audition, there is no thought of country or race, religion or gender,” says John Giordano, who has served as Cliburn jury chairman since 1973. “We just sit here and listen.”

Of the 132 pianists screened in auditions around the world earlier this year, 43 women competed with 89 men for the 30 available spots. (Initially, six women were chosen for the competition in Fort Worth, but one dropped out and was replaced by a male alternate.)

“It just so happens that, this year, the ones who we thought played the best and were the most ready for this competition were men, whereas they might have been women in previous years,” says Veda Kaplinsky, head of the Piano Department at The Juilliard School and a screening audition jury member. And next [time], it may be heavily weighted toward female pianists. So I think this is nothing more than a quirk for this particular year.”

Richard Rodzinski, president emeritus of the Van Cliburn Foundation and current general manager of the International Tchaikovsky Competition, says the male-centric makeup of most competitions echoes a trend that permeates much of the European-based classical music world.

“In many European countries,” Rodzinski says, “the music business is still more male oriented, certainly beginning with the composition of orchestras. But also keep in mind that for those women who want to be considered for most competitions, that ratio of 2-to-1 men to women has been quite steady over the years.”

But what Rodzinski and other prominent music school officials can’t quite square is the disconnect between the roughly 50-50 female-to-male ratio of students enrolled in academic piano programs and the male-dominated fields of the world’s most important competitions.

The Juilliard School traditionally has admitted to its piano program a student body in which about 50 percent are women, Kaplinsky said. At Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music piano program, women this year make up 55 percent of the enrollment, (down from 67 percent in 2012). And of the estimated 300 music majors enrolled at TCU’s School of Music, consistently 50 percent of them have been women.

“So I certainly haven’t noticed any diminution in the number of women who are applying or pursuing a music or piano degree here,” says Richard Gipson, director of TCU’s School of Music. “If I had to venture a guess, I’d say that for this year, a sharp drop of women in the Cliburn appears to be an aberration.”

But Tamas Ungar, executive director of TCU’s PianoTexas International Academy & Festival — who indicates that women in this year’s class outnumber men by 10 to six — acknowledges a gender gap that exists between conventional university music school enrollment and the pool of those actually launching a full-time concertizing career.

“More men tend to pursue careers as touring concert pianists,” Ungar says. “Partly because it’s the kind of strenuous life that might conflict with the desire to settle down and start a family.”

When Kern won the Cliburn, she had a 2-year-old son. He is now a teenage pianist, a student in the Juilliard pre-college program, and the two have performed together.

Joyce Yang, a 19-year-old audience favorite in 2005, captured the silver medal that year and has gone on to have a robust performing career. And 2009 silver medalist Yeol Eum Son has returned to play for adoring Fort Worth audiences several times in recent years.

What will fewer women this year mean for Cliburn audiences, who often can be found discussing decidedly non-pianistic things like competitors’ fashion choices between performances?

It’s hard to say, because all five women could advance to the finals, and another “Olga” could very well emerge. And, who’s to say that some of the men won’t make fashion statements, as well?

“While stage presence is super important,” says Jacques Marquis, Cliburn Foundation president, “it’s about personality. You can be like an Olga Kern and, for sure, have lots of presence and, sure, how she dresses can have a definite impact, but for most of these competitors, they can simply put their feet on the stage and there can be an immediate impact.”

Rodzinski says he does not believe that the male-dominated Cliburn field will have any less glamour than the past groups with more women.

“Remember,” Rodzinski says, “Stanislav Ioudenitch, who shared the gold medal with Olga Kern, generated such extraordinary excitement because both the jury and the public recognized that he was such a sensational musician. So, male or female, once you have great talent, it will come through no matter what kind of attire you are wearing.”

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