Next April in Fort Worth, an unprecedented number of Cliburn Piano Competition winners, seven gold medalists in all, will perform in the same tribute concert at Bass Hall.
“I’m definitely coming to that,” said Jon Nakamatsu, the 1997 winner. “It will be a very joyful, moving experience for everybody. It’s so nice to express your gratitude to someone who is still around and vibrant and working. It’s a good feeling, the kind of feeling that he engendered in us as competitors.”
Nakamatsu was talking about John Giordano, a local classical music legend who is retiring as chairman of the Cliburn jury after 40 years and 11 quadrennial competitions.
Giordano, 75, also built the modern Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra before his retirement in 2000. And he retires this week from a teaching position at TCU.
“He has been the Cliburn,” said Cliburn President and CEO Jacques Marquis. “The Cliburn has been evolving all these years, and John has been such a big part of it. It’s so special to be a part of this family for so many years, not only as part of the jury but conducting.
“He’s had a fantastic impact on so many young careers,” Marquis said. “I’m very pleased to see so many winners coming back.”
Giordano’s retirement is another milestone as the Cliburn, Fort Worth’s pre-eminent cultural event, moves into a new era. The competition’s namesake, legendary pianist Van Cliburn, died of cancer in 2013. Marquis is entering his second year as the Cliburn’s CEO.
“After 40 years, it’s time to let someone else do it,” Giordano said. “We have a new executive director who’s doing a fabulous job. I didn’t want to be any kind of a hindrance to his fresh ideas, and I’ll still be around to help in any way I can.”
Over the years, Giordano has listened to tens of thousands of piano performances, not only during the competition but also in auditions worldwide. During the competition, he was responsible for shepherding the opinionated musicians and critics who made up the jury.
“Quite simply, he was the perfect jury chairman,” said Veda Kaplinsky, a past Cliburn juror and head of the piano department at the Juilliard School in New York. “First and foremost, he is honest. And he is a very good people person. People immediately take to him and feel comfortable. The atmosphere at every single one of these competitions has been so cordial. There was never any strife or tension that you see at other competitions.”
Kaplinsky said Giordano insisted on the highest standards of jury conduct because of what was at stake for the musicians.
“Unlike other people, he never lost sight of the fact that the competition was about the young people and everything was meant to serve them, not the other way around,” she said. “That’s what comes through when he deals with any person.”
Richard Rodzinski, who led the Cliburn from 1986 to 2009, said Giordano was an astute judge of talent.
“He had exactly the right approach in terms of what the Cliburn was looking for,” Rodzinski said. “That’s the kind of artist who is not the flashy virtuoso but someone who really does have true artistry. He’s got a very fine nose for potential talent.”
Marquis said Giordano’s replacement as jury chairman has not been selected. Voting procedures will remain the same, but Marquis said the jury size might be reduced from 13 to nine.
Among the gold medalists returning for next year’s tribute concert is Vladimir Viardo, the gold medalist in 1973, Giordano’s first year as jury chairman. He will be joined by Haochen Zhang (2009), Stanislav Ioudenitch (2001), Nakamatsu, Simone Pedroni, (1993) José Feghali (1985) and André-Michel Schub (1981). Joyce Yang, a 2005 silver medalist, will also perform during the April 7 concert.
“It means a great deal to me,” Giordano said. “It’s almost like they are a part of my family. It’s very touching to me that they felt enough to come back and do this.”