Van Cliburn

Should music be a competition? Cliburn jury chairman finding out

Leonard Slatkin is chairman of the Cliburn competition jury this year, and will conduct in the final round.
Leonard Slatkin is chairman of the Cliburn competition jury this year, and will conduct in the final round. Courtesy photo

Leonard Slatkin, chairman of the jury for the Cliburn piano competition, doesn’t really believe that music should be a competition.

But he realized he couldn’t convincingly hold that position until he was actually involved in a competition. So when Cliburn chief executive Jacques Marquis asked Slatkin to serve as the finals conductor and the jury chairman, Slatkin said yes.

“This is actually the first piano competition I’ve ever done in my life either as a judge or a jury chairman,” Slatkin said.

In an interview with the Star-Telegram, Slatkin discussed what it is like to conduct the finals in the competition and how he’s judging the pianists.

Why did you agree to be the jury chairman for the Cliburn competition?

I’m one of these people who’s been opposed to the idea of competition in music. As Bartok said ‘Competitions are for horses, not artists.’ But then I realized I really couldn’t say that convincingly until I participated in one and how it works. So I agreed when they asked me to come be the jury chairman but the condition was I still wanted to conduct the finals.

Did you ask for any changes to the competition once you were named jury chairman?

The biggest change and the one that I was most effective in getting across was the idea to have an active concert pianist who is also a composer not only write the piece but serve on the jury. I think that’s terribly important with a new piece, that that person be the performer who knows exactly what they intended when they wrote it. And watching (commissioned piece composer) Marc Andre (Hamelin) as we went through this, the looks on his face were just ... he couldn’t believe his piece could be subject to that many different approaches ...

Did you follow the Fort Worth Symphony strike?

Having gone through a six-month strike with my orchestra in Detroit and that same year you saw Atlanta go out for three months I guess and Minnesota went out for a year and a half, I followed it closely for several reasons. Number one, it was questionable as to if this was going to be the orchestra that was going to play for this competition, you never knew. But the second thing is I’ve took on a second, third, fourth career, whatever it is, writing books ... my second book has a whole chapter devoted to labor strife in the classical music industry in this country. So certainly I paid attention to it .... The key for me was and I told (the FWSO, management and the board) ... ‘You’ve got to think about what happens the day after the strike ends. You have to have not only the exit strategy but you need to have a long-range plan.’

In 2013, you conducted the finals of the Cliburn but did not get to vote with the jury. Would you have placed Vadym Kholodenko as the gold, Beatrice Rana as the silver and Sean Chen as the bronze, just as the jury did?

That’s exactly what I did and that’s what I recommended to the jury. And that’s when they all came to me and said why are we paying eight other people, let’s just have Leonard here do the whole thing.

Andrea Ahles: 817-390-7631, @Sky_Talk


May 25-June 10

Bass Hall, Fort Worth

Semifinal round: June 1-5. Twelve competitors will play a 60-minute solo recital and a Mozart piano concerto with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. $280-$450 round subscription; $30-$120 per concert.

Final round: June 7-10. Six competitors will play a piano quintet with the Brentano String Quartet and a concerto with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. $150-$260 round subscription; $45-$180 per concert.

Awards presentation: 7 p.m. June 10. $30-$40.

The entire competition will be webcast live, hosted by pianists Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe, at Content also will be available on demand. The final round will be broadcast in movie theaters around the country. For information and tickets, visit