Van Cliburn

What does it all mean? Past Cliburn medalists still flourishing

A Cliburn gold medalist in 2009, Haochen Zhang is a star today in his native China.
A Cliburn gold medalist in 2009, Haochen Zhang is a star today in his native China.

Two weeks before the first Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 1962, a young pianist named Ralph Votapek got his draft notice. He was to report to the Army in a month. Votapek thus entered the Fort Worth competition feeling like he had little to lose.

“I figured I would just go in, make a few bucks, then go into the Army,” Votapek said last week from his home in Michigan.

Instead, the 23-year-old Votapek became the Cliburn’s first gold medalist. Competition executives contacted Texas Gov. John Connally, who worked out a draft deferment. Votapek immediately signed with the world’s leading classical music impresario, Sol Hurok, who also represented Van Cliburn himself.

“Fifty-five years ago, I was playing with a few small orchestras in Texas and I think I did one recital,” Votapek said. “Three months after the competition I was in Carnegie Hall.”

Today he remains a lingering example of the power of the Fort Worth competition to launch careers.

Votapek was never a star on the level of the Fort Worth competition’s namesake, who in 1958 became a celebrity worldwide after winning the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow at the height of the Cold War.

The closest a Cliburn laureate has come to achieving that stature is the 1966 winner, Radu Lupu, one of the world’s most revered classical musicians. At age 71, he continues to perform with the world’s leading orchestras and in the most prestigious venues.

But thanks in part to the Fort Worth competition, Votapek, 78, remains onstage around the world. Generations of medalists who came after him have also parlayed Cliburn triumph into decades of success at the keyboard.

The laureates to be named at Bass Hall on Saturday night aspire to the same careers, no small feat at a time of shrinking audiences for classical music.

“Every musician has to have a fallback,” said Leonard Slatkin, the internationally renowned conductor and chairman of this year’s Cliburn jury. “Not many people get to do what we do. There aren’t that many slots out there. It’s good to follow your dreams, but at some point, you have to put food on the table.”

In 1997, 28-year-old Californian Jon Nakamatsu was about to abandon his music career and teach high school German. Instead, a thunderous performance of Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto in the Cliburn finals propelled Nakamatsu to the gold medal.

Twenty years later, he remains in near-constant demand as a soloist.

“I think the thing about the Cliburn is just a sense of gratitude that it ever happened, the wonder, the awe,” he said this week. “Many things happened after that moment, but every time I’m backstage, I think that the real catalyst was one fateful night in Fort Worth. It’s a nice, comforting memory from an amazing time.”

Joyce Yang, the Cliburn’s silver medalist in 2005, also enjoys a flourishing career today, which she credits largely to three grueling weeks at Bass Hall in Fort Worth.

“The Cliburn competition in 2005 changed my life,” she said. “When I won the silver medal, the whole world started to listen to what I had to say. It was the key to gaining a whole new audience.”

Opening a door

The pageantry and drama of Saturday’s Bass Hall awards ceremony tends to obscure the Cliburn’s ultimate purpose. For the three young pianists who survive to win gold, silver or bronze medals, the competition is not an end, but the beginning.

“People always compare the Cliburn to the Olympics, especially because it happens only every four years,” Nakamatsu said. “But the Olympics are the pinnacle of an athletic career, whereas the goal of the Cliburn is just to open the door.”

On Monday morning, this year’s medalists will wake up to a new world, with hundreds of performances arranged for them around the world by the competition. They will hear from many of the dozens of presenters and agents who were in the Bass Hall audience.

Slatkin, the music director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, also listened to this year’s competitors with an eye to the future.

“I’m pretty sure that when it’s over, I will recommend at least two of these pianists to come play with my orchestra in Detroit,” he said. “I could have called the artistic administrator and said, ‘I don’t know if he’s going to win, or she’s going to win, but get this person before Sunday while the fee is still low enough.’ 

He laughed.

“But I refrain from doing that sort of stuff,” he said.

Douglas Sheldon, one of the world’s leading managers of classical musicians, did not come to Fort Worth.

“I do have good friends who will tell me what they think,” Sheldon said this week.

Already part of Sheldon’s stable at Columbia Artists Management Inc. is Olga Kern, who shared the 2001 gold medal with Stanislav Ioudenitch. Kern famously inspired “Olga mania” in Fort Worth with a mix of artistry and charisma. Today, she has moved into the upper echelons of the world’s pianists, and founded a piano competition in Albuquerque, N.M.

“I think the Cliburn was very important for her career,” Sheldon said. “But not everyone is going to get what Cliburn got in Moscow. That’s not going to happen. Not everyone is going to get what Olga got out of the Cliburn. But I do think the experience is valuable. I do think winning puts you on another level. But it also gives you a greater responsibility than when you started to compete two weeks before.

“If you wear the gold medal, more is expected of you,” he said. “You haven’t been handed anything but an opportunity to perform at a higher level than you performed before, and grow at a faster level.”

Difficult demands

For the next several years at least, for all of their recent achievements in Fort Worth, question marks will shadow the new Cliburn winners.

“They’ve been given this leg up on the horse,” said Leila Getz, founder of the Vancouver Recital Society in Canada, which first hosted a Cliburn laureate in 1981. “But once the horse starts moving, you have to figure out whether you can stay on it.”

Jacques Marquis, the Cliburn’s CEO and president, said nothing can prepare a young musician for the demands the medalists will face.

“The tour is extremely difficult,” he said. “We have to work with them more and more in career management. You are alone. You go to a city. You try the piano. You eat a salad. You do a concert. You have dinner with donors. You go to your room. You travel.

“You have to be extremely motivated to do that,” he said. “It looks so glamorous. Yes, I met Roger Federer because he came to the concert, but the next two days you’re still alone. But we will try to protect them.”

The issue, Marquis and others said, is not whether a Cliburn laureate has a great performance next year, but whether he or she will still be performing decades from now.

Slatkin said Van Cliburn himself was an example of a pianist of whom too much was expected.

“He wins the Tchaikovsky. He comes home. There is the ticker tape parade [in Manhattan],” Slatkin said. “He is wanted by everybody. He is having to play everywhere, constantly. And he probably would have benefited by taking a little time away.

“My feeling, purely personal, is that if you win a competition, you have to be careful not to burn out too early,” he said. “There are a hundred concerts a year. That’s a lot. If I did that and I did it successfully, I would say maybe you take a little downtime. Go back and reflect. Gear yourself up for whatever you feel the next phase is. That’s part of being a musician, knowing when to back away. Reflect on your accomplishments. Bask in them if you want to, but don’t let people on the outside push you into doing things too soon. That is the basis of a long-term career.”

Haochen Zhang was barely 19 when he shared the 2009 gold medal with Japanese pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii. Zhang is a star in his native China, but said in the years since the Cliburn, he’s had to slay many inner demons to become one.

“Whoever ends up winning the gold medal, silver or bronze, they had only three weeks of these intense situations,” Zhang said. “But now it’s not just three weeks. It’s a whole life ahead of them, with all these kinds of unexpected things, with all kinds of pressures, and it only grows when you become more famous.”

Before the 2013 competition, Zhang was asked to address that year’s competitors.

“I said that I didn’t think it was about overcoming other people, like winning first or second prize,” Zhang said. “You’ve got to overcome yourself, these demons. You’re bound to have a lot of extra burdens that have nothing to do with music. In the end, it’s a maturing experience.”

Because the goal is the music, the opportunity to share it with audiences, year after year, decade after decade.

Just ask Ralph Votapek, who had to cut short a recent conversation.

“I have to go practice,” the 78-year-old Cliburn gold medalist said. “I have a recital in three weeks.”