Van Cliburn

Cliburn Junior Piano Competition could hold keys to the future

Star-Telegram/Mark Hoffer
Star-Telegram/Mark Hoffer Star-Telegram

The First Cliburn International Junior Piano Competition and Festival, which begins Sunday on the Texas Christian University campus, is designed to showcase, encourage and educate pianists even younger than the ones audiences are used to seeing at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition every four years.

But the junior competition, which will see 23 pianists ages 13-17 vie for three top cash prizes and scholarships, will also teach teenagers how to lose.

And that, says jury chairman Jon Nakamatsu, will be one of its greatest values.

“I think that one of the things this event is trying to teach is how to deal with not only the pressure of playing well, but also the pressure of living up to other people’s expectations, your own expectations and how to deal with it when you lose,” says Nakamatsu, a professional concert pianist and frequent performer on local stages. “Because, basically, there will be one person who wins, and everyone else doesn’t. So if you really want to become involved in the major international competitions, the odds are you are going to lose.

“There are some people who will be OK with it and other people who are not. So this is a good way to get to know yourself and start thinking about these issues early. Because the competitions are the starting point for a career that becomes even more difficult and more pressure filled. And the earlier you can start focusing on techniques to understand what it means to publicly, very publicly, lose an event, then I think you’re all the better for it.”

Nakamatsu might seem a poor source to discuss the concept of losing. He left the 1997 Cliburn with the gold medal and has supported himself primarily as a performer ever since.

“I did my share of losing,” Nakamatsu says with a laugh.

Nakamatsu won his Cliburn gold at the age of 28, his last shot at the event, which does not allow competitors over 30. And that victory came after he had failed to make the cut for the competition four years earlier.

The teens traveling to Fort Worth to compete over the next eight days — born in such faraway places as Hungary, Singapore, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan — are no strangers to competition. Chosen from a field of 160 applicants, they are, arguably, the best teenage pianists in the world.

They’re coming into the Cliburn’s first junior competition having already earned top honors in such prestigious contests as the American Protege International Concerto Competition, the International Russian Music Piano Competition and the Steinway & Sons International Youth Piano Competition.

Many have already played at Carnegie Hall.

They study at the most prestigious conservatories in the world and take lessons and master classes from teachers and artists of international renown. Some of them likely will join those ranks in the not-so-distant future.

But right now, they’re still teenagers — experiencing all the physical, emotional and hormonal angst that comes with those years. Angst that no one wants to compound with the label of “loser.”

“The junior thing has to be a learning experience. That’s why we call it a competition and festival, because it will have a lot of occasion to learn,” says Cliburn president and CEO Jacques Marquis. “There will be seminars and master classes. They will learn from each other, they will play with each other and they will talk to each other.”

Sort of like summer camp, down to the chance to stay in dorms on the TCU campus and ride together in buses to organized, off-site events and parties.

During their time in Fort Worth, the competitors will attend workshops on topics including performance preparation and psychology, working with an orchestra, and building a career in the 21st century.

“Unlike a lot of other instrumentalists, pianists don’t really meet a lot of other pianists,” Nakamatsu says. “Our contacts are primarily other instrumentalists. It is very rare they have the chance to get together with people who do what we do.”

Rigorous competition

That’s not to say the competition won’t be grueling, by any standard. Four rounds will take place over eight days. In the preliminaries, all 23 pianists will perform a 20-minute recital. That field will get cut to 12 quarterfinalists (a round skipped in the quadrennial Van Cliburn International Piano Competition) who will play 30-minute recitals.

From there, six semifinalists will perform twice — a 40-minute solo recital in phase one and the opening movement of a piano concerto in phase two. Three finalists then will perform a piano concerto with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra.

All the rounds include repertoire requirements, designed to demonstrate a command of various styles and periods of music. (See more in “Competition format,” Page .)

“This is a chance to check what I did this semester, and I also think competitions encourage me to play new [pieces],” says Chinese competitor Zitong Wang, 16, who is in her third year of studies at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Wang, who was born into a musical family, began playing before age 5 and has appeared on stages from Cleveland to Beijing.

“I hope [the Cliburn junior competition] will make me grow as a musician, discover some things about myself and my music,” says American contestant Amir Siraj, who, at age 15, already is a five-time winner of the Massachusetts Music Teachers Association Competition.

Like all of the competitors, Siraj has plenty of hobbies and interests besides playing the piano. A member of his school’s varsity men’s crew team, he says he had to give up rowing to prepare for the competition, adding with a laugh, “I think it definitely helped me with Prokofiev.”

The Cliburn’s Marquis says competitions are “one of the best ways to be introduced to classical music because it’s fun, it’s demanding, it’s surprising, it’s emotional and it’s interesting.”

“I want them to leave Fort Worth after a week understanding more about what competitions are about and that careers are not easy. I want them to have more tools in their toolbox, more incentive regarding a career as a pianist and a greater passion for sharing their love of piano music.”

Becoming well-rounded musicians

Former New York Times critic Joseph Horowitz, though, cautions against the idea that young pianists — no matter how prodigious — should consider competition wins the key to their future as well-rounded, marketable, professional artists. Horowitz published The Ivory Trade: Music and the Business of Music at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, a book that took a hard look at piano competitions in general and the Van Cliburn in particular, 25 years ago.

Piano competitions, he says, often do not do enough to encourage artists to go beyond performing known works by old masters.

“I think for young pianists it is important that they learn to compose and improvise,” he says. “What I always say to young pianists is that before 1900, there were no major pianists who didn’t compose or conduct. The 20th century will be looked upon as an anomaly where performance specialists became commonplace.

“If young pianists are looking to have a future in performance, I think it is important to compose and improvise.”

After all, Mozart — arguably the best-known musical child prodigy in history — was not only entertaining aristocrats at the keyboard but composing symphonies before he was 10 years old. Beethoven and Chopin composed as teenagers, too.

Though he doesn’t have composition credits to his name, the closest thing classical music has to a “rock star” today, Lang Lang, won his first piano competition at age 5. He has often spoken of the pressure he felt as a young prodigy. He has said in interviews he considered giving up the instrument several times before he was 10 years old.

Nakamatsu says playing in competitions earlier in life can prepare a pianist to have the presence of mind needed to compete as an adult.

“All of us who did competitions [in our 20s] were in competitions as youngsters,” Nakamatsu says. “It may be pressure filled but, at the same time, the pressure is different. And I find that there is a certain kind of courage that you have as a youth that you might not have as you get older in some ways, simply because you just don’t know to be scared.”

Despite their tender ages, most of the competitors at the Cliburn Junior will come to Fort Worth already having developed perspectives on the level of pressure competitions produce.

“In my experience, it has varied a lot,” competitor Siraj says about the general tone and feel of youth piano competitions. “The music world is very tight knit, so we know one another. At some competitions, it is just us getting together and sharing some ideas with each other, and is generally pretty friendly. Others can be more intense where people are very focused on their own repertoire and don’t speak to anyone else.”

As for 17-year-old Gregory Martin, a Texas native, he unabashedly says he eyes the Cliburn Junior as a possible pathway to bigger and better things.

“One of my goals that has floated in front of me for a long time is to participate in the Van Cliburn competition,” says Martin, who was born in Houston and studies in Moscow. “The junior competition opportunity came quite unexpectedly, and it is an opportunity that simply cannot be missed. I consider it a very important stepping stone and milestone, hopefully, on my way to the ‘big leagues.’”

First Cliburn International Junior Piano Competition and Festival

▪ June 21-28

▪ PepsiCo Recital Hall and Ed Landreth Auditorium

▪ Texas Christian University, Fort Worth

▪ $10-$40

▪ 817-212-4280;

▪ Children must be at least 8 years old to attend.

▪ All performances will be live-streamed for free through

Competition format and schedule

Preliminary round (Sunday and Monday, PepsiCo Hall)

All pianists will perform a 20-minute recital that includes at least one movement from a Classical Era sonata by Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven and a work by Chopin or Liszt chosen from a list of acceptable choices.

Recital times: 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Sunday; 2 and 7 p.m. Monday. Quarterfinalists announced following the conclusion of play.

Ticket price: Free

Quarterfinal round (Tuesday and Wednesday, Ed Landreth Auditorium)

Twelve pianists will play 30-minute recitals that include a work by Bach, a Romantic Era piece and works of the player’s choice.

Recital times: 3 and 7:30 p.m. both days. Semifinalists announced following the conclusion of play.

Ticket price: $10

Semifinal round (Thursday and Friday, Ed Landreth Auditorium)

This round is divided into two phases. In phase one, the six semifinalists play a 40-minute recital that includes a work composed after 1950 and pieces of their choice. In phase two, the competitors perform the first movement of a piano concerto, with an accompanying pianist standing in for the orchestra.

Recital times: 3 and 7:30 p.m. Thursday; noon and 7 p.m. Friday. Finalists announced following the conclusion of play.

Ticket price: $20

Final round (Sunday, Ed Landreth Auditorium)

Each of the three finalists performs a piano concerto with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra with conductor Mei-Ann Chen.

Performance time: 3 p.m. Winners will be announced one hour after the conclusion of play.

Ticket price: $40


The winners will earn trophies, prizes and scholarship money in the following amounts:

First place: $10,000 cash, plus $2,000 scholarship

Second place: $5,000 cash, plus $2,000 scholarship

Third place: $2,500 cash, plus $2,000 scholarship

Festival events

All events are free and open to the public. Workshops and seminars take place at PepsiCo Recital Hall.

Workshop: “The Psychology of Performance” with pianist and author William Westney

10:30 a.m.-noon Tuesday

Symposium: “Career Building in the 21st Century” with pianists Elizabeth Joy Roe, Greg Anderson, Mari Kodama and Fabio Bidini and pedagogue Christopher Elton.

10:30 a.m.-noon Wednesday

Symposium: “Practical Performance Preparation” with pianists Jon Nakamatsu, Jon Kimura Parker and Orli Shaham

10:30 a.m.-noon Thursday

Workshop: Mei-Ann Chen conducting workshop

3-4:30 p.m. Friday

Symposium: Cliburn junior competition jury members

3-4:30 p.m. Saturday

Community concert: Competitors will give free concerts for the public 12:30-1 p.m. Thursday at the Fort Worth Central Library and 11 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Saturday in Sundance Square Plaza.