In the spring of 1997, Jon Nakamatsu was both a young teacher of high school German and an exquisite classical pianist with a fading musical dream. Years of practice and study had led to a modest number of engagements, but nothing that could be called a career. At age 28, he knew that year’s Van Cliburn International Piano Competition was probably his last chance to break through.
“I had exams in my suitcase,” Nakamatsu remembers now. “I was grading papers during the competition.”
What happened next is part of Cliburn lore, and perhaps the most dramatic example of what a Cliburn medal can mean to an aspiring young artist. Nakamatsu charmed Fort Worth audiences and jurors alike, capturing the top prize.
He launched immediately into three years of international engagements that accompany the Cliburn gold medal.
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Sixteen years later, the Californian remains a highly sought-after soloist whose life is spent mostly on the road, playing recitals and concerts with orchestras.
“Those three weeks have a power to change a life,” he says recently from New York City en route to another gig. “It certainly did that for me. Even though I had done other competitions with varying degrees of success, they were not at the level where they could launch a career. At the time, I didn’t think there was another competition that could even compare.”
Such are the stakes for this year’s 30 Cliburn competitors, musicians between ages 19 and 30 who dream of a similar springboard. To them, the 51-year-old competition that began Friday at Bass Hall can be a crucial leg up in a fiercely competitive profession.
The prize money is nice: $50,000 for the gold medalist this year. But the media exposure is just as important, the three years of commission-free management and the scores of dates around the world that are guaranteed to the winner.
The Cliburn Foundation manages the careers of the six finalists for three years after the competition, arranging scores of engagements, from community concerts before tiny audiences to concertos with the nation’s most prestigious orchestras. The gold medalist receives international concert engagements during these years. The top three victors also get a recording produced on the Harmonia Mundi label.
“I think the Cliburn gives you the best boost,” says Joyce Yang, a 2005 silver medalist who has also gone on to a robust performing career. “It’s sort of like fireworks if you end up with a medal. I just remember everyone’s expectations. I was doing just fine as a 19-year-old and suddenly you are being compared to [1966 Cliburn winner and piano superstar] Radu Lupu, and that is a hugely stressful thing for a young pianist.
“The exposure it brings is quite tremendous. The impact has been a hundred times more than I thought it would be. Not only is it a good publicity tool, it is like a Cinderella moment when you are transformed into a completely different entity.”
Or transformed from a German teacher into a pianist making a lucrative living in the great performance halls of the world.
Lindsay Garritson, a 25-year-old who lives in Connecticut, is one of this year’s 30 pianists with that kind of dream.
“Yes, I’ve done a lot of things as a pianist, but it hasn’t been full-time,” she says. “It’s been kind of half-time, and the other half I’ve been working at Yale. At this point in my life, the Cliburn can help with that, performing, my first love. Whatever I can do to get to that point, I’m going to do.”
Breaking into the field
The importance of the Cliburn and other major competitions (the Chopin in Warsaw, the Queen Elisabeth in Belgium and the Tchaikovsky in Moscow) underscores the realities of classical music today, and the challenge facing young artists trying to make a career.
“It’s a question of supply and demand,” says Veda Kaplinsky, head of the piano department at the Juilliard School in New York. “The supply is getting more and more plentiful, and the demand is dwindling. That’s the sad reality of the world today.”
For a young artist, she said, there are basically three ways to break through.
“One is to be a child prodigy. The cute factor is still there,” Kaplinsky says. “The other is to get a well-known conductor to be your champion and take you with them to orchestras where they are guest-conducting, or introduce you to managers. The other is through competitions, since most people who are trying to make a career are not children and don’t have a conductor as their champion.
“It becomes the most accessible way to try and get onto the scene,” she says.
CU Presents, a prestigious performing-arts series at the University of Colorado Boulder, engages the Cliburn gold medalist every four years. A young artist, no matter how talented, otherwise has no chance of performing there without that medal or reputable management.
“If I’m approached by a young artist who may be a fantastic pianist, but they don’t have representation, we’re not able to present them,” says Joan Braun, executive director of CU Presents. “We present our artist series in a 2,000-seat hall, and we wouldn’t be able to draw an audience. It’s hard to get noticed by managers unless it’s in a competition setting. You can send invitations to all the recitals you want, but the one place that managers will be looking for talent is at competitions.”
And not just any competition. There are hundreds in the world today. Only the top four can provide a substantial career boost. Of those, the Cliburn is arguably the most effective, for several reasons.
One is the magic still attached to the Fort Worth competition’s late namesake, the legendary Van Cliburn himself. The quadrennial nature of the competition inspires comparisons with the Olympics, building anticipation and luster.
“The name is iconic,” Braun says. “The way they run the competition is very intelligent. New artists that are vetted in this way, and come to us with the Cliburn name and backing — that’s very strong and very attractive in terms of getting the attention of our audience.”
Jacques Marquis, the Cliburn’s new executive director, said he was aware of the aura while running a piano competition in Montreal.
“When you’re the Cliburn gold medalist, you can be engaged only on that,” Marquis says. “Nobody knows your name, but you’ve been hired by a great symphony because you are a winner of the Cliburn. That’s very rare in the milieu.”
But more than the aura, it’s what happens in the three years after a Cliburn triumph that most distinguishes the competition. Engagements for the 2009 laureates included Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center in New York, the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., performances with the Philadelphia and San Francisco symphonies, and the most prestigious American music festivals.
International tours for the gold medalists have included the BBC Philharmonic, the London Philharmonic and the Vienna Chamber Orchestra, in addition to performances in France, Germany, Israel and Beijing.
“It means they are definitely going to have those concerts, whereas without the competition, there is no guarantee of anything,” Kaplinsky says. “And if they continue with the commitment, and if they really show consistency and growth, they can turn those opportunities into long-lasting relationships with managers, with presenters, with orchestras and with conductors.”
Beyond the concert stage
And there’s the rub. A Cliburn medal hardly guarantees a career — witness the small number of Cliburn laureates still in demand today. In recent years, only a few come to mind: Nakamatsu, Yang and 2001 co-gold medalist Olga Kern. The simple reality is that it’s up to the medalist to translate all the opened doors into a career over time. That takes talent, business sense and an ability to work with people.
Again, Nakamatsu might be the best example. His artistry is matched by his graciousness and humility off-stage.
“It’s a really, really complex profession,” he says. “You have an incredible start after the competition, but then your career will either fizzle or explode. After the hype is gone and if there is nothing left, it is pretty much over. But if you work diligently, if no date is a small date, if you work and prepare for every date, that’s what makes your career. It’s a small world and people really talk.”
Yang says she learned the same lesson.
“I discovered a year or two after the Cliburn that I have to get myself re-engaged,” Yang says. “I thought it was all taken care of. I would play and, like a miracle, I will be back there again two years later. I figured out that was not the case. Yes, this is an artistic profession, but human relations and public relations is a huge part of what I do.
“I’m still an introvert, but this makes you grow up in a way where you know that you are not the only person in the world,” she says. “I have to make an impression that goes much farther than just on the stage.”
That is what is often lost in the flush of a Cliburn triumph. The hard road is just beginning, and the odds remain long.
“You have those three years to create an image of yourself as an artist in your own right, and not just a competition winner,” Kaplinsky says. “If you’re banking on the fact that you are a competition winner, that only lasts until the next competition. There will be new winners. You will be the old one.”
Which is not to diminish what can happen in a few weeks at Bass Hall. That’s why the Cliburn is such a pressure cooker. Each young pianist knows what’s at stake.
Consider Nakamatsu. For all his talent, without the Cliburn, he might still be grading papers.
“I probably would have become something very different,” Yang says, too. “It made me sort of say to myself, ‘I don’t know what it is, but these people say that I’ve got it. So I just have to go for it.’ It’s just this invisible push forward.”
“I’m so glad that I didn’t know what an impact it would have on my life,” Yang says. “It would have been a very stressful thing.”