Van Cliburn

Cliburn contestants gold-medal caliber, but where are the crowds?

A young superstar may emerge from this week’s Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

But will much of Fort Worth be there to see it?

Besides the stunningly high level of talent in this year’s competition, the greatest surprise at early rounds last week was the number of empty seats.

Going into the final round, tickets remain for as little as $40 Thursday and Friday. Semifinal tickets start at $25 today.

At the height of acclaim 20 years ago, the Cliburn sold out every 1989 and 1993 performance weeks in advance, even when the finals were in a now-demolished theater 900 seats larger than the 2,046-seat Bass Performance Hall.

Last week, crowds of a few hundred rattled around with office workers downtown at some weekday preliminary recitals. About 500 semifinal seats went unsold Saturday.

Competition spokeswoman Maggie Estes wrote by email during Saturday’s performance that officials are pleased with ticket sales and that they match sales in 2009, the last quadrennial competition.

From 250 to 100 tickets remain for final rounds Thursday through Sunday, she wrote. Officials are also happy with the 250,000 viewers so far for the free online webcast, available on any computer, tablet or smartphone at

But the gaping, half-empty orchestra section is obvious to Web viewers.

Price might be involved. The Cliburn sold 636 subscriptions — season tickets — for all 32 concerts, Estes wrote. Lowest price: $430.

But ticket prices started at $110 for the 20 preliminaries, barely $5 per ticket for maybe the strongest field of 30 young competitors in a generation.

The Cliburn is not simply another arts event or piano recital series. It’s a Texas tourist attraction that draws an estimated 20,000 out-of-town visitors, almost half the Bass Hall crowd

They come because the late Van Cliburn made Fort Worth famous for our hospitality.

If this is our international showcase, we need to show.

Bud Kennedy's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. 817-390-7538

Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram