On the morning of May 22, Haochen Zhang woke up in the home of Fort Worth friends with a familiar sense of jitters.
“I felt nervous,” he said. “It’s almost like it was four years ago, when I woke up on the day of the opening ceremony. It’s just a recollection of past experience.”
But on that recent morning, that’s all it was for Zhang, a recollection, albeit one of a very intense and ultimately life-changing time at the Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2009. He had been the youngest of that year’s Cliburn field, and had just turned 19 when he was named the co-gold medalist with Japanese sensation Nobuyuki Tsujii. South Korea’s Yeol Eum Son finished second.
The calendar page has turned. On that recent day, Zhang was in Fort Worth to greet the 2013 competitors at the Cliburn’s traditional opening dinner. At the black-tie event, he told the newcomers to use the music as sanctuary against the unique pressures they would face in the days to come.
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Nearly three weeks later, on Sunday night, new Cliburn royalty will be anointed, three pianists who will become the competition’s standard bearers in hundreds of concerts and recitals around the world…until the next winners are named in 2017.
The six competitors vying for the title are Sean Chen, 24, of the United States; Fei-Fei Dong, 22, of China; Vadym Kholodenko, 26, of Ukraine; Nikita Mndoyants, 24, of Russia; Beatrice Rana, 20, of Italy; and Tomoki Sakata, 19, of Japan.
The post-Cliburn world
The 2009 winners now must attempt to transcend their Fort Worth achievements, not an easy thing to do.
“Some people don’t really think about who I am,” Son said recently. “They just know that I’m a Cliburn winner. Some cities where I played, my name wasn’t even on the program. It was just Cliburn silver medalist.”
Will she and the others be able to build performing careers that will endure? Few past Cliburn laureates have been successful in that regard. Zhang and the others have full performing schedules well into the future, but they are well aware of the challenges ahead.
“My ultimate goal is to grow out of that,” Zhang, now 23, said during his latest Fort Worth visit. “It’s the ultimate goal of the Van Cliburn competition, too. Those winners that are most established, when people mention Radu Lupu [the 1966 winner and a piano superstar today], it’s the name Radu Lupu and his music. Then, when they see his résumé, people know, ‘Oh, he’s a Van Cliburn winner.’
“What the competition wants is for their competitors to grow out of the competition and become true solo masters.”
Before they set off on their own to pursue that goal, and as the new winners are named, we take one more look back at three young musicians from 2009 who gave Fort Worth audiences such indelible memories.
Yeol Eum Son
Son has returned to Fort Worth several times since winning her silver medal, each time staying in the home of her Fort Worth host family from the competition. On a day this spring, hours before a solo recital at Bass Hall, she lounged in that same home, reflecting on 2009.
The family atmosphere, unusual in piano competitions, was one thing that came back to her. Another was the pressure. By 2009, Son was already a veteran of piano competitions, including the prestigious Chopin in Warsaw, where she finished fourth. But none of the others had repertoire demands like the Cliburn’s. And with scores of engagements promised to the winners over three years, none could provide a better jump start to young artist’s career.
“The Cliburn was obviously the biggest one for me. It was very intense,” said Son, now 27. “Usually I don’t get nervous too much. I am always kind of a relaxed person. But here, especially in the recital stages, I got really nervous. I didn’t know what to do. I thought maybe if I had enjoyed myself a little more, I would have done better.”
It’s hard to imagine how. Her combination of artistry and ferocity at the keyboard vaulted Son through the preliminaries and semifinals, and many Fort Worth fans thought she would walk away with gold.
“Of course, I was a little disappointed,” she said.
There wasn’t much time for indulging those feelings. She was off to scores of performances a year that were arranged by the Cliburn.
“I am so grateful. It was every different kind of experience,” she said. “I played with big orchestras and small orchestra, on big stages and small stages, for very knowledgeable people and very simple people, simple audiences.”
Concertos with the Utah and Seattle symphonies were among those that stood out, she said. But the less prestigious engagements might have left the most lasting personal mark
“It really changed me, somehow,” Son said. “I am a very shy person, but in the community concerts you have to open yourself on stage, making some conversation with the audience. That was a very good experience.”
Son also recalled her foray into yet another prestigious competition — against the advice of some friends and mentors. They discouraged her from entering the 2011 Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow, fearing that a poor finish would tarnish her Cliburn medal.
“They thought I would be risking so much, but I didn’t think so,” she said. “That was a dream from a very young age. I really wanted to play for the Russian audience and the Russian repertoire is very dear to me.”
Son was impressive again, finishing second to rising piano star Daniil Trifonov. She played the same Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky concertos that Van Cliburn himself had performed at the first Tchaikovsky competition in 1958. Two years ago, in fact, the piano legend was part of her audience in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory.
“I still remember. After I played the Rachmaninov Concerto No. 3, I went backstage. People were still clapping,” Son said. “Van Cliburn came to me. He hugged me. It was beautiful. Amazing. He wouldn’t let me go. I couldn’t come back on the stage.”
Son said she learned of Cliburn’s death from cancer in February while she was in South Korea. It came in a late-night email.
“I was there to play a big concert, but I couldn’t sleep,” she said. “I’m so grateful to have such a memory.”
Tsujii, the only blind finalist in the history of the Cliburn, began to make his mark at the Fort Worth auditions, when jurors wept. At the competition itself, his interpretation of Chopin bordered on the supernatural.
The 24-year-old is now a household name in Japan, having achieved stardom that rivals athletes like Yu Darvish, the pitcher for the Texas Rangers. Tsujii’s manager, Naoyuki Asano, has lost count of the number of documentaries produced about his client by major networks in Japan. One broadcaster flew the young pianist around Europe, as part of a program on Chopin’s life.
His parents have become minor celebrities. His mother, Itsuko, wrote a book about raising a genius, advocating a laid-back approach to parenting gifted children that allows them to feel free to follow their talent. The book has led to more than 100 speaking engagements a year, Asano said.
Tsujii’s father, an obstetrician, has been swamped by pregnant women.
The doctor’s son, meanwhile, has branched out, writing the theme music for a program on the Japanese space program, composing a pop song, performing on a music video and donating the proceeds to tsunami victims.
Not all the attention is welcome, his manager said. Once, while pursuing his favorite pastime, swimming, he was surrounded in a pool by several adoring women who began to paw at him.
“He said, ‘Thank you, thank you,’ and swam off quickly,” Asano said.
Zhang’s recollections of 2009 sound familiar.
“The amount of repertoire and also the intensity of the live media coverage,” he counted among the unique Cliburn rigors. “They’re filming everywhere. They come to your home. They film chamber rehearsals. They come to private conductor meetings. You’re just completely naked in front of the public. So this is the most intense piano competition. There is no argument on that.”
Less known are the challenges facing the Cliburn winners. Zhang, for example, was a teenager and still a student at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia when he was thrust into the world of the traveling soloist.
“The soloist goes everywhere alone. Before you were in a community, and now you are facing the world by yourself,” he said. “In the beginning it was tough because you have so many things to deal with, not only the things on the surface, but physically. Jet lag, the traveling, time changes. But also psychologically. For me there was a sense of insecurity because you feel you don’t belong anywhere.
“You are meeting new people. You’re looking at new places. You’re changing cultural environments, but as soon as you get even a little bit of the touch of the culture, you’re flying off to somewhere new.”
The new life required him to grow up quickly, he said.
“Over time you begin to not only compromise, but you begin to realize more and more what’s special about this way of life,” Zhang said. “That’s sharing inspiration with people all over the world. Whenever you see a different culture, it’s an opening of your perspective. It’s some kind of spiritual trade. You are trying to inspire people, obviously, but also you are inspired by the places you go. That enriches your life, which ultimately benefits your music.”
Staff writer Barry Shlachter contributed to this story.