Over 70 of the world’s best pianists between the ages of 18 and 31 will head to Fort Worth this weekend in hopes of securing a spot in the 16th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

The competition, which is typically every four years, was postponed from 2021 because of COVID-19.

But the availability of vaccines has loosened many international travel restrictions, which will allow the live performances to be in person. As a result, the entire screening auditions process will be in Fort Worth for the first time since the competition began 60 years ago.

“Competitions are something special in the world of classical music because you want them to succeed,” Jacques Marquis, president and CEO of The Cliburn, said. 

He likened the relationship between the audience and the artists to spectators at the Olympics.

“​​You see them skiing or falling and you say, ‘Oh, no! Poor them.’ You know they’ve been training so hard for this. This is the same thing for a piano competition or any competition. You want them to succeed. You want them to do well. You want them to be happy. There’s a relationship between the audience and the stage that you don’t have all the time when you listen to a concert.” 

Know before you go…

Location: PepsiCo Recital Hall at TCU

Admittance: The screening auditions are free and open to the public ages 10 and up; no tickets are required.

Arrive early and with a mask: There will be no late seating. Masks are required.

Schedule: Performances will take place March 6-8 and March 10-12. You can find the full schedule here.

Traditionally, screening auditions would be held in multiple cities around the world, including Fort Worth. The jury, or panel of judges, would fly out to select pianists who would later perform at the formal competition.

But, hosting all of the screening auditions in one place allowed the Cliburn to shorten the list of variables judges would have to navigate at a time when infection rates, travel policies and geopolitics are fluid.

With 14 competitors from Russia and one from Ukraine, Cliburn organizers are watching the news closely.

“We’re doing everything we can working with these pianists who are lovely, you know, to get here,” Maggie Estes, director of communications and digital content, said. “It is, again, another ever-changing situation that we just have to be nimble and do whatever we can do to best serve the pianists because they’re really our focus.

At 388 applications, this year’s talent pool is the largest and most diverse in the competition’s history. 

During that initial process, pianists submitted videos of their performances, but the screening auditions are crucial to see how they handle performing live in front of a large crowd and expert jury. Each of the 72 artists who were invited to participate in the screening auditions will perform a 25-minute recital.

“If they win, then they might have to have six to 10 concertos that they’re just able to play interchangeably throughout the week. And this helps to show that they can handle a certain amount of repertoire,” Sandra Doan, director of artistic planning, said.

Accordingly, the dozen pianists who advance to the semi-final round of the competition will perform another recital and a Mozart concerto with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. The six who clear that bar will perform two more concertos in the final round.

“And so this gives us a more complete picture of who they are as artists and if they can handle the demands that might be required of them on tour,” Doan continued.

Marquis also emphasized the importance of live auditions because it allows them to see how the performers tailor their sound to fit the hall they’re in.  

Jacques Marquis, president and CEO of The Cliburn, poses at the Cliburn offices in downtown Fort Worth. (Marcheta Fornoff | Fort Worth Report)

“The mission since 1962, even though we add programs over the years, it’s always been the same, which is helping young musicians to enter their career,” the CEO said. “Also, Van was keen on sharing music with a large audience, with everybody, not only people in Carnegie Hall. And this is what we were trying to do as well.”

The three pianists who medal will have their careers managed through the Cliburn, which means everything from booking concerts, to mentorship and media training.

After the debut of his collaboration with two local artists commemorating the Cliburn’s 60th anniversary, Daniel Hsu, the 2017 bronze medalist, described what the competition meant for him.

“I had grown up watching documentaries about the Cliburn as a kid, and it was never something I thought that I would ever get to perform at, let alone medal in, you know. And it’s such a significant milestone in the piano community, and it’s still surreal,” Hsu explained. “And since then, I’ve had the wonderful privilege to be able to perform and share music with a lot of people and in a lot of places that I never would have imagined. And so, I am very thankful and grateful for that.” 

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After the turmoil and uncertainty of the past two years, Estes hopes that there will be an even bigger payoff for everyone involved in the competition — from local volunteers to the international competitors.  

I mean, you can already feel the energy building,” Estes said. “There’s nothing like a Cliburn competition.”  

Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at marcheta.fornoff@fortworthreport.org or on Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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For just over seven years Marcheta Fornoff performed the high wire act of producing a live morning news program on Minnesota Public Radio. She led a small, but nimble team to cover everything from politics...

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