In 1958, the same year he shocked the world with his win at the inaugural Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, Van Cliburn encountered another life-changing surprise. Irl Allison, a fellow Texan and the founder of the National Guild of Piano Teachers, publicly announced his idea to start a piano competition in Cliburn’s honor and offered $10,000 for the first-place winner. The Van Cliburn foundation got its start in 1961, and hosted its own inaugural competition in 1962 and another American pianist, Ralph Votapek, was awarded first place.

Sixty years later, the event remains a catalyst for many young pianists’ careers.

The applicant pool reached its apex this year with 388 applicants from 51 countries. For the first time ever, the first-place purse is $100,000. And the event is expected to exceed 10 million views online.

But even with those changes, the competition’s mission has remained the same.

This year, the competition harkened back to its beginnings when announcing its decision to allow Russian competitors. Event organizers condemned Russian attacks on Ukraine but reiterated that Russian-born contestants are not representatives of their government. An official statement emphasized “the transcendence of art” and quoted an unnamed contestant hoping for the opportunity to “give music the chance to be an ambassador of peace and love.”

Seven former medalists from 1969 to 2017 share their memories of competing at the Cliburn and their advice for this year’s contestants. 

Cristina Ortiz  – 1st place – 1969

Cristina Ortiz photographed at a more recent performance (left) and Ortiz photographed during the Cliburn Competition (right). (Courtesy photos | Cristina Ortiz)

On nearly missing the competition’s application deadline

I used to go to competitions just hoping to do my best and when it came and I won, I was really surprised and happy — that’s all. You know, I worked my head off to do well in a very short time because I nearly missed the time for enrolling. I had decided very late to enroll for the competition. And I got in just about at the date of enrollment. So I had to work in five months on a program, which was incredibly hard in that year. (It required) very, very long hours of music, of content.” 

Ortiz feels like her playing now is better than it’s ever been

Music for me is … I breathe music. And I get emotional. I live through my music, and my music is my soul. When I’m at the piano, nothing else matters, and the impression I get is that people get all of the emotion that I go through (when I perform).”

Olga Kern  – 1st place (tie) – 2001

Olga Kern poses with Van Cliburn. (Courtesy photo | Olga Kern)
Olga Kern poses for a professional portrait. (Courtesy photo | Chris Lee)

Her biggest takeaway from the Cliburn Competition

“I’m lucky and honored to say that Van Cliburn afterwards was my dear friend and my mentor. He loved my family. He loved my son, so he was really a special person in my life. That’s really priceless, and this is what this competition gave me.” 

The advice she gives to her students and this year’s competitors: Find balance

“A lot of friends of mine now say, ‘Oh, you are on a really tight schedule — perfectly every hour.’ I say, ‘Yes, because if I do not (have) this schedule, I will not be able to enjoy everything that I need to enjoy.’ So you have to have a schedule in your head and to balance everything into equal amount of time. That’s the most important. I achieve it and I’m happy. I know when I will be with my family… So this is very important.  Of course it’s very personal. Everyone needs different (things), but balance is balance. You need to find it.”

Alexander Kobrin – 1st place – 2005

Pianist Alexander Kobrin poses a portrait. (Courtesy photo | Alexander Kobrin)

How a joke about wanting to come to America changed his life

Until (the) Cliburn, I was touring in Europe and I’ve never been to the United States. And I always like to mention that little fact, because when you apply to Cliburn, at least at that time I don’t know how it is now, but at that time we were supposed to write a few sentences about the reason why did we apply for the Cliburn. 

I was never guilty of being (a) serious person, so instead of writing something like, well, you know, career and all that, I just simply said, ‘I’ve never been to America before and please just get me in. I want to just stick around and see the place.’ And they were laughing about it. That really turned everything upside down. I have my kids here. I have my wife here, and I established myself as a pedagog here as well teaching in the wonderful Eastman School of Music. Sometimes we don’t understand the importance of the event until many years later. And definitely Cliburn was that event in my life.”

On how the Cliburn changed him as an artist

I guess the competition changed me, helped me to develop as an artist by giving (me) the opportunity to perform. This is why in the first place people are doing competitions to have the opportunity to perform, because ultimately this is our heaven, so to speak, you know, the best place, even though it could (also) be the most stressful place. 

But we are practicing, for this short an hour and a half moment on stage. People maybe underestimate this journey. You practice for many, many, many hours and days just to suffer or enjoy that little moment on stage, and then it feels like everything starts all over again. And that’s what Cliburn does so magnificently for young people to give them that opportunity, to experience that.”

Joyce Yang – 2nd place – 2005

Joyce Yang hugs her piano teacher Veda Kaplinsky after she was announced as a finalist. (Courtesy photo | Joyce Yang)
Joyce Yang poses for a professional portrait. (Courtesy photo | KT Kim)

On the importance of having the right mindset

I went into the competition without much expectations. Just going in and doing my best, I think that mentality was important. I wasn’t really there to win. And what I wanted to do was really be a part of an extraordinary experience. And it was a challenge to get all the pieces necessary ready by that time. 

What really helped me was that in the beginning of the competition, the president at the time, Richard Rodzinski of the Cliburn Foundation, made the speech like, ‘We are looking for that person that loves music, loves what they do, loves performing so much that we know you will go out there and really share that passion and joy and that love for music making. We’re not necessarily looking for the fastest fingers or, you know, the person who can play the piano the best. This is more about for us to see the love here, the love that you have for music making and this performance.’ 

And I heard that and I was like, ‘Yes, that’s true.’ I might not be the greatest pianist here, but I do have that passion and, truly, that’s something I love about going on stage performing and sharing music. So I was like, ‘Maybe I can do this.’ And I think that mentality was important.”

Haochen Zhang – 1st place (tie) – 2009

Haochen Zhang performs at the Cliburn Competition. (Courtesy photo | The Cliburn)
Haochen Zhang poses for a portrait. (Courtesy photo | 8VA Music Consultancy)

On turning 19 during the Cliburn and being new to piano competitions

I think in a way it helped me because I didn’t walk into the competition with any kind of burden on my shoulder. I was the youngest competitor and I wasn’t really sure (how) to compete. It was more like a learning experience for me because I saw so many excellent musicians, great musicians, (who were) more experienced and more mature. And (I thought) I’m just here to learn, to absorb. And I think, maybe in a way, that helped me just as a general approach and experience during the competition.”

On why he recommends treating the Cliburn like a performance and not a competition

You realize that the key to overcoming the external pressure and stress, the nonmusical parts (of the competition) still lie with the music itself. It’s only through music you can overcome. You can forget about all these (pressures). And that’s why I say treat it like a performance. Going through something like a competition you can appreciate music and why it’s so powerful. When you treat it like a performance, when you let go of all these complicated thoughts and of stress you have, it can still turn out to be a beautiful thing.”

Sean Chen – 3rd place –  2013

Third place winner Sean Chen (left) stands next to second place winner Beatrice Rana (center) and first-place finalist Vadym Kholodenko (right).  (Courtesy photo | Ralph Lauer, The Cliburn)
Sean Chen (center) stands beside some of his piano students. (Courtesy photo | Matthew Roxas)

On finding your voice as an artist

“Find out what excites you about music, about playing the pieces that you’re playing. You have to find a way to be excited about it or at least be willing to play through it again. I think that’s a very important part of finding your voice is: Why? Why am I doing (it) this way? Can I do it some other way? Do I really like this piece? (If not) maybe next time, (at the) next group of performances, I should change it out. And I think that’s all part of it.”

Advice for competitors

“I think what’s important for every musician to realize and (I’m) preaching to the choir on this, but it’s just a constant thing of self-improvement. And additionally, how well you do in your career, how famous you are doesn’t really have much to do with your artistic excellence. That stuff is for yourself. How well you want to play and what you want to learn, when you listen to yourself play (and) how that sounds, that’s all for yourself. 

And I think that’s really important for any artist because if you’re looking for external validation, you get bitter because someone else has gotten something better than you did and you think they don’t do as well as you or you think…you know, whatever it is … all these like external factors can influence your feelings of your self-worth, both as a human and as a as an artist. And I think it’s very important to separate those two and to try to do it as young as possible, because it’s brutal otherwise.”

Yekwon Sunwoo – 1st place – 2017

Pianist Yekwon Sunwoo poses for a recent portrait. (Courtesy photo | Jeremy Enlow)

Sunwoo remembers feeling unsure about being at the competition and thinking that he didn’t make the cut through semifinals

“When I first walked out on stage for the first round, I was having a feeling that maybe I shouldn’t have come because I was really nervous. I was somewhat hesitant to go out, you know, from backstage to see the audience and the jury members. But I knew I was very confident with the works that I prepared, and I had every intention musically with what I wanted to do. So I just tried to really focus on that and try to sing the whole time without any other thought going through my head. It’s not a good feeling waiting for the results, but I was very happy and I did go through to the next stage. But at the semifinal when they announced the finalists, they were not going in alphabetical order or the order of the performances … I forget how they were doing it. 

But I think they announced like five people and then just there was one spot left and my name wasn’t called yet. So I was like panicking in my head, and then when they said my name, I was like, I kind of leaned over and I think I hit my forehead, on a chair or something. And yeah, (that) was not a good feeling, of course. But I was really happy preparing for the competition because that was the only time that I really focused on trying to bring out all the or the musical intention to express (in the) music.”

On the importance of music selection

Sometimes when you play concerts, you play certain things many, many times so you know it by heart very closely. But at the same time, there is a danger that you might feel this kind of distant feeling at times. And because of the troubles and fatigue, sometimes you are just kind of playing without this fresh kind of mind and feelings. For me, I think that the emotions, they show at the Cliburn Competition. 

I think that is something you cherish also in your life (for a long) time. That makes you feel this responsibility to be also energetic and have a stronger passion for the music, which I’ve had since I started playing the piano when I was 8. And then I try to remind myself (the importance) in having fresh feelings.”

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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Marcheta Fornoff

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...