Some thoughts on the Van Cliburn Competition 2013

The Winner of the 2013 Van Cliburn Piano Competition has just been announced and as is so often the case, there has been much controversy over the decision. I haven’t been following all the various rounds but I have been enjoying the updates on Twitter and the general consensus about winners.

The Van Cliburn Competition was established in 1958 by  Dr. Irl Allison, founder of the National Guild of Piano Teachers, who announced at a banquet (with Van Cliburn present) of his intentions to award $10,000 to the first prize awarded by an international piano competition named in Cliburn’s honour. The first competition was held in 1962 and then every four years thereafter.

Over the past four decades, this contest has involved many world-class pianists and the juries have consisted of equally illustrious musicians including: Jorge Bolet, Philippe Entremont, Rudolf Firkusny, Leon Fleisher, Malcolm Frager, Alberto Ginastera, Howard Hanson, Nicole Henriot-Schweitzer, Lili Kraus, Alicia de Larrocha, Dame Moura Lympany, Nikita Magaloff, Gerald Moore, John Ogdon, Cecile Ousset, Gyorgy Sandor, Harold Schonberg, Maxim Shostakovich, Soulima Stravinsky, Walter Susskind, Alexis Weissenberg, and Earl Wild. Among the conductors who have shared the stage with competitors during the final round of the Competition are Leon Fleisher, John Giordano, Milton Katims, Ezra Rachlin, Walter Susskind, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, and Jerzy Semkow.

Ralph Votapek (from the USA) was the first winner and subsequent pianists who have won prizes include; Cecile Ousset, Radu Lupu, Cristina Ortiz, Christian Zacharias, Alexander Toradze, Christian Blackshaw,  Ian Hobson, Barry Douglas, Olga Kern, Maxim Philippov, and Sa Chen.

Whether you agree with the competition process or not, it’s been fascinating watching the live broadcasts and webcasts which permits the world to examine every detail. I usually ask pianists in my interview Series, Classical Conversations, whether they feel competitions can still establish a pianist’s career. Many of my interview guests have won various prizes or have been on international competition juries, so they all know the pressures and politics which frequently beset these contests. However, they generally agree that they are a useful stepping stone in the learning process for the reason because they encourage young pianists to ingest large amounts of repertoire all at once and are an excellent way of performing to an audience and getting ‘out there’. It’s often been suggested that the ‘safe’ pianist covets the first prize and many of the ‘lesser’ prize winners enjoy rather more successful careers.

This controversial point has been bourne out by so many first prize winners who have miserably failed to establish careers at all. This year’s ‘PianoFest’ has been a feast of superlative playing; most will agree that any of the finalists would have been worthy winners.  Ukrainian Vadym Kholodenko won the Gold Medal, Italian Beatrice Rana won the Silver medal and American  Sean Chen won the Bronze Medal. Beatrice Rana was the clear favourite from the outset and she will no doubt go on to have a fabulous career, as they will all do hopefully. I wish them every success in what has to be the most demanding career.


Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.

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