Notes from the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition

1776_regIn this entry, Mari Yoshihara, author of Musicians from a Different Shore: Asians and Asians Americans and Classical Music, offers her impressions on the recent Van Cliburn International Piano Competition

By Mari Yoshihara

I had the fortune of attending the Thirteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition held in Fort Worth, TX, from May 22 through June 7, 2009. Held every four years in Fort Worth, the Cliburn competition is now considered one of the most prestigious piano competitions in the world. In addition to the $20,000 cash prize and a CD recording, the winners get three-year concert management for performances around the world that often launches their performing career.

The competition is a perfect example of the phenomenon I discuss in my book, Musicians from a Different Shore: Asians and Asian Americans in Classical Music. This year, 16 out of 30 contestants were Asian. This year’s list of awardees—the gold medal was shared by Nobuyuki Tsujii of Japan and Haochen Zhang of China; Yeol Eum Son of South Korea won the silver; the crystal medal was not awarded—is historic in many ways. For one thing, this was the first time in the history of the competition that the gold medal went to an Asian. Also, the two gold medalists were the two youngest contestants in this year’s competition. And finally—this is certainly the most attention-grabbing fact of all—Tsujii is blind from birth.

While I had mentioned the competition in Musicians from a Different Shore, this was the first time that I had actually attended the event. And it quickly became clear to me that studying the event through documentary films, recordings, and media coverage is one thing, and experiencing it in situ is quite another. In the course of my interviews with the event’s organizers and jurors, I was persuaded of the competitions’ merit in identifying those artists who are most prepared to launch a concertizing career; but in the end, who wins and who doesn’t interest me beyond the reality TV-like curiosity. I did become a convert, however, of the event as an occasion to experience the intensity of a live musical performance. These young (age 19 to 30) musicians have dedicated their entire lives to this art form and worked for years toward this competition. They perform with their future career at stake, making bare every bit of their musical ideas, technical skills, spiritual and emotional state, out for the world to peruse (for the first time, the entire competition was webcast throughout the world) and for the jurors to assess. To witness this extremely courageous and vulnerable act live in the performance hall was immensely moving. And regardless of what happens to the long-term trajectory of these musicians (as a performing career involves many variables beyond musical skills and talent, not all competition winners end up having a renowned performing career), it is an incredible honor to share in the moment of the launching of the career of these young artists. And to have experienced live the performances of these pianists—from his recital in the preliminary round, Zhang’s performance had struck me as something by an extraordinary genius; and Tsujii’s playing moves the audience on so many levels, musical and spiritual—brings the listeners together in a way that defies facile description.

Listening to all the performances live, interviewing the contestants and jurors, meeting various people involved in the event, observing what goes on offstage and outside the concert hall, and getting to know some things about the Fort Worth community greatly expanded my understanding of the practice of classical music in the context of an event such as the Cliburn. It gave me tremendous food for thought as I reflect upon my own ideas about identity and music. Yet I was glad to confirm that my concluding sentences in Musicians from a Different Shore were proven by my experience at the Cliburn: “I believe that music produces power through the meetings of the performers’ and listeners’ subjective engagement with the musical text and the social, collective experience of music. Asians’ and Asian Americans’ realization and performance of identity in and through music help us see how the subjective and the social meet.”

Mari Yoshihara is the author of Musicians from a Different Shore: Asians and Asians Americans and Classical Music http://www.temple.edu/tempress/titles/1776_reg.html

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  1. [...] Blog highlights a recent radio piece on publishing in Chicago. -Temple University Press blog publishes Notes from the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. (Note: when I was in my teens I passed on listening to an advance copy of the first Van Halen 45 [...]

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