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World Class Pianists Vie for Van Cliburn Prize

  • Gail Wein

Gold Medal winner Vadym Kholodenko, 26, of Ukraine, performs during final rounds of the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas, on June 9, 2013. (Carolyn Cruz/ The Cliburn)

Gold Medal winner Vadym Kholodenko, 26, of Ukraine, performs during final rounds of the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas, on June 9, 2013. (Carolyn Cruz/ The Cliburn)

A 26 year old from Ukraine has won one of music's most prestigious competitions.

Vadym Kholodenko took home top honors after a series of masterful performances at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

World class

Every four years, since 1962, pianists have come from all over the world to compete in the competition.

Kholodenko was one of 30 competitors, age 19 to 30, who gathered in Fort Worth, Texas this month to perform before a panel of jurors who are experts in the piano world, as well as a live public audience and thousands who watched the live webcasts. After a series of recitals and chamber music performances, six finalists were selected.

To get to the finals of the Van Cliburn competition takes years of study, countless hours of practice and nerves of steel.


Sean Chen, from southern California, one of six finalists, had been building up to this point all of his life.

"Cliburn has one of the largest reaching influences of any competition," Chen said. "All finalists get management...all of the finalists get concerts in the next four years. That’s the most important thing for any up-and-coming young artist."

Goose bumps

The judges have a tough job. Every pianist they’ve heard during the preliminary and semi-final rounds of the competition is hugely accomplished, has astonishing technical skills, and gives thoroughly artistic interpretations of the music.

They all sound spectacular, even to the well-trained ear. So, the judges look for nuances.

"It’s not a matter of judging technical prowess, that’s almost taken for granted," said John Giordano, the competition's jury chairman who has been on the jury since 1973. "Some aspects are pretty simple. Do I want to hear this person again? Sometimes, it’s something as simple as goose bumps...if they miss notes and the message is there, and it really reaches you, you ignore that."
Crystal winner Sean Chen (left) silver medalist Beatrice Rana (center) and winner Vadym Kholodenko (right) in the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas, on June 9, 2013. (Ralph Lauer/ The Cliburn)

Crystal winner Sean Chen (left) silver medalist Beatrice Rana (center) and winner Vadym Kholodenko (right) in the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas, on June 9, 2013. (Ralph Lauer/ The Cliburn)

All in all, it’s extremely high-pressure with grindingly stiff competition. But for young pianists, like silver medalist Beatrice Rana, who is from Italy, it’s worth it.

"Because it’s one of most important piano competitions in the world, and it’s one of the few competitions that can provide a stable career for the finalists," Rana said. "I think a good placement in the Cliburn can provide a wonderful future for someone that aspires to be a concert pianist."

Elite musicians

​This is the first competition since its namesake, Van Cliburn, passed away in February from bone cancer.

Cliburn became a household name in 1958 when he took first prize in another famous piano competition, the Tchaikovsky, in Moscow. He was the first non-Russian to win, a significant victory during the Cold War era. Cliburn was honored with a ticker-tape parade on his return to the United States.

After hearing dozens of solo recitals, chamber music performances and concerts performed with the Fort Worth Symphony, the judges deliberated about who would take home the top prize. Suspense was high in the auditorium when the announcement was made Sunday night.

Kholodenko joins the elite club of Van Cliburn winners, who are ranked among classical music’s leading concert artists.
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