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Best Young Pianists Compete for Van Cliburn Gold

  • Gail Wein

A rehearsal with conductor Nicholas McGegan and the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra at The 15th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, June 1, 2017.

More than half a century ago, international relations between the United States and Russia warmed when a tall, soft-spoken young pianist from Texas claimed first prize at the prestigious International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow.


Not long after, the piano competition that bears his name — Van Cliburn — was founded, attracting outstanding young talent from around the globe to compete for the coveted gold, silver and bronze medals every four years.

Rachel Cheung of Hong Kong performs with conductor Nicholas McGegan and the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra on Sunday in the Semifinal Round at the 15th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.
Rachel Cheung of Hong Kong performs with conductor Nicholas McGegan and the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra on Sunday in the Semifinal Round at the 15th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

This week, in Fort Worth, Texas, the original field of 30 competitors has been winnowed to six, and the winners will be announced Saturday evening.

Life-changing and surreal

Twenty-five-year-old Rachel Cheung from Hong Kong, one of the finalists, expects being here will change her life, "because this is really the biggest competition in the world, and the engagements that would bring with winning it, would be very, very helpful to my career, and there will be a lot of opportunities and exposures."

American Daniel Hsu says being a finalist at the Van Cliburn competition is a bit surreal.

"Even though it's a competition, and there's a lot of stress and preparation, but the overall feeling is just incredible and it's a lot of fun, and I'm having a blast," he said.

Daniel Hsu of the United States warms up in his dressing room before performing his Thursday evening recital in the Semifinal Round at the 15th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.
Daniel Hsu of the United States warms up in his dressing room before performing his Thursday evening recital in the Semifinal Round at the 15th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

Leonard Slatkin, conductor and chairman of the jury, says the Cliburn competition, one of more than 200 piano competitions in the world, is an important one.

"Clearly the Cliburn is the premiere competition in the United States," he said. "It attracts the highest level ... the Cliburn ranks in a similar manner as, say, the Queen Elizabeth or the Tchaikovsky in terms of the international prestige it brings."

More than a concert

All of the competitors have played concerts. But for some, including Georgy Tchaidze, a 29-year-old finalist from Russia, playing in a competition is different from an ordinary performance.

"It's all about pressure," he said. "Pressure is so high that sometimes you forget to enjoy the music. And music making is all about enjoying it. And to bring the joy and pass it to the audience."

Georgy Tchaidze of Russia warms up in his dressing room before performing with the Brentano String Quartet on Thursday in the Final Round of the 15th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.
Georgy Tchaidze of Russia warms up in his dressing room before performing with the Brentano String Quartet on Thursday in the Final Round of the 15th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

On the other hand, Hsu says he doesn’t approach a competition performance any differently from a concert.

"I've heard people say that, in competitions you should be more careful, and you should try and play for the jury," he sad. "I didn't particularly take that approach for this competition. I played how I felt in the moment, and how I thought the music should be portrayed."

A life in music

No matter what the outcome of the competition, qualifying for the Cliburn validates their dedication to a life in music, says South Korean pianist Yekwon Sunwoo.

"My passion and love for music is just, deeply enough, and I can never get enough of it. You have to spend a lot of hours, and really such dedication to it," he said.

Yekwon Sunwoo of South Korea performs Tuesday in the Quarterfinal Round of the 15th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.
Yekwon Sunwoo of South Korea performs Tuesday in the Quarterfinal Round of the 15th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

Leonard Slatkin explains that the Van Cliburn is not the be-all and end-all to a career.

"It should be just one possible step among many paths that the pianist can take. They wouldn't have gotten this far if they weren't good enough to be at the Cliburn," he said.

The winner of the Van Cliburn competition earns a cash prize and three years of professional concert management. But no matter who takes home the gold, all of the competitors in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition are winners, having had the opportunity to perform for audiences worldwide through global webcasts.

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