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Speaking of Mr Franceschetti, his shrewdly chosen semi-final round, which included a stunning performance of Beethoven's Diabelli Variations, may have cost him a prize. His juxtaposition of this great work with a Brahms Intermezzo Op 118 No 2 and Lowell Liebermann's haunting Impromptus, may well have been misunderstood by a jury made up of mostly non-professionals (save for 3 active bona-fide pianists) with virtually no experiences as performers. Long works such as this or the Hammerklavier, or Brahms's F minor sonata, are often difficult for even a savvy jury to withstand, after a long day of listening to piano recitals. They simply tend to doze off, as a revealing photo of the Cliburn jury easily proves.

In spite of those things, which will always invite controversy, the Van Cliburn survives and even transcends them with gusto. The event is overwhelming and enormously impressive in spite of its faults. I had a chance to speak with Van Cliburn a few nights ago. He is a most special, unusual person. There is a childlike quality about him, as if the years caught up with him only by accident. Only two years ago I interviewed him by phone, and then sent him a photo he had never seen and was unaware of: with Sofronitsky at the Scriabin Museum in 1960. When I reminded him of this, and sent him Constance Keene's regards (she has enjoyed a close relationship with him since he was a child, when she helped prepare him for Juilliard), he embraced me, as if I were a stand-in for Ms Keene herself. I did not expect this, and was struck that such an immensely famous and distinguished person could be so easily comfortable with a perfect stranger, which his knowledge of my recordings did not change. I was, for once, at a complete loss for words.

Jurors at the 2001 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition

But what is so extraordinary, and which no one can know unless he has experienced it personally, is the community spirit the competition engenders with such genuine passion, and so touchingly. The people of Fort Worth and especially the host families, form bonds with the musicians from early on, adopting them into their families and treating them very much as if they were their own children. This is not to say anything too pejorative, but is meant only to convey the overwhelming magnitude of affection that is so very real and alive here. In the hall, as jury Chairman John Giordano announced the results, you could feel it viscerally, in the air, as it were. On the whole, what this contest alone does for classical music is positive, embracing music and the competitors alike with such immeasurable warmth and generosity of spirit. It was infectious, making one temporarily forget that the event was in fact a tough competition in a very real sense.

Indeed, the Cliburn is structured in such a way as to make it impossible for anyone to leave empty handed. That is in part possible because the power of the institution itself, that is, the Van Cliburn Foundation, is unprecedented. There are literally billions of dollars at work on all levels of its organization, which reach into the highest echelons of corporate control, and now included even the White House: President Bush is the honorary chairman of the event. If that seems a little scary, perhaps it is. That so much wealth and power is concentrated in a single musical institution, dwarfing most others save Karajan's empire, might be intimidating. And yet, in spite of the control exercised by the status quo, for which this competition is nothing if not an emblem, the passion is real and the accomplishment in the service of classical music is impressive. Where else in this country will nearly 5000 paying consumers show up every day for three weeks in support of concerts where the same works are played more than once? Sure, there is a gladiatorial dimension to it all, but that pales in comparison to the genuine love the event inspires, and which the community as a whole invests in this, its greatest social and artistic achievement.

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Copyright © 10 June 2001 John Bell Young, Fort Worth, USA







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