Why the Cliburn continues to fine-tune the world’s most important piano competition

Jacques Marquis at the Cliburn offices in Fort Worth.Ross Hailey - rhailey@star-telegram.com

In November 2012, when Jacques Marquis was named to lead the Cliburn, the gregarious French Canadian had a head full of ideas but insufficient time to implement them. The next quadrennial Van Cliburn International Piano Competition was set to begin just a few months later.

But by this month, when 30 young pianists from 14 countries again convene at Fort Worth’s Bass Hall, Marquis will have had ample time to make his mark.

“We have to push the limits,” the Cliburn’s president and CEO says. “We have to show the way if we want to be the leader in the competition world. We have to start new initiatives. We cannot sit and enjoy our position. If you stay still and say, ‘We’re doing a great job,’ this is the first step of declining.”

No one can accuse Marquis, 52, of staying still. In the past four years, he has created an international junior competition; an annual festival; and dramatically increased the Cliburn initiatives to bring piano music to inner-city elementary schools. The Cliburn has also sponsored regular recitals in the city’s museums, Sundance Square in downtown Fort Worth, and in popular music venues such as the Live Oak Music Hall.

But those were just precursors to the Cliburn’s flagship competition, arguably the world’s most important, that is about to begin again in Fort Worth. And it’s no exaggeration to say that it is the beginning of a new era for one of Fort Worth’s premier cultural events, which started in 1962.

The many changes include the makeup of the jury. In the past, the same jurors tended to return competition after competition. In 2017, all but one of nine jurors are new, and most of them are performing pianists themselves. Longtime jury chairman John Giordano, who retired after the last competition, has been replaced by renowned maestro Leonard Slatkin, who conducted the concertos in the Cliburn’s final round in 2013.

The format of the competition also has been retooled, with an additional cut (from 30 pianists to 20) in the early rounds, and the introduction of Mozart concertos with chamber orchestra for the 12 semifinalists.

Finally, for live webcasts of the competition, the Cliburn has teamed with the world’s leading classical music internet channel, medici.tv. The result could be an exponential increase in the international audience. For the first time, the finals also will be broadcast live in 300 American movie theaters.

“We like what he’s done,” Carla Thompson, chairwoman of the Cliburn board, said of Marquis’ initiatives. “We’ve seen what he’s been able to do if he’s had the rope to do it, so nobody is trying to put the brakes on. We’re just keeping up with him. I hope that continues. He dreams big and he inspires others.”

Last month, Marquis sat down to discuss the competition generally, how it will test the young competitors, and the balance between necessary innovation and tradition.

The competition’s namesake, the legendary pianist Van Cliburn, died in 2013, shortly before the last competition. Does his spirit still imbue what you are trying to do now?

What is fun about this competition is that it’s based on Van’s vision. He wanted to share [classical] music with the largest audiences. He sold 3 million copies [of an album] in 1961. Come on. Three million. So the competition is here locally. Nationally, Van’s name will be in the movie theaters, and internationally with the webcast. We’re spreading the vision that this competition was based on, sharing classical music with a larger audience, which was Van’s desire. It’s why it’s still pertinent.

But this competition definitely will have a different feel, beginning with the jury.

We have eight new ones. It’s not because I wanted to change everything. It’s not because I didn’t like the ones who were here. On the contrary, I like them, but I think you have to change. Every time (you bring in new jurors) you develop new spokespersons for the Cliburn. It’s a new network every time. The next competition may have repeats on the jury, but not too many. I don’t want a club.



Leonard Slatkin as the jury chairman is quite a coup.

He came to the Cliburn in 2013 with the idea of, ‘Oh, yeah, [just] a competition.’ But he came back and he said, ‘I like that.’ I wanted him to be back to conduct because he’s a wonderful conductor and he’s good with young kids. Also, he can open doors. Then, at one point, he said, ‘Can I be part of the jury?’ He’s so well respected. This is a big commitment for him. Three weeks. He has to go back and forth to Detroit just before the finals. It’s crazy, but he really managed his schedule to be with us here, which is great.


And he will still conduct the final round concertos with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra.

Yes, and he’s not voting in the final round unless to break a tie.


Why was it important to you to have performing pianists on the jury?

They know what it takes. They know the repertoire so well. They know everything by heart. They’ve been practicing. Even though they might be specialists in some repertoire, they’ve been doing everything. They know what you should do and what you should not do.


In the past, the Cliburn jury had piano teachers whose students were part of the competition. For the first time in memory, that’s not the case this year.

We have eight concert pianists and no teachers of the 30 competitors this year. I don’t have a problem with teachers. I have a problem with perception. The rules say, if you have a student, you don’t vote on them. And you’re not going to go to another juror and say, ‘Vote for my guy.’ Nobody does that. But you have to avoid the perception of a conflict.


There are some big changes in the format, beginning with the first round. In the past, each competitor played two 45-minute recitals. But this year they get only one recital, one crack at advancing.

I’ve had discussions about this. People say, ‘They need a chance.’ I say, ‘You don’t have a chance in real life.’ This is the difference with the Cliburn. At another competition I could do this, but not the Cliburn. If you play at Carnegie Hall, you have to play well. If your [level of playing] is high, you will pass. If you fail, come on. That’s it. You know, they say competition is tough. No, a career is tougher. You don’t have time to practice. You are jet-lagged. The piano is crappy. Here, we have all the perfect conditions. You’re supposed to be at your best. If you can’t be at your best, that’s it.


But in terms of numbers, the first cut is less harsh.

In 2013, the first cut was 30 to 12. That was a killer. It was a killer for the atmosphere, and a killer for the kids. Now the cut is 30 to 20. It’s a killer also, but it’s less of a killer. Then we go from 20 to 12, and that’s where we separate the men and women from the kids. You have another recital of 60 minutes, and that’s an intense commitment, even in real life. In the first round, you’ve been playing stuff that you’ve been playing for 20 years. In the second, you’ve been playing it for 10. Now you’re really stretching. But at the Cliburn, we’re looking to launch careers, so this is really important.


And, for the first time, the 12 semifinalists will play a Mozart concerto with a chamber orchestra.

I don’t want them going to the final round without knowing how they work with the symphony. And musically, Mozart is kind of like playing nude on the stage. You cannot hide stuff. Mozart too slow is boring. Mozart too fast is not Mozart. If the line is nice, the line is nice. If it’s not, everybody knows. Mozart is not played that much in competitions because it’s very hard. We’re in hard life here.


Which is what makes competitions so dramatic. There is so much riding on this for these young musicians.

These kids are giving their hearts on the stages. It’s part of the fun. It’s a do-or-die thing. If you have a memory lapse, everybody goes like this in the crowd [he gasps]. If that happened in a symphony concert, nobody would care, but in a competition. …The intensity of the human interest is so high. It’s why we have to share it. It’s why we have to address that to a large public, because we’re talking about human nature. We’re talking about sharing a passion with someone. And the passion is piano music.

In 2013, [the gold medalist] Vadym Kholodenko was playing and at one point I was listening to the crowd. There was no one opening candy, no one scratching. There was a moment that the silence was complete for 1,500 people. That tells you something. It’s not only the jury members. It’s for everybody, and that happens during a competition. That’s what Van was talking about.


So the in the end, it’s still about the music. But something tells me you will continue to push the envelope.

[Laughing] I have ideas for 2021 already.



May 25-June 10

Bass Hall, Fort Worth

Complete competition subscriptions: $600-$3,000.

Preliminary round: May 25-28. All 30 competitors play a 45-minute solo recital, including a commissioned work written by Marc-André Hamelin. $80-$200 round subscription; $10-$35 per concert.

Quarterfinal round: May 29-30. Twenty competitors play a 45-minute solo recital. $80-$150 round subscription; $15-$40 per concert.

Semifinal round: June 1-5. Twelve competitors will play a 60-minute solo recital and a Mozart piano concerto with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. $280-$450 round subscription; $30-$120 per concert.

Final round: June 7-10. Six competitors will play a piano quintet with the Brentano String Quartet and a concerto with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. $150-$260 round subscription; $45-$180 per concert.

Awards presentation: 7 p.m. June 10. $30-$40.

The entire competition will be webcast live, hosted by pianists Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe, at Cli

burn2017.medici.tv. Content also will be available on demand. The final round will be broadcast in movie theaters around the country. For information and tickets, visit www.FathomEvents.com.

For more information, scheduling and tickets,

visit Cliburn.org. Follow complete competition coverage at Star-Tele






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