Gail Wein | 20 JUN 2022
“It’s not like a marathon. It’s like those ultramarathons, where they run 100 miles in the desert with a backpack, carrying their dog. That’s what it feels like,” said Marin Alsop about the 17-day Van Cliburn International Piano Competition 2022. She was the jury’s chairperson and conducted the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra in the final round of the competition.
“The Cliburn,” as it is known, is considered one of the world’s most prestigious classical music competitions. Alsop explains, “What we’re talking about is a competition that, first of all, attracts the highest level of talent from everywhere. It’s a competition that’s unparalleled in terms of the requirements from the contestants.”
The 2022 competition began on June 2 in Fort Worth, Texas, with a field of 30 competitors from around the world. Judged by a panel of nine professional pianists with international reputations, those were winnowed down to six finalists, and on June 18, the first, second and third place winners were announced.
The capacity crowd at Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth erupted in cheers on Saturday when the jury announced 18-year-old Yunchan Lim (임윤찬) from South Korea as the gold medalist, the 31-year-old Russian Anna Geniushene winning the silver, and from Ukraine, 28-year-old Dmytro Choni for the bronze medal.
This year marked the 16th edition of the piano competition, known as one of the most significant such contests in the world. Its namesake, the pianist Van Cliburn, was the epitome of a hometown hero. In 1958, he claimed the gold medal at the prestigious International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow – an American claiming a prize in a Russian contest at a time when the United States and the Soviet Union were giving each other the cold shoulder. Demonstrating his achievement’s significance, Cliburn was honored with a ticker-tape parade upon his return to the US.
“That was such an incredible moment for the United States when he won the gold medal,” said Alsop. “He became a real symbol for American possibility, and I think that’s that history we shouldn’t ever forget.”
Van Cliburn, who died in 2013, commemorated his win by founding a competition in America, drawing young talent from around the world to vie for cash prizes and, more recently, three years of artist management.
Since 1962, people from around the world descend upon Fort Worth – Van’s hometown – every four years to hear the musicians in competition recitals and concertos. In the digital era, millions more around the globe experience performances streamed live on the world wide web.
It’s a long road for many competitors to get to this point. I asked Uladzislau Khandohi, a 20-year-old finalist from Belarus, when he began to prepare for the competition. “I started, I think, from when I was born, because you’re always preparing for something, not only for a competition. I think the Cliburn gives me more experience, and of course, it gives me the audience – the bigger opportunity to perform somewhere in concert.”
Gold medal winner Yunchan Lim is single-minded about music and his life’s aspirations. At a young age, he said, “I made up my mind that I will live my life only for the sake of music. And now I decide that I will give up everything for music. I’d like to go into that deep inside a mountain and just live with my piano, but then I won’t have any income, so that would be a problem. I don’t have any such a thing as career aspirations or any desire to make money or so. The outcome of this competition does not have very big bearing on me. It’s more of just being here because I have a lot to study.”
Even a top prize winner like silver medalist Anna Geniushene has her moments of doubt, no matter how well prepared she is. It doesn’t get any easier, she says. “I am struggling with finding a decent level of self-confidence right at the moment, actually. So if you think that I’m walking on stage and feeling very much comfortable, you are completely wrong. Every appearance on stage is a great challenge and a great task.”
As conductor of the final rounds, Marin Alsop does her part to put the candidates at ease before a performance. “Especially for young people, I’m trying to make them feel that they’re not alone out there. One of the candidates, before we started, told me I’m so nervous, and I said, oh, what are you going to eat afterward? I was trying to really minimize this, the feeling that they can have that their entire future hangs on these next 30 minutes. I mean, that pressure can really kill you.”
On the other hand, 23-year-old Clayton Stephenson – the only American in the final round – seems to get his energy and inspiration from being on stage. “The audience here is one of a kind, and the energy that they give you is truly ecstatic. I think I have the best seat in the house. I’m getting inspiration from the conductor, the orchestra, from the left, and from the audience, from the right. I’m just filled with all this energy and excitement.” Stephenson continues, “I think also one of the things about competitions is that we look at the performances and the awards, but to me, it’s about the learning experience and the journey along the way. And so I’ve come out of this experience a changed pianist and hopefully a much more improved pianist.” ■
- Van Cliburn International Piano Competition: cliburn.org