For the first time since its inception more than fifty years ago, the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition will take place without its namesake. Cliburn died in February from cancer. There are additional changes to one of the world’s most prestigious music contests that brings the classical music focus to Fort Worth. The once-every-four-year competition is about to begin again with tonight’s traditional “draw” party.
Cliburn did not play publicly during these competitions. But he attended performances, met the players, handed out medals, and participated in some events like the pre-competition draw party he hosted at home one year. It’s where competitors draw their names "out of a hat" to determine their order of appearance.
Cliburn explained to KERA in 2008 how a friend of his mother donated prize money to launch the contest.
“And little did we realize that in September of 1962 would be the first competition. To which she said “Oh Van, don’t worry. There’ll only be one. And that will be all.” And I can’t believe how very much the people of Fort Worth have become so interested. But not only Fort Worth. It’s been such a thrill to see how people from other places have enjoyed coming here seeing these incredible young people play,” said Cliburn.
Volunteer Louise Canafax – involved in every competition - heard the young pianists from backstage, as the "backstage mother." She helped calm competitors with tea or candy, aspirin, or safety pins to fix that broken strap. Canafax died of cancer this year, a month after Cliburn.
“There’s not a formula for anything, It’s just a matter of making sure that they’re comfortable whether they’re giving me their wallets, their coats. Some of them have a routine. And I try to write down what their routine is, so if they want to sit and roll up their gloves and do it a certain way, then I’m aware of that,” said Canafax, in a 2009 KERA interview.
Canafax’s friend since the 4th grade, Kathie Cummins, another long-time Cliburn volunteer, will be the new “backstage mother.”
“It will be hard because now I have to really think, and know what I’m doing, and actually execute it.”
Cummins says she’ll work hard to fill Canafax’s shoes, but says she’s a little sterner than her friend.
“Settle down, you’ll be fine. I can’t say exactly what I would like to,” said Cummins.
Cummins says she’s tempted to tell that timid young pianist to just get out there.
“…um, yes. But I won’t do that. We just encourage them. And tell them that they’re wonderful, they’ll play their best, they’re human, don’t worry, if something crazy happens, you’ll be fine.”
Cliburn managers say they’ll be fine, too, despite other changes. Cliburn’s past director stepped down after the last competition The new president is French-Canadian Jacques Marquis, who has overseen many contests in Montreal. While this competition is much bigger, Marquis is not intimidated. The goal is to champion great classical music, as Van Cliburn always said.
“We decided to do this competition under his vision and legacy. And for me, I had the chance to talk with him. First excellence, second, passion, third, sharing the music he loved,” said Marquis.
Marquis says fifty years from now, when talking about music competitions, there will be the Tchaikovsky, the Chopin, and the Cliburn.
This 14th Cliburn International Piano Competition will be dedicated to the memory of Van Cliburn, as 30 pianists compete for numerous awards including a top $50,000 cash prize and three years of professional, commission-free management with domestic and international bookings.