At the height of the Cold War, American pianist Van Cliburn won the 1958 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. Returned to Fort Worth, Texas, he dedicated his career to promote international understanding through classical music. The Van Cliburn International Piano Competition was born in 1962 in honor of his accomplishments, and in more recent years it has expanded to include an amateur competition for outstanding non-professional pianists age 35 and older, and, from 2015, The Cliburn International Junior Piano Competition for 13-17-year-old pianists.

The 2019 edition of the Junior competition was held in Dallas, Texas, from the 31st May to the 8th June, the first time any of the Cliburn competitions had been held outside of Fort Worth. I was there to hear the semifinal and final rounds of competition, as well as to sample some of the many other events surrounding the competition itself.

Winners JiWon Yang, Shuan Hern Lee and Eva Gevorgyan
© Ralph Lauer
A competition volunteer took me from the airport to my downtown hotel. My guide, Leonard, turned out to be the head of piano instruction at the Booker T. Washington High School, Dallas’ public school for the arts, so he was able to brief me on the classical music scene in Dallas even before I arrived. It was my first indication of how helpful the Cliburn Junior staff and volunteers would be. The Cliburn Junior is an elite piano competition, but also a festival and piano camp. The main base for the events was the Owen Arts Center at Southern Methodist University’s Meadows School of the Arts. The young pianists were housed in SMU residence halls and ate in the university cafeteria, bringing sometimes raucous life to an otherwise quiet campus.

There were 230 applicants from 32 countries, of which 23 competitors and 14 non-competing festival participants – invited to listen and participate in other events – were selected. These were then winnowed down to 14 in the quarter-final round and to six in the semi-finals. Performing and learning activities occurred alongside the competition itself, such as free, informal concerts, plus masterclasses and panel discussions. The week was not all music: the Cliburn staff had arranged fun events and outings to local tourist sites for the young participants, including a day at the Six Flags Over Texas theme park.

During the outdoor midweek volunteer appreciation party – attended by Cliburn staff, media and other guests – I spoke with the family of one of the festival participants who live in New Hampshire and had come across the country to participate. There is the mythology of the “stage mother” who forces their child to practice, but every parent I talked to during my stay in Dallas said that it was their children who insisted on practicing long hours. Sometimes the parents had to encourage them to do other things, and indeed the bios of the competitors listed a wide variety of non-musical activities, such as sports, video games, or reading. Watching the kids play frisbee on the campus' lawn reminded me that these are ordinary teenagers who happen to have extraordinary musical talent.

The semi-finals got underway with afternoon and evening sessions. Avery Gagliano (USA, 17), JiWon Yang (Korea, 17), Eva Gevorgyan (Russia/Armenia, 15), Chun Lam U (Hong Kong, 16), J J Jun Li Bui (Canada, 14), and Shuan Hern Lee (Australia, 16) each played a 40-minute recital requiring one work written by a living composer and a substantial work of at least 18 minutes.

The repertoire ranged from contemporary works to more standard pieces, to some curiosities, such as a concert suite from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcraker as arranged by Russian pianist Michael Pletnev, performed by J J Jun Li Bui with impressive technique, and Balakirev’s Islamey (Oriental Fantasy) performed by Shuan Hern Lee with agility and a sense of fun. The playing all showed a high level of accomplishment, although some contestants had more polished sound; others had brilliant virtuosity, but musical maturity lagged behind.

Avery Gagliano was especially impressive in her performance of Mazurkas, Op.27, no. 1-2 by Thomas Adès, in which complex rhythms were made to seem supple. Eva Gevorgyan gave a heart-rending performance of Paul Hindemith’s expressionistic Suite “1922”, Op.26, her playing moving between brutal and eerily tender. Shuan Hern Lee’s reading of Prokofiev’s Sonata no. 7, Op.83 was perhaps the highlight of the semi-final solo concerts, with Lee’s ability to build climaxes and mold desolate melody. The audience was rapt, filling SMU’s Caruth Auditorium, with competitors, participants, volunteers and community audience members warmly supporting their favorites.

The second session of the semifinals featured single movements of concertos, with piano accompaniment by Davide Cava and Michael Berestnev, who gave rock-solid support to the soloists. JiWon Yang played the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 1, Op.23, showing brilliant technique, along with delicate moments. The first movement of Chopin’s Piano Concerto no. 1, in E minor, Op.11, as played by Chun Lam U, had rounded phrasing and an appropriate sense of rubato. Eva Gevorgyan’s part of Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini was dazzling, strong technically, with many lovely lyrical passages. Shuan Hern Lee gave a stunning reading of the first movement of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in D minor, Op.30: the extraordinary demands seemed not to bother him. Some of the six players shone brighter, others seemed less comfortable, but I was astonished at their capabilities.

The international jury was chaired by Italian pianist Alessio Bax, Artist in Residence at Southern Methodist University, together with pianists Philippe Bianconi (France), Angela Cheng (Canada), Valery Kuleshov (Russia), Aviram Reichert (Israel), Uta Weyand (Germany) and composer Lowell Liebermann (United States).

After jury voting, JiWon Yang, Eva Gevorgyan, and Shuan Hern Lee were announced as the finalists. Despite natural disappointment, time and again in the course of the competition I witnessed the young performers supporting each other in success and sadness. As Cliburn President and CEO Jacques Marquis noted, the participants undoubtedly made lifelong friends and colleagues at the Cliburn Junior.

Caleb Borick plays the piano during the Concerto Master Class with Ruth Reinhardt
© Ralph Lauer

But it was not necessary to be in the two higher levels of competition to perform and learn. Almost every day there were opportunities to sign up to perform at community concerts around Dallas and to participate in masterclasses and panel discussions. I heard one of the community concerts at the Dallas Museum of Art. It was very informal, with the student performers in jeans, t-shirts, shorts, sneakers – typical kid uniform – but the playing was excellent. Hao-Wei Lin (Taiwan, 14) played an impressive, unearthly “Oiseaux tristes” from Ravel’s Miroirs. Another student, Caleb Borick (USA, 16) played a movement from a Schubert sonata. The day before, I had heard him play a movement of Chopin’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in a masterclass led by conductor Ruth Reinhardt. Reinhardt worked with Caleb on techniques of rubato and signalling his artistic intentions to the conductor and orchestra by means of breathing with the music. When I talked to him after the class, Caleb agreed that learning to breathe with the musical phrasing was difficult to do on the spot. But Reinhardt noted that in the second run-through of the movement in the class, she could already discern more fluidity in Caleb’s playing.

The Cliburn sponsored other sessions on choice of repertoire, how to present yourself as a professional, and more. Cliburn CEO Jacques Marquis moderated a fascinating panel with jury members that attracted a large audience of young people as well as their parents. The jurors agreed that the winning contestant is someone they would like to hear again. There was also consensus that music education should also include subjects such as literature, history and other more general subjects.

The final round at Meyerson Symphony Center featured the Dallas Symphony led by Reinhardt, accompanying the three players. The concert attracted a large audience from the community, as well as most of the competitors and participants. All three finalists gave creditable performances, but as with any live performance, all will improve with more experience. At times the balances between orchestra and soloist were problematic, perhaps because of the very limited rehearsal time allotted to the contestants. The Dallas Symphony sounded somewhat scrappy at times, with JiWon Yang’s Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto no. 1 getting off to a rocky start as the orchestral brass made a very audible mistake in the first descending orchestral passage. But Reinhardt managed to keep it all together, and the point was to showcase the competitors’ playing. Perhaps that moment unnerved Yang, because she seemed to be having an off day, playing not as cleanly as what we had heard in the semi-finals. The quiet passages in the second movement, however, were lovely. Eva Gevorgyan’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini had many of the same pleasing characteristics of her semifinal appearance. In the larger hall, her tone seemed less forced, although at climaxes she struggled to be heard. Shuan Hern Lee used the acoustics of the larger room to his benefit in the Rachmaninov Piano Concerto no. 3. The major cadenzas were commanding throughout, although some of the concerted passages verged on out of control. In the end, Lee brilliantly conquered Rachmaninov’s supreme endurance contest.

Jury member Uta Weyand congratulates winner Shuan Hern Lee
© Ralph Lauer
Finally, the moment all had been awaiting: Third Prize ($5000) went to JiWon Yang; Second Prize ($10,000) winner was Eva Gevorgyan; and First Prize ($15,000) was awarded to Shuan Hern Lee. Each of the three finalists also received $2000 in scholarship funding for future educational expenses. Gevorgyan also won the $500 Press Award, voted on by members of the media covering the competition. The $500 Audience Award (held by online voting) went to Avery Gagliano, and the $500 Peer Award (voted on by competitors and festival participants) went to J J Jun Li Bui. There was a thunderous standing ovation at the announcements, and prizes aside, the shouts of “bravo” and applause from the full house in the Meyerson must have been thrilling to these brilliant young musicians.

Following the awards ceremony there was a brief press conference with the clearly exhausted winners. Although all three said that they have future performances to prepare, winner Shuan Hern Lee admitted that he might sleep for a few hours first. A closing celebration at the Nasher Sculpture Center gave the competitors and participants a chance to unwind.

Everything about the Cliburn Junior was immaculately organized: concerts started promptly and went off without problems. Social events were scrupulously managed; all of the staff whom I encountered were friendly and competent. The competition also made excellent use of technology and online media: all of the competitive performances were captured on video and can be watched on demand on Bachtrack and youtube. Seeing is believing what an extraordinary event the Cliburn Junior 2019 was!

Timothy's press trip and article was sponsored by The Cliburn.