Not long after Harvey Lavan Cliburn, Jr. returned home from Moscow in 1958, after a win in the inaugural Tchaikovsky Competition viewed as integral to a thaw in Cold War politics, plans were under way for a new competition in tribute to the young American. At first a reluctant honoree, “Van” soon embraced the mission of the competition to find and promote young artists. As Shields-Collins Bray, Artistic Consultant of the Cliburn Foundation, told me, Mr Cliburn “wanted to reward young pianists simply for carrying the torch”, for sharing the beauty of music with others.

The Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, a quadrennial event held in Mr Cliburn’s longtime home of Fort Worth, Texas, was first staged in 1962 and has earned a reputation as one of the world’s premier music contests. The fourteenth edition concluded this weekend, and this year’s competition was the first not to have the presence of Mr Cliburn, who died in February. (The awards ceremony Sunday evening began with a video tribute to Mr Cliburn, and emcee Fred Child, host of American Public Media’s “Performance Today”, offered remarks of his own before getting to the presentation of prizes.)

Preliminary recitals began on 24 May, and each of the 30 competitors performed twice before the field was narrowed to twelve. The dozen semifinalists then played hour-long recitals as well as piano quintets with the Brentano String Quartet. Six finalists each performed two concerti – one from the Classical period and the other freely chosen by the contestant – accompanied by Maestro Leonard Slatkin and the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra; I attended all of the finals and much of the earlier rounds. There were three concerti played twice (Mozart’s Concerto no. 20 in D minor, Rachmaninov’s Concerto no. 3 in D minor, and Prokofiev’s Concerto no. 2 in G minor), but the performance order was such that no individual work or even any composer was heard twice in one evening.

The Gold Medal went to Vadym Kholodenko (26 years old, from Ukraine); the Silver Medal was awarded to Beatrice Rana (20, Italy); and Sean Chen (24, USA) won the third-place Crystal Award. The remaining finalists were Fei-Fei Dong (22, China); Nikita Mndoyants (24, Russia); and Tomoki Sakata (19, Japan). Ms Rana won the Audience Award, and Mr Kholodenko collected both the Steven De Groote Memorial Award for the Best Performance of Chamber Music and the Beverley Taylor Smith Award for the Best Performance of a New Work (Birichino by Christopher Theofanidis). Jury Discretionary Awards were given to Alessandro Deljavan (26, Italy) and Claire Huangci (23, USA), both of whom advanced as far as the semifinals, as well as to 24-year-old American Steven Lin, who performed only in the preliminary round.

International audiences will be getting to know Mr Kholodenko, as his prize includes roughly 25 engagements outside of the United States. He appears poised for a big career; he was a clear front-runner in the finals, and his performance of Prokofiev’s Concerto no. 3 in C major was the best I’ve ever heard of this popular work. Only the gold medalist, however, is guaranteed concerts abroad: all six finalists will receive commission-free management from the Cliburn for three years, concert opportunities across the United States, and cash prizes, and in addition the three medalists will have recordings produced by harmonia mundi USA. The list of domestic performances offered to the winners runs to some 50 orchestral and 100 recital, chamber, or festival engagements.

One of the many auxiliary events held in conjunction with the competition was a jury symposium, held Saturday morning of the finals weekend. Ten of the thirteen judges appeared before an audience of about 350 to discuss a couple of slated topics before opening the floor to questions from the audience. At the heart of the discussion was the globalization of Western classical music and its implications regarding the quality of artistry being cultivated among young performers. It’s not uncommon to hear musicians or music lovers lament a perceived slipping in artistic standards or the dissolution of “national” schools (Russian, French, etc.) of piano-playing. Jurors such as Arie Vardi were more optimistic; Mr Vardi remarked that a slight homogenization of style is not necessarily bad, in that it places a premium on subtle differences in the musical personalities of performers.

The most obvious and empirically verifiable effect of globalization on piano playing is the sheer number of people playing the instrument throughout the world. Juror Andrea Bonatta periodically gives classes in China and noted that each time he visits he is told that the number of children studying piano (in that country alone!) has increased by one million. This is admittedly a rough estimate, but may not be far from the truth, and the result of this phenomenon is a global raising of the technical bar. Mr Bray, the Artistic Consultant, commented to me that in his view “the thing that changes most from edition [of the Cliburn] to edition is the quality of the actual playing: the level rises each time... Each generation simply plays the instrument better than the generation before.”

Another topic addressed in the symposium was the prevalence of certain repertoire in competitions and the relative dearth of other works, or even the absence of certain composers altogether. The Cliburn is one of a select few international competitions that, aside from the compulsory commissioned work (Birichino this year) and the slight restrictions on the choice of the piano quintet and one of the concerti, grants competitors complete freedom in the repertoire they perform. While there were still plenty of the usual suspects – Stravinsky’s Trois Mouvements de Pétrouchka and Rachmaninov’s Third Concerto each appeared on eight competitors’ programs – there were many interesting choices, too. American Alex McDonald (age 30) anchored his semifinal round with J.S. Bach’s mammoth Goldberg Variations (although he did not advance that far); 25-year-old Italian pianist Scipione Sangiovanni performed a preliminary recital featuring large-scale works of Bach and Ferruccio Busoni before concluding with three Bach chorale preludes, arranged for solo piano by Busoni; and Mr Kholodenko made a handful of bold moves as well, opening his first preliminary recital with John Adams’ minimalist China Gates, and offering eleven of Liszt’s twelve Transcendental Études for his semifinal program (presumably omitting the ninth, “Ricordanza”, simply due to time constraints).

The Cliburn welcomed a new president and CEO this year, Jacques Marquis, and the first competition under his watch was surely a success. It will be interesting to see what changes, if any, are made before the next competition in 2017. (This year’s innovations included transplanting a recital from the final round to the preliminaries, and a stipulation that first prize may not be divided, as it was in 2009 and 2001.) What will remain unchanged is the enormous service the Cliburn and other major competitions provide to emerging artists. José Feghali, Gold Medalist of the 1985 competition, described the Cliburn to me as “one of the biggest showcases for young pianists in the world”, that “provides invaluable career support, connections, and opportunities for the winners to meaningfully develop their careers in an increasingly competitive field”. Over the next few years, the Cliburn’s three newest winners will take full advantage.