If competition fosters outstanding performance, the Van Cliburn piano competition shows this works in the arts as well as the economy. “Virtuosity,” a documentary on the 2013 Cliburn competition, is directed by Christopher Wilkinson. The beautiful cinematography is the work of Larry McConkey. Steven Poster was consulting director of photography and associate producer. The result is a deeply moving record of the pressures, anxieties and triumphs of a group of thirty unmatched young piano talents from around the world.
An international artist of renown, Van Cliburn (1934-2013) hailed, quite improbably, from Kilgore, Texas. This meant that he was a Real American. He became an enduring icon of American cultural possibility when, at the age of 23, he unexpectedly won the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958 in Moscow, a Cold War extravaganza designed to demonstrate the Soviet Union’s (i.e. Russia’s) cultural pre-eminence. This surprise recalled Black American Jesse Owens’ track and field triumphs at the 1936 Nazi Party-Aryan race Olympics in Berlin. The Moscow competition’s judges, for safety’s sake, asked Nikita Khrushchev if it was politically permissible to give an American the Moscow prize. To his eternal credit, the Soviet leader replied, “Is he the best? Then give him the prize!” Cliburn’s performance had received an eight-minute standing ovation.
Naturally, in our time the Russians have been displaced by the Chinese, and Moscow has been replaced by Cliburn’s Ft. Worth Texas hometown. The number of Chinese contestants, both Mainland and American, was impressive, but there were Russians, Americans, Italians, Poles and yet others. Among them, many confess on film to anxiety. But others, a lucky few, look supremely confident, imperturbable. “Why should I be anxious?” says one Russian. “I just go out on the stage and play.” Complete technical mastery helps but mental and emotional resilience are primary. The most accomplished player in the rehearsal studio can lose it on stage. How do musicians deal with the stress? Some have particular rituals before playing. One eats two bananas, probably for the potassium. Others have particular omens. A Russian contestant has been wearing the same lucky blue underwear for six years when he competes.
The judges provide insights into the evaluation process. Each year the decisions become more difficult, says one, because today, “most performances are historical,” meaning the quality just gets better and better. Another gives a flat answer as to whether judging can involve some indulgence: “Nobody gets a pass. Ever.” One has to perform sublime notwithstanding an audience of 2,000 people. Evaluations, says another, are inevitably somewhat personal. “You know immediately when somebody is doing something because they were told to do it or whether they really feel it.” A definition of really feeling it: “It’s a rare thing when a player makes you cry.” “Music,” one teacher had told her pupil, “is like a mirror. The way you play it reflects your personality.” The young musician gets the creepy feeling that competitive piano puts at risk one’s very identity and character.
What do the players themselves say about what’s going on, that the entire event is about competition. “I think it’s a necessary evil,” says a Mainland Chinese. “Everyone is so good. The only way to get ahead is ambition.” But another Mainland Chinese summed it up a little differently: “If you win, it doesn’t mean that you’re better than everyone else, and if you lose it doesn’t mean that you’re worse than everyone else.” Bravo for humanism.
Artistic competitions such as the Cliburn exist to nourish the community of artists. But that community of players cannot exist without a community of audiences as well. The point is to keep the fires burning, the interest, the passion, excellence and longing for art alive whether it’s classical music or jazz (cf. the eminent Thelonius Monk international jazz competition). Or, just barely, the Oscars might qualify. Classical music is hard, hard to play and in our time hard to love. A competent and caring public is inspiration for the musician no less than for the painter, the poet or the dancer. In other words, an artist needs other artists but also the rest of us who delight at their competition for glory and to surpass themselves.