The Circuit: Van Cliburn Competition

interviewed by Alex Davydovich (MGBH)

The Van Cliburn Competition has been one of the most prestigious and well-organized ones in the music industry.  We reached out to Mr. Jaques Marquis, the President and CEO of Van Cliburn Foundation to ask him a few questions.

PPM: How long have you been a president? How is Van Cliburn Competition different today from when it was originally started?
JM: I have been president and CEO of the Cliburn for four years.  The Cliburn Competition started in 1962, and the world has changed a lot since then. The main changes have been: 1) the use of technology to increase local, national, and international awareness; 2) A big increase in our artistic programming with the additions of the Amateur Competition, Junior Competition, Cliburn Concerts series, school/education programs, community concerts, etc.

PPM: Please, tell our readers a little bit about yourself.
JM: Born in Montreal, I was raised French Canadian, studied the piano and was part of a choir as a young child—including a boys choir doing the Mass every Sunday in the big church of Montreal. This is why I began to study music. After many years, I decided to get a bachelor’s degree in music (piano) and taught piano for a few years. Then I chose to get a bachelor’s degree in business — the idea was to combine these two different worlds. Today this would be the field of arts management, but at that time there were few programs for this.

After that I entered my first job with the orchestra as an accountant, then an artistic administrator, and later COO (Chief Operating Officer) (for 8 years). Next, I was hired as executive and artistic director of Jeunesses Musicales of Canada, which is an organization that promotes youth and music throughout Canada. It is also under the umbrella of Jeunesses Musicales International – a worldwide movement for youth and music. While at Jeunesses Musicales of Canada, we restarted the Montreal Competition.  I led eleven editions of the competition and also produced up to 800 concerts per year (600 for youth and 200 for young artists at the beginning of their careers). I was also head of the foundation through which we organized five different fundraising events per year.

After eleven years, I decided it was time for me to expand my horizons. I reached out to the Cliburn because it was, and still is, one of the key international arts organizations in the world, and I thought I could learn more.  I came and proposed my services as a consultant. After six months as a consultant, they offered me the position of CEO.

PPM: Let’s discuss a concept of competitiveness vs. collaboration in music and, specifically, in piano performance. Why does it have to be a competition? Why does a musician have to compete? Why pin one musician against the other instead of enjoying and appreciating everyone’s performance equally without judgment?
JM: Life is a competition! You have to be the best magazine. You have to be the best writer. Everywhere you go to have to win the audition; you have to get the job; you have to interview and when there’s a position at Exxon Mobile for the CEO, there’s only one leader.

 

Life is a competition! You have to be the best magazine. You have to be the best writer. Everywhere you go to have to win the audition; you have to get the job; you have to interview and when there’s a position at Exxon Mobile for the CEO, there’s only one leader.

 

I think that competitions are one way to gain a career. They are not the only way.  I do think it is a good way to increase awareness of these exceptional young talents. Especially with the new media opportunities, we can increase awareness, and not only of the winners. Because we webcast our competition and promote it through many media avenues, we give finalists and semifinalists exposure, as well. They become better known in their own countries, too, by being a part of the Cliburn. There are a lot of ways that the Cliburn can help the careers of these young musicians.

I don’t think it’s “Why does a musician have to compete?” I think it’s about how a musician can increase opportunities for concert engagements, establish international relationships, have the possibility of being seen or viewed by conductors, presenters, jury members. We are developing a fantastic network for them.

PPM: Why is it hard to run an organization like this and why is it also easy?
JM: I think the challenges of any organization are having the right people in the right places. Having good people is a good thing, but having good people doing the right thing is better. At the Cliburn, we have done some restructuring of staff in order to be the most efficient possible. The non-profit and especially the artistic world has this perception that we are “artists,” but we are managers of artists. We have to be extremely efficient in the way we do it. The hard part is to sell and to explain to people the importance of our mission because not everybody is aware of the importance of competition for young artists. The fun part, the challenging part, is the creative part. The thing that brings us to the office every morning is getting to work with the artists. We have to create an environment in which everyone is pushing in the same direction in order to achieve our goals and objectives.

PPM: How does one get to compete in this event?
JM: To compete in the Cliburn you first have to have an extremely high level of piano playing. You send in an application including video so we can hear you play and see you perform.  From this application, we decide whether to invite you to the live Screening Auditions — and these are crucial to the Cliburn. It’s a live audition in front of five screening jurors, and you will play for 40 minutes. These jurists are highly competent and are also concert pianists who know what it takes to remain relevant in the classical world.

If you progress beyond the Screening Auditions, you are invited to the Competition, which consists of Preliminary, Quarterfinal, Semifinal, and Final Rounds. The Cliburn is one of the most demanding competitions, but we also are one of the best in what we give to our winners. We are looking for the best of the best!

PPM: Who selects the judges? What criteria are used in their selection? Is there a set number of the judges on the panel or does it vary by year?
JM: I select the judges. I want them to be pianists — it’s essential that they know the repertoire. I want people who have been playing and struggling to play the repertoire, who know the tricks and the traps and the problems that can be found in these scores.  So when a contestant is playing, jurors can know that they are tricking with the pedal or they are trying to avoid a certain part or going slower because they cannot play that section well. I want jurors who truly know the repertoire.

I also look for open-minded individuals to be on the jury. I need people who are able to listen to young pianists and think, perhaps, “I would never play it like this, but I can buy this proposal.” I don’t want someone who always says, “Oh, no. That’s not the way to do it.” In music, there are a lot of ways to express yourself. There is respect for the repertoire. There is respect for the history, the ways of playing at the time a piece was written, etc. But there are also a lot of places for interpretation. So I want my jury members to be very open to these young musicians. I also want them to share the important attitude that we want the contestants to succeed and not that we are there to cut them off.

Naturally, I need an odd number for voting purposes. I like the number nine, for a big jury with a good representation of American, European, Russian, and Asian pianists, since we always have quite an international group of competitors.

 

 

In music, there are a lot of ways to express yourself. There is respect for the repertoire. There is respect for the history, the ways of playing at the time a piece was written, etc. But there are also a lot of places for interpretation.

 

 

PPM: What prizes are there and what criteria are used in awarding them?
JM: The prizes are awarded based on the voting of the jury members.  Yes, we have prize money, but I believe the most important prize for the Cliburn Competition is publicity/awareness and, secondly, the wealth of engagements booked for them based on their placement. We open a lot of doors for the winners in launching their careers.

PPM: How is Van Cliburn competition promoted? Is there an outreach program?
JM:  We have an extensive marketing and promotions plan for the Competition that ranges from contestant recruitment and branding internationally to local/national/international promotion to encourage people to attend the Competition in person, to campaigns designed to attract people to all the other ways to enjoy the Competition and its artists—the webcast, the Fathom event in theaters across the United States, etc.

PPM: What happens to the winners after the competition? Does the organization follow up with them? Are they involved in the organization in the future? Does the organization help promote their talent?
JM: Yes, we assist our three winners with a career management plan for three years, and after that we help in securing a manager. We help them by booking engagements and concerts, managing their website, helping with their bios, providing photo shoots. Beyond that, we help them develop their repertoire. Through our networks, we help them talk to the people who can advance their careers.

 

PPM: Are there any interesting stories that happened during the last few competitions?
JM: Many of the anecdotes would probably involve the host family process.  Each competitor in the main Cliburn competition is housed for three weeks in the home of a Fort Worth family.  Our thirty families—who all have Steinway grand pianos installed and tuned in their homes before the competition—become like second families to the competitors.  In 2013, one local family who did not intend to participate signed up again when they realized that they had hosted one competitor’s father back in the 1970s. This was Nikita Mndoyants of Russia, who became one of our six finalists in 2013, and his father, Alexander Mndoyants, who was a finalist in 1977—representing the USSR!  This particular Fort Worth family became quite close to two generations of Mndoyants.

Many other anecdotes would involve the woman we call the “backstage mother” – Kathie Cummins.  She is the last person our contestants see in those important moments before they go onstage. These musicians are often quite young and less experienced. Kathie keeps food on hand — you’d be surprised how many pianists need a banana right before they go on. But she’s also ready for other emergencies. The sewing kit comes in handy a lot. One young man had obviously purchased a new shirt for his recital but hadn’t tried it on. The sleeves were so long, down to his knuckles, that they would have gotten in the way of his playing! So Kathie brought out the safety pins and sewing kit and fixed things up really quickly. That kind of thing happens so often that we almost don’t think of them as anecdotes.

 

Kathie keeps food on hand — you’d be surprised how many pianists need a banana right before they go on. But she’s also ready for other emergencies.

 

PPM: Are Van Cliburn and Van Cliburn Foundation separate organizations? What is the primary function of Van Cliburn Foundation? What activities is it involved in?
JM: Van Cliburn Foundation is the legal name of the organization. We simply call it “the Cliburn” — much as we all refer to “the Chopin” and “the Tchaikovsky.”

PPM: What are the repertoire requirements for the contestants?
JM: There are very few requirements. They can do whatever they want, with a couple of exceptions (they must perform the commissioned work by Marc-Andre Hamelin as part of their Preliminary Round program, and they choose from a list of piano quintets to perform with the Brentano String Quartet in the Final Round).  What is interesting about this is that we get to see how they program. If you want to play Liszt in every round, you’d better play it really, really well!  A young pianist has to have a lot of repertoire, actually. A program that is well thought-through shows some depth and reveals a young competitor’s artistic vision.

PPM: Please, tell us about the Amateur Competition. What is the idea behind it? Why and when was it introduced?
JM: There are a lot of pianists out there who studied music when they were young but decided to become doctors, lawyers, educators, programmers, etc.  Recently, we have increased the exposure our Amateur competitors get, with a fully produced live webcast and by bringing the orchestra in for the closing portion of the Competition … all to get the best amateur pianists in the world to come to the Cliburn to compete. It also further increases our international presence during the off year before the big Cliburn. The Cliburn Amateur was the first of its kind in the United States when it was created in 1999.  The idea is to encourage the love of classical music through all stages of life. It is open to non-professionals over the age of 35.

PPM: Who were some of the most unexpected contestants of the Amateur Competition?
JM:  The great thing about the Amateur Competition is the variety of the contestants—they typically range in age from 35 to 70s and have a great variety of careers (though there seem to always be a lot of doctors). They’re from all around the world and have various levels of professional training, but they come together in Fort Worth for their love of the piano. Once we had a British contestant who designed race cars!

PPM: What criteria are used in deciding who gets the Press Award?
JM: Members of the press who are in attendance vote for their favorite.

PPM: Let’s talk about the Junior Competition. It was launched in 2015. What motivated you to start this subdivision and what were the challenges?
JM: Firstly, to have a link to the best juniors in the world and ignite them with the Cliburn when they are young. If a pianist is excellent at age 20 or 25, then he or she was already very good at age 15, since most begin when they are 4 or 5 years old. So, one goal was to have very young pianists know about the Cliburn.  Secondly, to keep our brand alive in schools, among presenters, and in the media.  And, finally, the more competitions we organize, then the better we get as a team. Because it is a four-year cycle for the big Competition, we can have staff changes.  With the addition of another competition, we as a staff have the opportunity to get better as a team as we work together using the same software and the same production routines on each competition.

PPM: With many child prodigies out there, why is the cut off age for the Junior Competition is 13, and not 6 or 7?
JM: Six or seven are too young. They can be very good, but they have not developed as individual musicians yet.  Thirteen to seventeen is a crucial time for young pianists, and our goal is to create a warm, convivial atmosphere as part of the training process for the competitors. They attend seminars, lectures, master classes with teachers, master classes with conductors, master classes with former Cliburn winners. They live in dormitories during the competition — another goal is to establish international friendships with others in the piano world.  Also, the Junior Competition is a training process, not a final process like the big international competition.

The great thing about the Amateur Competition is the variety of the contestants—they typically range in age from 35 to 70s and have a great variety of careers (though there seem to always be a lot of doctors). They’re from all around the world and have various levels of professional training, but they come together in Fort Worth for their love of the piano. Once we had a British contestant who designed race cars!

PPM: Where do you see the Van Cliburn Organization in 10 years?
JM: In ten years, I would like to see the endowment doubled — that will be key to sustaining growth and financial responsibility.  Along with this, an increase in local education programs. As arts in the schools are threatened, we can increase our presence. We will be promoting and supporting career management for young exceptional pianists in the world.  In ten years I hope that the Cliburn is the competition that can address music markets on every continent at once—all in one competition.

PPM: What would be your tips for prospective contestants?
JM: Talk to your teacher. Programming is the key — work on this. Be wise. Do not put all your big guns at the beginning. Don’t play for the jury or the award. Play because you believe in your artistic voice.

PPM: Thank you for your time in sharing this valuable information with our readers, Jaques.
JM:  It’s my pleasure.

 

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