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The Cliburn Competition After Van

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Six finalists for the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition were announced last night in Fort Worth, Texas. For the first time since its inception more than 50 years ago, the contest is taking place without its namesake. Cliburn died in February of cancer, and the competition is dealing with his loss and other changes as well.

Cliburn did not play publicly at these competitions, but for decades, he attended performances, met the players and happily handed out the medals every four years. In a 2008 interview, he explained that no one, not even his mother, expected it to last: "And little did we realize that in September of 1962 would be the first competition. To which she said, 'Don't worry, Van. There'll only be one, and that will be all.' "

The event has grown into a year-round organization with 15 full-time staff and some 1,200 volunteers. Louise Canafax participated in every competition — first as a Fort Worth Symphony violist accompanying the pianists, then as the much-loved backstage mother who helped calm competitors with candy, aspirin or a safety pin to repair that broken strap, as she said four years ago.

"It's just a matter of making sure that they're comfortable, whether they're giving me their wallets, their coats," Canafax said. "Some of them have a routine, and I try to write down what their routine is. If they want to sit and roll up their gloves and do it a certain way, then I'm aware of that."

Canafax died of cancer a month after Cliburn. Her friend since the 4th grade, Kathie Cummins, is the new backstage mother and knows she has some big shoes to fill.

"We just encourage them," Cummins says. "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. There's a new board chair. And Cliburn's past director stepped down after the last contest to run Moscow's Tchaikovsky Competition. The new president and CEO is French Canadian Jacques Marquis, who says he'll try to follow Cliburn's lead.

"We decided to do this competition under his vision and legacy," Marquis says. "And for me, I had the chance to talk with him. First, excellence. Second, passion. Third, sharing the music he loved."

Marquis believes the Cliburn competition will be around 50 years from now. And so does Italian pianist Alessandro Deljavan. He competed four years ago and met Cliburn. Deljavan competed again this year but didn't make the final cut. Still, he says the death of the event's namesake will not harm the competition.

"The other big competitions," Deljavan says, "the Chopin, the Brussels Queen Elisabeth, you know, every named competition, the [namesakes] died many years ago. So it was the only one, the Cliburn, where actually the [namesake was] a live person. I think his presence was important, but you know the high standards will be always the same; I'm sure of that."

Other aspects of this 14th Cliburn competition have changed. Pianists are now competing for a top prize of $50,000, up from $20,000. And the gold medalist gets a professionally produced studio recording in addition to the release of live competition performances. Winners receive three years' worth of commission–free professional management with bookings that can — and have — changed careers.

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