Owen Mortimer

Cleveland International Piano Competition becomes quadrennial festival

1:18, 29th July 2016

IP looks ahead to the finals of this year’s Cleveland International Piano Competition on 5 & 6 August. Find out more about an event that’s transforming itself into a quadrennial festival celebrating many facets of the art of piano playing…

Report by Stephen Wigler

Europe’s major international piano competitions tend to be located in culturally important cities: Brussels (Queen Elisabeth Competition); Moscow (Tchaikovsky); Warsaw (Chopin); and Paris (Marguerite Long). In North America, the situation is somewhat different. The three that, until, very recently, were the largest and most important are in Calgary (Honens), Fort Worth (Cliburn), and Salt Lake City (Bachauer) – all estimable places, but cities without perhaps the cultural caché of those in Europe.

That’s about to change: Cleveland, a major artistic hub in the state of Ohio, is the home of one of the world’s greatest orchestras and of several other world-class institutions, including the Cleveland Institute of Music, the Cleveland Clinic, the Cleveland Museum of Art and Case Western University. Now taking its place among that list of international players is the Cleveland International Piano Competition (CIPC).

While yet to equal the prestige of some of its big European counterparts, the status of the CIPC has been rising steadily for about 25 years. That’s mostly due to two visionary executive directors, Karen Knowlton (1988-2011) and her hand picked successor, Pierre van der Westhuizen. Knowlton took the Cleveland Competition towards the top of its game; South-African born Van der Westhuizen wants to complete the ascent to the Moscow-Warsaw-Brussels summit. ‘In at least one respect, we’re better than they are,’ Van der Westhuizen says. ‘How many other competitions can say their prizewinners got to play the final concerto round accompanied by the Cleveland Orchestra?’

The Cleveland Competition has for several years awarded its prizes to pianists who have gone on to impressive careers as soloists and teachers. The long list of well-known prizewinners includes Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Angela Hewitt, Philippe Bianconi, Benedetto Lupo, Sergei Babayan, Nicholas Angelich, Ilya Itin, Margarita Shevchenko, Marina Lomazov, Antonio Pompa-Baldi, Vassily Primakov, Gilles Vonsattel, Alexander Ghindin, Ran Dank, Alexander Schimpf, Arseny Tarasevich-Nikolaev and Stanislav Khristenko. Khristenko, the first-prize winner of the most recent Cleveland Competition (2013), played a dazzling Boston recital this season which demonstrated that the age of great Russian pianists is far from over.

‘We’ve been doing a good job – no doubt about it,’ van der Westhuizen says. ‘But I think we can do even better.’ What van der Westhuizen has accomplished is a radical, festival-like expansion of the Cleveland Competition. This year’s event opened on 24 July and runs until 7 August.

When he took the job in 2012, the competition had been a biennial event since its inception as the Robert Casadesus Competition in 1975. (The name was changed in 1993.) Van der Westhuizen has made it a quadrennial event. ‘Every two years is too short a time,’ he explains. ‘We are committed to supporting our prizewinners, but two years isn’t enough to develop that support – four years is.’

Another reason fort a four-year event is that you get more candidates and a wider variety of them: ‘In 2013 we had 265 applications,’ says Van der Westhuizen. ‘This year, it’s 325. When you select winners, what you’re looking for is lyricism and poetry. This way, we’re casting a wider net to find those qualities.’

What van der Westhuizen wants most, he says, ‘is to make what happens here a two-week celebration of the piano.’ That’s why, in addition to the usual performances, this year’s CIPC includes films, talks, workshops and guest recitals. Khristenko opened the festivities on 24 July with CityMusic Cleveland, a much-praised, 50-strong chamber orchestra under conductor Joel Smirnoff.  Other festival events include: the celebrated French-American jazz pianist, Dan Tepfer, in a performance that transforms Bach’s Goldberg Variations through jazz-like improvisation; a pedagogy workshop; a concert by the piano duo Anderson & Roe; a jury round-table discussion giving the public behind-the-scenes insights; and a showcase for young artists.

‘I wanted a jazz recital because improvisation, an important part of the training for musicians from before Bach until the early 20th century, has unfortunately  – except in jazz  – become a lost art,’ says van der Westhuizen. ‘I wanted the jury round-table because of something that happened at the 2013 Competition: we opened a jury round-table to the public and installed it in a classroom [at the Cleveland Institute of Music]. Every seat was taken, the room was jammed with people standing and the line of folks who wanted to attend stretched down the hall and outside the building. So this year’s discussion [in the lecture hall of the Cleveland Art Museum] is a great opportunity for the public to get inside of how a competition’s decisions are made.’

Van der Westhuizen has also expanded the competition’s final round. In addition to their concerto performances with the Cleveland Orchestra and guest conductor Bramwell Tovey, the four finalists will be required to perform chamber music with the Escher String Quartet, choosing one of the piano quintets by Brahms, Franck, Dvořák or Schumann. ‘Everyone loves these pieces and every pianist I know is always called upon to participate in them,’ says Van der Westhuizen.

The prize money has also been increased. The top prize (US$50,000 in 2013) is now $75,000 plus a recording contract, a New York recital and three years of management support. The second-, third- and fourth-prize winners receive $25,000, $15,000 and $10,000 respectively. Finally, like the 2015 Tchaikovsky and Chopin competitions, all performances at the Cleveland Competition will be broadcast live.

Visit medici.tv to watch the finals of this year’s Cleveland International Piano Competition. Four finalists with The Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Hall on 6 & 7 August 2016. www.clevelandpiano.org

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