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"The Cliburn and Young Musicians": A Commentary

By Rosalyn Story

Dallas, TX – With the 11th Van Cliburn piano competition behind us, few would argue its rank as one of the best, and some key changes helped to make it so. A move to Bass Performance Hall transformed a forgotten quadrant of downtown Fort Worth into a cultural nerve center, and, more importantly, rewarded competitors with the acoustical support they deserved. A new computer-based judging system rewarded us with not one but two victors. And if anyone argues with that, I challenge them to sit in that jury box. Choosing a best player among a pool of talent so strong is akin to choosing a favorite among a pantheon of Olympian gods.

Sadly, some things have not changed about the Cliburn. Even though American Jon Nakamatsu took gold four years ago, recent competitions find Americans, by and large, missing in action. The question then, of African Americans, Latino Americans and other musicians of color becomes moot. As an African American musician myself, I wonder how long it will be before another black pianist will assume the mantle of the brilliant Awadagin Pratt, winner of the prestigious Naumberg Competition, or what Latina will follow 1969 Gold Medalist Cristina Ortiz onto the scroll of Cliburn winners.

Before the winners of this year's competition were announced, Cliburn Foundation President Richard Rodzinski spoke a harsh truth, acknowledging classical music is "at risk of becoming marginalized." And Van Cliburn Conductor James Conlon has said that, while this country "has the greatest number of conservatories, teachers and music students in the world, there is a disproportionately small demand for the music they produce."

"It's not our music, it's their music," some African American young people have said, dismissing the classical arts as entirely the province of European-descended whites. Yet even jazz, America's only homegrown art form springing from black culture, shares with classical music the distinction of single-digit percentages of nationwide recording sales.

Love of art is a function of exposure. One is hard-pressed to love that music which one never hears. Classical music asks something of us, a willingness not only to hear but also to listen, to engage the mind and heart. As Eileen Cline, the lone African American on the Cliburn jury said, "I never knew anybody who didn't like orchestral music after they were exposed to it."

If classical music, like any complex art, fails to excite the passions of American youth, perhaps it's the fault of those of us who proclaim ourselves the mentors of coming generations. Love for art is nurtured early, in homes and in schools. Call me crazy, but in my childhood experience, I see a direct parallel between the absence of school violence, and the much wider embrace of arts programs in schools, which stimulated, excited and captivated young minds. Yet, arts education today is the first target of budget cuts, barely existing in many schools, especially those attended by lower income children. When did art lose its role as the touchstone of human civility, the mark of a cultured, creative, and fulfilled individual? And when did we stop caring about that loss?

Exposure is key. In Fort Worth, at least, the Cliburn did its part. Nearly half of the performers visited schools, where rapt, wide-eyed children hung on every note; and throughout town these young pianists were treated with a celebrity curiosity normally reserved for the truly famous. You would have thought they were American stars. And who knows? In 2005, when the next Cliburn carnival pulls into town with a band of gifted young pianists, maybe some of them will be.