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Why are there no young Russian pianists at the Junior Cliburn Competition this year?

Hands playing piano.
The Cliburn has a long and meaningful history with Russia, but this year, no one from the country made it to the Junior piano competition.

The Junior Cliburn Competition — going on this week in Dallas — is the first of any Cliburn piano competition in almost 40 years in which no contestant is from Russia. And the Cliburn's connections with Russia go back to its very beginnings in the Cold War in the early '60s.

As Cliburn CEO Jacques Marquis said, Van Cliburn's victory at theinaugural Tchaikovsky Piano Competitioncaused such a stir in 1958 precisely because it showed music, individual keyboard artistry and the love of music rising above even the American-Soviet nuclear stand-off: To an astonished world, tearful Russian judges awarded an American pianist the top prize.

That same sentiment motivated the establishment of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition four years later.

"Politics is not our game," said Marquis. "We are not a political organization. There are so many in the world — leave it to them."

Just last year, following Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine, anti-Russian sentiments publicly targeted Russian artists and celebrities in the West. But the Cliburn was the first international music competitionto declare it would remain open to Russian contestants. The result was a rare moment amid the global tensions: Sharing the same stage, the single Ukrainian competitor won the bronze medal, a Russian won the silver and a South Korean won the gold.

So with such an open-armed stance — why are there no Russians at this year's Junior Cliburn?

Cliburn CEO Jaques Marquis
Ralph Lauer
The Cliburn
Cliburn CEO Jaques Marquis

Marquis said, first, he believes many young Russian pianists are essentially "excluding themselves." They know how hard it is simply to get permission to leave Russia, so they don't even apply to come here.

In fact, this year's junior contest drew 248 total applicants. Only four were Russians — a low number, Marquis admitted. But demonstrating his point, the one Russian who was invited couldn't make it. He couldn't get a visa in time.

Rather than geopolitics, Marquis said, he sees financial forces and the international migration of people as what have been sending more Chinese to Texas to try their skills at the piano and fewer Russians.

In the past few years, he said, we've all become aware of how distant problems in the global supply chain eventually can rattle markets here in America.

The same is true with the supply chain of child prodigies.

"The Russian school of piano, like the Italian school of piano, like the German school, the French school, they were extremely strong 30, 40, 50 years ago," Marquis said. "But 25 years ago, Russian piano teachers move and went to Germany and New York. And at the same time, China invited some teachers from Paris, from the conservatoire, to teach there. And piano technique, piano artistry, the craft went ballistic — the best practices went all over the world. And when you look at the Junior Cliburn today, they're 15 years old and 13 and 14, and the level of craft of these young kids is incredible.

"That's because of this globalization of piano playing."

TheJunior Cliburn Competition continue Thursday and Friday at SMU's Caruth Auditorium. Finals are Saturday at the Meyerson Symphony Center.

Got a tip? Email Jerome Weeks You can follow him on Twitter @dazeandweex.

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Jerome Weeks is the Art&Seek producer-reporter for KERA. A professional critic for more than two decades, he was the book columnist for The Dallas Morning News for ten years and the paper’s theater critic for ten years before that. His writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Newsday, American Theatre and Men’s Vogue magazines.