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The International Search For The Next 'Van Cliburn' Pianist Lands In Moscow

Audition judges for the next Van Cliburn International Piano Competition heard young pianists play for a career-making break in the Russian capital of Moscow last month. Cliburn himself won his big competition in Moscow 59 years ago, and Russians remember.  

Every four years in late spring, young pianists from the around the world land in Fort Worth, nervous yet eager to change their lives. Some are still students; others teach and give the occasional concert. All are accomplished musicians.

At 28, Russian native Nikita Abrosimov is close to the Cliburn competition’s cut-off age of 30. He says the competition’s big prize isn’t really the $50,000 gold medal money.

“We try to get to the concert career. That’s why we enter competitions,” Abrosimov says.  

Top Cliburn finishers win three years of professional management, international or U.S. bookings and publicity. Abrosimov has been to Fort Worth before. He was in the last competition. This January, he was in a little performance hall in Moscow’s Tchaikovsky Conservatory. He played his 40-minute audition for a handful of people in the audience and five Cliburn judges.

He says Cliburn’s 1958 win at the first Tchaikovsky competition here still resonates.

“It was so powerful,” Abrosimov says, “that still after so many years it has a huge impression on both professionals and music lovers. The name of  Van Cliburn means a lot to the Russian people, and Van Cliburn loved Russian culture, Russian music, and the Russian audience also loved Van Cliburn.”

Across the world, 146 pianists are auditioning for 30 spots. Ten played here in Moscow. They pick their program to show off their strengths.

The name of Van Cliburn means a lot to the Russian people.

Dasol Kim, of South Korea, flew to Moscow from Berlin, where he’s lived for 12 years. He played all 24 Chopin Preludes, Opus 28, an iconic piano masterpiece.

Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
Dasol Kim, from South Korea, played his audition in Moscow. Kim hopes to become one of 30 chosen for this spring's Cliburn Competition in Fort Worth.

"It’s one big work that’s really compact and really pianistic, in my opinion," Kim says. "So I’ve decided that I can show as many qualities as possible in one piece.”

The Cliburn is the only international contest that sends judges to seven cities, including Seoul, London and Hannover, for live auditions.

“I think this is a crucial part of the Cliburn,” says Jacques Marquis, the Van Cliburn Foundation’s president and CEO.

“When you think of hearing them on tapes or today on videos, there’s nothing that tells you more than listening to them live. The young pianists — they have to manage the hall. You know, they have to adapt. They will tour after that in many halls with many good and crappy pianos. How they can adapt with this, and this is part of the career.”

In Moscow, pianists managed distracting music coming from practice rooms and even construction sounds down the hall. Piano professor Pamela Mia Paul at the University of North Texas said she and her four fellow judges weren’t seeking the best manager, but that special voice.

“There are certain people who are just going to jump out at you. And we may all have different people who jump out at us, but people that you just remember.”

'We're listening to find the chef'

Maybe, says another judge, Michel Beroff, that young, memorable player will be the next superstar who lasts half a century. But the veteran concert pianist knows such legendary artists are rare.

Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
Pianist, conductor and Cliburn auditions judge Michel Beroff in Moscow, awaiting the next round of pianists with his four fellow judges.

“You don’t find easily a Richter, Gilels, a Horowitz, a Van Cliburn, every single year, even every four years. So we just hope to find this kind of great talent. We are not sure. Until now I didn’t hear that person but I’m expecting to hear it,” Beroff says.  

Marquis uses a cooking metaphor.

“They can do everything today,” Marquis says. “Then that doesn’t mean you’re a chef if you have all the good ingredients. And what we’re looking at is someone that can do better with the same tools. Everybody has almost the same tools. Then that doesn’t make you a chef. We’re listening to find the chef.”    

Judges sample the next round of piano concoctions beginning Wednesday in New York, with the last audition round Feb. 15-18 in Fort Worth. 

The 15th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition starts May 25. 

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.