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For The First Time, A Cliburn Piano Contest Won't Be In Fort Worth

SMU Arts Dean Sam Holland said SMU donors are paying the room and board for the young Cliburn musicians.

In a first for the Cliburn Piano Competition, the next Cliburn contest will be in Dallas, not Fort Worth. 

The second Cliburn International Junior Competition starts Friday at Southern Methodist University.

Mention a Cliburn competition and you might think of a 61-year-old recording by Van Cliburn, playing Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto.

The music helped propel his win at the first-ever Tchaikovsky competition in 1958 in Moscow. That Cold War victory inspired the Fort Worth piano competition in 1962 named for Cliburn.

Credit KERA News
Cliburn Foundation President and CEO Jacques Marquis said he has worked to expand the Cliburn brand.

Today, there are three different versions of the Cliburn contest: The Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, The Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition and The Cliburn International Junior Piano Competition and Festival. Each have been held every four years and always in Fort Worth.

This week, the junior competition will take place for pianists age 13 to 17. And it’s in Dallas.

"It’s a big deal," said Jacques Marquis, Cliburn Foundation President and CEO. "It’s opening a lot of possibilities."

Marquis has run the organization for seven years and worked to grow the brand beyond its traditional boundary.

"We are expanding our footprint like any business that wants to increase their market — their audience . We're doing the same and Dallas is next door," said Marquis.

Dallas tantalizes with proximity — more people, more money and its own top orchestra and world-class halls.  Ever cautious that a change would also be seen as threat, this move took time, said Jeffrey King, the Cliburn Foundation board chair. "We’ve probably been talking about this for 3 or 4 years."

King said he did not want to upset longtime Cliburn board members and volunteers.

Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
Jeff King is the Cliburn Foundation's Chairman of the Board.

"They might look at us sideways for a while," King said. "But they came around and thought, 'You know, that really makes a lot of sense, especially Dallas, and not someplace hundreds of miles away.' And when SMU stepped up and was excited, then I knew this was going to be a success."

Southern Methodist University is housing the competitors and hosting early performances. Arts Dean Sam Holland said it was an easy "yes," when Marquis approached him several years back.  

"First of all," said Holland, "I view every competitor as a potential recruit to SMU. They might think of coming back for school, and that’s a huge net benefit for SMU and the Dallas community."

Holland said SMU donors are paying the room and board for the young musicians — that totals at least $25,000.  But it's just a drop of the Junior Competition's $1,000,000 budget, according to Shannon Ray, vice chair of the Cliburn board. She said money was among her concerns.

"Our board members from Dallas have been excellent opening doors for us, Ray said. "I've been over to two events where we met prospective donors, and they've been so generous. We're just right on target or even ahead of target on our fundraising."

Shannon Ray is the Cliburn Vice Chair. She first got involved with the organization in 1993.
Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News

Bill McIntyre is one of those Dallas donors. A longtime supporter of Dallas arts organizations, he said he first attended a Cliburn competition two years ago.

"I was just amazed at how good the music was," McIntyre said. "I was also amazed [that] at the last performance, the chairman asked everybody to stand who had been to every performance that week. And I swear about half the audience stood up."

McIntyre said he was sold on helping to bring the newer, junior contest to Dallas. Peter Czornyj, Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s Vice President of Artistic Operations, agreed.  Junior finalists will play concertos with the orchestra in the Meyerson Hall.  

“Our musicians are very committed to providing opportunities for next generation performers,” Czornyj said. "They themselves have also come through this process of training and education. They feel that it's part of their duty to provide those opportunities to next-generation musicians."

Now, King said, all parties just need to show up.

"You go to one of these competitions," King said, "and that’s where you get bit, that’s where you get infected. And that’s what I think is going to happen in Dallas."

King said Dallas audiences and volunteers may not know what hit them until it’s all over. They’ll be exhausted and enthralled, and after looking back, he said, they will look forward to doing it all over again in four years. 

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