American pianist Van Cliburn stunned the Cold War World in 1958 when he won 1st prize in the first ever International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. The Texan returned to the U. S. a national hero and was honored in New York City with a ticker tape parade down Broadway, the first ever for a figure in classical music. An instant celebrity, Cliburn went on to a career of sell-out concerts and best-selling recordings.

Perhaps his most significant gift to posterity is the piano competition that bears his name, held every four years in his hometown of Fort Worth. Formed merely four years after his triumph in Moscow, it has become for pianists the Everest of piano competition.

Why four years between each competition? Because this contest takes time. Beginning with over 130 highly accomplished young pianists selected from 40-minute recitals before live audiences in Europe, Asia, and the Americas, the judges cull 30 pianists to invite to Fort Worth. After a preliminary round the list is winnowed down to the 12 semi-finalists who each in turn play a one-hour solo recital and another in collaboration with a chamber ensemble, perhaps a string quartet. The six survivors then each play two concertos in concert with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. The selected repertoire ranges from Mozart to Prokofiev.

By Jerome Kleinsasser


Cliburn 1958Cliburn Broadway






Cliburn in Moscow, 1958 (Left) , Ticker-tape on Broadway (Right)

The pressure of performance in the final round can only be compared to the finals of the Olympics: four final concerts with orchestra, held on consecutive days in the magnificent Bass Hall Auditorium in downtown Fort Worth before rapt capacity crowds. During intermissions, strolling through the hall’s elegant lobbies or on the street outside, one hears a salad of languages from around the world, each person seemingly there to root for a particular contestant.

On the evening of the final day the awards ceremony resembles that of the Academy of Motion Pictures but without the commercials. Upwards of $200,000 will be awarded to players in several categories. There is, however, only one Gold Medal prize.

Thanks to the initiative of Music Director John Farrer, the last three Cliburn competition Gold-Medal winners have thrilled our BSO audiences. They were Stanislav Loudenitch, Alexander Kobrin, and Nobuyuki Tsujii, On October 5, this year’s winner, a brilliant 27-year old Ukrainian pianist, Vadym Kholodenko, will perform the piece with which Van Cliburn distinguished himself in Moscow in 1958, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1 in Bb minor. To hear a sample of Mr. Kholodenko’s final moments in the Van Cliburn Competition, go to YouTube ( and enjoy.


President Putin and Van jpg Van Cliburn with Rubinstein and President Ford, 1976 Van Cliburn with Former President Truman, Kansas City, April 6, 1962 Van Cliburn performing in 1993Symphony Nobuyuki Tsujii






1. Van Cliburn with President Putin
2. Van Cliburn with President Ford and legendary pianist Arthur Rubenstein
3. Van Cliburn with President Truman
4. Van Cliburn performance in 1993
5. Nobuyuki Tsujii (2009 Gold Medalist during a Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra performance)

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