A Piano, a Camcorder and a Competition

A New YouTube Contest Brings to Mind
Van Cliburn and the Price of Success

by Terry Teachout

March 15, 2008- Fifty years ago next month, a 23-year-old whiz kid from Texas won the Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in Moscow, instantaneously becoming America’s best-known classical musician and earning a hatful of money in the process. Van Cliburn, then as now a generous man, thereupon started his own piano competition, hoping to give other gifted young artists the same opportunity that the Tchaikovsky Competition had given him. Mr. Cliburn hasn’t played regularly in public since 1978, but the Van Cliburn Competition is still doing business in Fort Worth, and it’s celebrating the anniversary of his Cold War triumph by launching a new venture that would have been unthinkable in 1958: the Cliburn YouTube Contest, in which amateur pianists over the age of 35 shoot videos of their own playing and upload them to www.youtube.com/vancliburnfoundation, where computer-savvy music lovers will view them and pick a winner.

The Van Cliburn Foundation, which runs the Cliburn Competition, admits that its YouTube Contest is a gimmick — but a well-meaning one. Its purpose is to publicize another of the Cliburn Foundation’s undertakings, the International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs, which won’t be held again until 2011. “We created the YouTube contest to inspire and motivate amateur pianists to practice and perfect their skills continually until the main competition takes place,” says Sevan Melikyan, the foundation’s director of marketing. The winner will receive a cash prize of $2,000 and be entered in the next Amateur Competition, which is open to any over-35 classical pianist who doesn’t earn a living as a musician.

[Sightings photo]
After winning the Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in Moscow, Van Cliburn (left) is congratulated by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev (second from right).

How does it work? Simply make a video of yourself playing between five and 10 minutes’ worth of classical music. (The camera angle must show your hands and face simultaneously, thus proving that you’re doing your own playing.) Upload it to YouTube by April 30. The videos will be available for viewing the next day, and viewers can register by email to vote for the pianist of their choice. The winner will be announced on May 30. Go to www.cliburn.org for more details.

So far as I know, the Cliburn YouTube Contest is the first such event of its kind, but the Cliburn Foundation has been holding amateur competitions since 1999. Michael Kimmelman, the New York Times’s senior art critic, was one of the finalists that year, and his participation, not surprisingly, brought the competition a fair amount of press coverage. I expect that the YouTube Contest will have the same effect — as well it should. It is an idea so self-evidently ingenious that your immediate response will probably be to wonder why nobody ever thought of such a thing before.

I have less clear-cut feelings about the Amateur Competition itself, however. Seven years ago I sat on the jury for a jazz piano competition and came away as dubious about the virtues of artistic competitions as I’d been when I started. Does it really advance the cause of art to treat musicians, painters or novelists as if they were beauty-pageant contestants? Very likely not — but such undertakings will always be with us, for there is something in the nature of head-to-head competition that audiences find inherently exciting. That’s why I agreed to serve as a judge: I thought it my duty to see how the process worked in practice. Yet I still felt equivocal about what I was doing. In a race, somebody always comes in first; in art, nobody does. Why, then, encourage amateurs to put themselves through the wringer of a high-profile competition? Might the experience diminish their passion for the artistic endeavors to which they freely devote such big chunks of their lives?

That Van Cliburn should be lending his name to the YouTube Contest is ironic, for he is one of the saddest examples of the damage that can be done to a serious artist who unexpectedly hits the celebrity jackpot. In 1958 he became a media idol, and for a decade and a half managed to keep his head above the high waters of renown. As late as 1973, he was still recording albums like “My Favorite Brahms” that left listeners in no possible doubt of his great gifts. But Mr. Cliburn’s fame wore him out. His playing became noticeably inconsistent in quality, and in 1978 he took a “sabbatical” (as he called it) from which he never really returned, though he still performs in public from time to time. What should have been a great career ended up being . . . well, something less than that.

Needless to say, the winner of the Cliburn YouTube Contest isn’t going to end up gracing the cover of Time or playing on “The Tonight Show,” the way Mr. Cliburn did a half-century ago. And I doubt that the contest itself will have any dire effects on the culture of classical music. But those who take part in it would still do well to keep in mind the origin of the word “amateur,” which is derived from amator, the Latin word for “lover.” Bad things can happen to love when money changes hands.

Mr. Teachout, the Journal’s drama critic, writes “Sightings” every other Saturday and blogs about the arts at www.terryteachout.com. Write to him at tteachout@wsj.com.


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