Cliburn Foundation nurtures pianists long after competition

Posted 9:33am on Monday, Jan. 23, 2012

For Haochen Zhang and Nobuyuki Tsujii, the 2009 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition is just now ending. They played their last notes in the contest and won their gold medals nearly three years ago, of course, but the Cliburn is a competition that keeps on giving.

Specifically, it provides its finalists with three seasons' worth of career management. Neither Zhang nor Tsujii has to be nervous about the fact that they're now in that third season, because major international agencies are stepping in to take over the Cliburn's managerial role. (Zhang's managers will be Kajimoto overseas and Opus 3 Artists in North and South America. Tsujii's will be IMG Artists except for Japan, where Avex Classics International will continue as his manager.)

This nurturing of the careers of talented young pianists has been one of the Cliburn Foundation's principal aims for the 50 years it has existed.

"From the first competition 50 years ago, the Cliburn's goal has been to launch its winners into meaningful careers," said Cliburn interim President and CEO Alann Bedford Sampson. "Life on the road can be trying, and the Cliburn stands by these young pianists to encourage them as they begin their lives as performing artists. The same warmth and support they receive from their host families and the city of Fort Worth during the competition, they take with them on the road around the world.

"The goal, as has just been so brilliantly realized with Haochen and Nobu, is to sign our winners with professional artist management at the end of those three years -- but they remain part of the Cliburn family forever."

A recital Wednesday at the Dallas Museum of Art will mark the first of several events during 2012 to celebrate the Cliburn's 50th anniversary. Yeol Eum Son, the 2009 silver medalist, will play selected works that were commissioned for previous competitions.

Details of management

The typical music-lover may rarely think about concert management, but it's a vital element in an artist's career. Sandra Doan, the Cliburn Foundation's principal artist manager, lists some of the things managers do: book dates, arrange the artist's schedule, work with the artist on programming details, make travel arrangements, even coach the artist on how to do interviews and speak publicly.

Scheduling can be tricky. The Cliburn Foundation manages only domestically; it has to coordinate with managers overseas.

"We have to be careful not to make the calendars too busy so that they will have sufficient time to practice and study," Doan says. The Cliburn aims for about 50 concert dates a year, including those arranged by other managers.

For Zhang, there was an additional complication: He's still a student (it's his final year) at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, where he studies with renowned teacher Gary Graffman. "Just not that much anymore," Zhang says, "because it's very hard to match my schedule with his.... I have to sometimes call him and tell him I won't be able to come to see him in person for up to two or three months."

Zhang says that Curtis is extremely understanding about his frequent absences. "Unlike most schools, where it's like, 'Oh your studies are more important than your doing your own stuff,' Curtis is not like that. So I'm really fortunate."

Doan says that programming has to be coordinated between the artist and the presenter. Solo recitals offer more flexibility. "Most of [the artists] stick to one program [for the season]," Doan says. "They come to us, tell us what they would like to play, and we usually say fine. There have been rare instances when I have suggested something else. Some presenters ask for very specific types of things; then we have to sit down and think about their needs."

Orchestra dates involve more musicians and less flexibility. Doan says that "as part of their application, [Cliburn contestants] are required to have six concertos ready for performance; they usually have a list of 15, or something like that, but we don't ask them to keep them up. We usually limit it to three or four so they are not overwhelmed." If an orchestra doesn't agree to one of the three or four, the pianist has to brush up on one he or she has studied before, or simply learn a new one.

Concert tour arrangements involve a lot of details, Doan says, many of them designed to "make it as stress-free as possible." These include things like booking flights, making hotel reservations, requesting someone to meet the artist at the airport, making sure that the hotel is within walking distance of the concert hall or that public transportation is available, making sure that there are restaurants nearby, and "making sure that the piano tech gets there in time."

If something goes wrong -- a flight cancellation, for instance -- it's up to the management agency to rebook the flight or make other arrangements. Doan remembers one instance in which a snowstorm grounded all flights and the artist had to go by train -- a 10-hour trip.

Zhang says management is vital.

"It's impossible for any artist to do all this by himself. Managers have their whole working time dedicated to this. If I were to have to do this myself, I wouldn't have any time to practice. It's a necessity, not a luxury."

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