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Pianist Ralph Votapek comes full circle for tribute

Posted 9:03am on Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012

Fifty years ago this month, the first Van Cliburn International Piano Competition kicked off with great fanfare, much of it generated by the fact that the Soviet Union was sending contestants despite the deep freeze of the Cold War.

The Cold War has dissipated, but the competition lives on, and Thursday night in Bass Hall, there will be a grand celebration of its golden anniversary. Four gold medalists representing the beginning, the middle and the end of that span will appear with Miguel Harth-Bedoya and the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra to play concertos for two and four pianos.

The four are American Ralph Votapek, the 1962 winner; French-born but longtime American André-Michel Schub (1981); Russian Alexander Kobrin (2005); and Haochen Zhang of China (2009). All four will get together for Bach's Concerto for Four Keyboards in A minor, Kobrin and Schub will play Poulenc's Concerto in D minor for Two Pianos, and Votapek and Zhang will play Mendelssohn's Concerto No. 2 for Two Pianos.

Votapek should feel right at home in this kind of repertory. He and his wife, Albertine, have often teamed to play four-handed rep, including a program on the Cliburn Concerts series. He has also played four-hand music with two other Cliburn gold medalists: Steven De Groote (1977) and José Feghali (1985).

In a recent interview, Votapek said that his memories of the first Cliburn competition remain "pretty vivid." "It's the things you did last week that you don't remember," he jokes.

He remembers staying with Catherine and Jack Rich, who were old enough to be his grandparents: "I remember walking into their house and she said, 'Play something' -- and then she proceeded to give me a lesson."

It turns out she was a former student of the noted pianist and pedagogue Josef Lhévinne, so she definitely knew a thing or two about the piano.

"I had studied with [Lhévinne's] wife, Rosina, so there was that connection," Votapek says.

Votapek says that he didn't have any contact with the Russians who finished second and third, Nikolai Petrov and Mikhail Voskresensky. He suspects they were watched over by Soviet minders.

Later, after the Cold War, he became friends with Voskresensky, who is a noted pianist and chairman of the Moscow Conservatory's piano department. Petrov, who died in 2011, was "a little more guarded, though very friendly."

"I heard Petrov a couple of times after; he was a giant," Votapek says. "He was very young [at the first Cliburn]; if he had been a little older, he might have won."

Votapek came back to the Cliburn as a jury member in 1989. He reflects sadly on the career of that year's winner, Alexei Sultanov, who went into a decline and suffered poor health before dying in 2005.

"I was very enthusiastic about Sultanov," Votapek says. "When you judge these things it's a crapshoot. You go by what you hear. We were very impressed with his talent and musicality."

As a contestant, Votapek says, he was "very happy" with the first Cliburn. "I had been in many [competitions], winning some, placing in some, losing some. Especially in New York there was no such thing as host families; you just showed up, and if you had a piano to practice on, fine, if not, tough luck.

"In Fort Worth they almost killed you with kindness. You were a star when you got off the airplane, before it began."

The first competition was held Sept. 24-Oct. 7, 1962. Later editions were moved to late spring. The next competition will take place May 22-June 9, 2013.

Votapek is professor emeritus of piano at Michigan State University's College of Music and remains an active concert artist.

He's a favorite in Latin America. Next May he will make his 25th concert tour of Argentina. He describes the Argentine audiences as "knowledgeable and conservative. They like Gershwin but wouldn't like the Copland sonata. They seem more European; they seem respectful. If there's a noise in the audience, you'll hear 'Pssst,' which of course turns out to be as distracting as the noise."

Votapek and his wife have three children in their 40s; all are professional musicians. One son plays principal clarinet in the Naples, Fla., orchestra; another teaches cello in Tucson, Ariz., and plays solo on the West Coast; and the daughter teaches violin and viola at the University of Michigan and subs in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Votapek credits his wife with guiding them into music.

A 50th anniversary celebration will take place immediately after the concert; all ticketholders will be invited and given details that evening.

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