Last November, just six months before the next Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, Cliburn Foundation interim president Alann Sampson abruptly resigned, the latest chapter of an ongoing soap opera.
Eyebrows were once again raised across the piano world, as people wondered: What is going on in Fort Worth?
Sampson's departure also left the fate of the prestigious quadrennial competition largely on the shoulders of Jacques Marquis, a French Canadian who until last June had never been to Texas. It was only in September that Marquis joined the Cliburn as a consultant, with the title of interim executive director.
So much intrigue. So much responsibility. So, why is Jacques Marquis smiling?
Or make that laughing -- a lot -- in an infectious way. Take a recent interview, when Marquis chuckled while describing a recent conversation with his 13-year-old son, William, who remains with his mother and siblings in Montreal.
"I told him, 'I played tennis today ... outside,'" Marquis says. "It's minus-10 in Montreal."
Marquis laughed when he spoke of his choice of Texas vehicles -- a Ford F-150 pickup. He laughed when he spoke of his love of hockey. At a recent photo shoot at the Fort Worth Steinway store, Marquis sat down at a grand piano once owned by piano legend Van Cliburn himself, dashed off a few brooding bars of Rachmaninoff ... and laughed. The 48-year-old Montreal native, in fact, gives exaggerated new meaning to the French term for "joy of living."
"He certainly has that joie de vivre," says Glen Kwok, president of the World Federation of International Music Competitions, and Marquis' close friend. "He really embraces the very best things. He knows there are challenges, but every job has its challenges. Jacques goes about it in a different way -- not to look at those things as challenges, but as opportunities. There are no obstacles."
Family and friends say that Marquis' sunniness comes naturally. But his confident bonhomie is also the byproduct of education and experience that seems to render Marquis uniquely qualified for his daunting new task. He knows the instrument, for one thing, having obtained an undergraduate degree in piano performance from a college in Canada. But he also went on to earn a master's degree in business. Marquis has 18 years of experience on the management side of cultural organizations, and has spent the past decade running international music competitions in Montreal.
"He is not frightened. He is not feeling vulnerable about what he's doing," said Shields-Collins Bray, the Cliburn's artistic consultant for special programs. "And it's not an ignorance-is-bliss sort of thing. He has an appreciation for every sort of problem, like he has dealt with them before. These are not new problems. He may very well solve them in a different way than they've been solved here before, but that's OK.
"He's a strong leader, a very impressive leader," said Bray, who is also the principal keyboardist with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. "It's not the kind of thing where we'll have to wait and see about him. He knows what he's doing, and just get the heck out of his way and let him do it."
Marquis says much the same thing, albeit in slightly more understated terms. He said he signed on with the Cliburn to get a feel for the organization and for Texas, with an eye toward applying to become the Cliburn's permanent president down the road. Sampson, a former board chairwoman who had served the Cliburn Foundation in various capacities during all 50 years of its existence, was expected to continue as president and CEO until after the 2013 competition, which begins in May.
Then came November and Sampson's parting, one that by most accounts was not amicable. The new guy from Canada was put in charge. (Sampson declined to comment for this story.)
It was a job that Marquis did not anticipate or desire, he said.
"I was sad she didn't take the opportunity to go out on the red carpet in the next competition," he said of Sampson. "She could have used me to help her on a lot of different matters and she chose not to. She chose to resign, and I think with all of the things she's done over the years, it was a bad ending. That was my thought.
"Then my thinking was, 'Now I have a job to do. I have to organize a competition. Let's move.'"
So he did, quickly making converts in Cliburn offices and in Fort Worth generally.
"I think a lot of him, and we think a lot of him to bring him in -- even in this interim role," says Carla Thompson, chairwoman of the Cliburn board. "He obviously has all the credentials, 18 years of industry experience, and the skill set is pretty hard to come up with."
But Thompson was guarded in her comments about Marquis, because she and the Cliburn board members find themselves in a ticklish situation. In an ongoing search, Marquis is just one candidate for the Cliburn's permanent president and CEO. Others will be interviewed. And everyone associated with the competition knows how much is riding on that decision.
For more than two decades, under the leadership of Richard Rodzinski, the Cliburn Foundation had been the picture of stability, and the competition cemented its reputation as one of the world's finest. But Rodzinski resigned shortly after the 2009 competition, when the gold medal was shared by Japanese sensation Nobuyuki Tsujii and 19-year-old Haochen Zhang of China. Several other key staffers followed Rodzinski out the door. Sampson, then the Cliburn board chairwoman, stepped in as interim president until a new president and CEO could be found.
He was David Worters, an executive with the North Carolina Symphony. But in June 2011, Worters resigned after just six months on the job, saying, "I've found that I don't have sufficient passion for this." Sampson returned as interim president. Then, less than two months ago ...
"Of course you look at it and think, 'Oh, dear. Something is up down there,'" said Joan Braun, executive director of CU Presents, a cultural organization of the University of Colorado that engages Cliburn gold medalists every four years. "There is some internal turmoil of some kind. That is fairly clear."
Braun said the Cliburn brand is strong enough to weather the turmoil. Others say it's too soon to tell whether the turnover and intrigue has damaged the competition.
"When something is every four years, you wouldn't notice any harm until you go through a few cycles," said Kwok, the executive director of the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis and a close observer of the Cliburn. "At that point, you could make an adequate artistic judgment if any of this had an effect. At the end of the day, people will remember who the laureates are. They may or may not remember all the politics."
Yet there has to be an end to the turmoil, everyone agrees.
"We need it to be right," Thompson said of the choice for the new Cliburn chief executive. "We don't need to go through this again. I can say that he [Marquis] is a candidate."
He is fine with all of that.
"There is a search going on," he says. "I will cross that bridge when I come to the river."
Then he laughs.
A musical life
His mother was a teacher, his father a postal worker, neither of them musically inclined. It was thus something of an accident of nature that their son possessed a beautiful singing voice with perfect pitch. Auditions at Marquis' school earned him a spot with the prestigious Montreal Boys' Choir.
"When I was young I sang with [conductor] Zubin Mehta," Marquis said. "You can also go on YouTube and find Pavarotti singing in the Notre-Dame church in Montreal. You can find me there. I was 12 or something."
Learning piano was part of his choir training. He decided to study the instrument at Montreal University because, at least in part, it seemed more challenging than engineering.
"I taught piano for little kids," he said. "It's a good way to pay for your studies. I also like math, numbers. After that I said, 'OK, arts administration could be interesting.' I decided to do a business degree and combine them."
His first job was as an accountant for the Metropolitan Orchestra in Montreal. By the time of his departure eight years later, Marquis had risen to become the chief operating officer. His next position was executive and artistic director of Jeunesses Musicales Canada, a huge performing-arts organization that every year organizes hundreds of classical concerts for young people across the nation. In 2002, the year of Marquis' arrival, the Jeunesses Musicale foundation also created the Montreal International Music Competition, an annual event rotating among piano, violin and voice.
"He was ready for a big job like [the Cliburn], with all the experience he gathered for us," said Joseph Rouleau, one of Canada's most prominent opera singers and board chairman of Jeunesses Musicales. "The budgeting, the expansion, the revenues, thousands and thousands of concerts, choosing the artists. All the musical responsibilities and the administration. He was a perfect candidate for the Van Cliburn."
Rouleau was just as effusive about Marquis' character and personality.
"He's a very good father, a fantastic dad, the way he keeps his children, loving them.," Rouleau said. "He's just a very nice man with a lovely personality. He gets on with everyone. He listens. He is able to find solutions, not create problems. He's also a good sportsman. He loves ice hockey. He's a very good tennis player. We're balanced people. We love music but we love sports. It keeps our brains clear."
Six years ago, Marquis married Catherine Dupont, a prominent Canadian television producer. Between them they have six children, ages 13 to 19. Dupont remembered a Montreal music competition a few years ago when the orchestra, under contract to accompany the competing musicians, went on strike a few weeks before the event was to begin.
"People were asking me, 'How is he?'" Dupont remembered. "'Is he OK? Is he surviving the crisis? What's going to happen with the competition? What is he going to do?'
"I said, 'I think he's just hiring musicians, putting together a pickup orchestra. He's fine. He's sleeping at night,'" Dupont said. "He always finds solutions. He's always keeping the smile and the right attitude. He's been through some difficult situations before, but he's always handled them perfectly."
A Texas opportunity
In February 2012, Marquis told Joseph Rouleau that he would be leaving Jeunesses Musicales in June.
"He had done 10 years with us, had worked very hard and with great results," Rouleau said. "We kept asking him, 'Where are you going to go? What are you going to do?' He just said, 'I'll find something.' Suddenly, the chair of the Cliburn competition called me at home."
To Marquis, the Fort Worth competition was an intriguing possibility. Of the hundreds of piano competitions in the world, the Cliburn is recognized in the top two or three, along with the Chopin in Warsaw and the Tchaikovsky in Moscow.
"You want to play at Wimbledon," he says. "You want to play at the U.S. Open. As someone who likes competitions and likes music, and as a pianist, the Cliburn was a good idea."
In April, at a conference of music competition executives in Holland, Glen Kwok introduced Marquis to Sampson and Thompson from Fort Worth.
"I said, 'This is the perfect scenario,'" Marquis remembers telling them. "'I have nine months to give you. I will come in here. I will learn. Hopefully I will bring something new to the table. After that you are going to do your search, and if I want to apply, I will. I will know what boat I'm going in. I will know the people. I will know the structure.'"
Marquis was invited to visit Fort Worth in June and the consulting position was offered a short time later. Marquis left his wife and children in Canada to test the waters in strange land far to the south.
"To be in the States, I don't want to be in Iowa or Wisconsin," Marquis said. "I like to be in Texas. It's a strong state. People are strong-minded, very independent. But you are also a warm people. I'm French Canadian, the Latin side of Canada. I'm warm, too. I like that very much."
In his early weeks in Fort Worth, Marquis mostly listened and read, poring over the Cliburn's history. In time he began to present his ideas to Sampson, he said.
"Naturally, like a new hockey coach with his views on doing power plays, I talked to Alann," Marquis says. "Maybe the structure could be a little bit different. The people would be more empowered. But she was the head coach. She said, 'This is interesting.' Naturally, that was her decision."
Cliburn officials have declined to comment on the specifics of Sampson's resignation. But a precipitating event seems to be a board decision last fall to put Marquis in charge of foundation administration while Sampson ran the 2013 competition.
"She resigned," Thompson said. "I wish she hadn't. We all love and respect her and wish she was here to finish this up. She chose not to."
So it is the happy French Canadian, Jacques Marquis, traveling the globe with a Cliburn jury at international screening auditions that were scheduled to begin Saturday in Hong Kong. He has already put his imprint on the competition, negotiating to add an additional rehearsal for each Cliburn finalist with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. One rehearsal, Marquis reasoned, was inadequate in the most pressure-filled round of the competition, when the interest of potential presenters and the public was most intense.
"For me, this is the most important part. You start the competition from the last round," Marquis said. "The last round is your bread and butter. We have to prioritize and put all the money we have and give more time with the orchestra."
Among Marquis' first decisions was to rehire Maggie Estes as director of marketing. Estes, highly thought of in media and cultural circles, had left the foundation last summer to work in the corporate sector.
Otherwise, Marquis seems to imply that there is as much art in managing people as in playing a Chopin sonata.
"I like this word 'empower' in English," he says. "We don't have this nice word in French. We have a lot of young people here. When you have young people, you have to empower them, and you have to understand that they will make some mistakes, but they will learn from them, and that's how you grow in a job.
"I'm working with 14 very good people," he said. "You're as good as your team. My first decision was to empower the people who are here."
Perhaps the biggest challenge Marquis faces is in his personal life. Separation from his wife and children for nine months is one thing. But what if Marquis is offered the job as Cliburn president and CEO?
"There are a lot of questions about that, of course," Catherine Dupont says. "We're being patient, which is very good. We discuss it often with the kids and with each other, obviously. We decided just to take it one step at a time. It's all very exciting for everyone. For now, it's difficult a little bit because of the distance and the travel, but we're being patient. We need to see the long run."
Marquis seems equally sanguine. He tells the story of a family meeting when he first brought up the notion of working away from Montreal.
"What is your feeling about Papa going away, maybe for a year?" he asked the children. "[William] said, 'Oh, Papa. We have Skype. We have Facebook. We can talk, no problem."
A few weeks ago, the boy made his first visit to Texas.
"We went to Cowboys Stadium and got the VIP tour. That was super cool," Marquis said of William's recent visit. "He bought a TCU shirt. Now it's on his Facebook page."
Then, of course, Marquis laughed.
Tim Madigan, 817-390-7544