At a time ugliness has saturated the world, with trash piping into everyone’s eyes and ears from all directions, it becomes close to impossible to discuss concepts like art and beauty unironically. These days, what most people call “art” is really just entertainment, and the closest thing people have to “beauty” is the dopamine-induced addiction accompanying that entertainment. Most people no longer behold beautiful works of art at their leisure; they binge on an addictive entertainment in their free time.
Fortunately, there’s an antidote, a transcendent experience for our transcendent-starved population: The Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. It’s called the Cliburn for short. This event takes place every four years in Fort Worth, Texas, as pianists aged 18 to 30 from all over the world play some of the most complex and technically difficult music ever composed for a live audience at Bass Hall. For two-and-a-half weeks, the best performers will advance through three rounds, the top three winning cash prizes and medals.
Naturally, an event that has musicians in their prime performing the works of the very best composers in history will have an abundance of musical riches. Even the weakest competitors who never make it past the preliminary round are giving world-class recitals that could easily fit in any concert hall or studio recording.
These are beautiful pieces of music demanding everything from the pianists, not only in terms of technique but also in soul. It is the auditory equivalent of sampling the best dishes from the best chefs around the world and trying not to be overwhelmed.
Occasionally, the pianists’ repertoires overlap, with multiple competitors playing the same sonatas of Sergei Prokofiev or etudes of Franz Liszt. But instead of inducing boredom, this gives listeners a chance to develop a vocabulary for judging performances.
They will sense when performers mess around with dynamics, exaggerate tempos, or misinterpret motifs, all robbing a piece of clarity, logic, and expressiveness. If they are watching the pianists, they will also see the over-the-top flailing and facial expressions — what my family calls the Lang Lang performers — of some competitors along with the stoic, machine-like character of others.
Modern audiences may take issue with the competition format, which pits pianists against one another in a contest that many would deem subjective and opposed to the idea of art for art’s sake. They dislike the idea that art can be rated by any objective standard, that competition brings out the best in people, and that non-experts in the crowd are given the opportunity to judge the expert on the stage. These are usually the same people who equate art to personal expression and propaganda.
But this is a postmodern mindset that considers beauty relative and undefinable, and thereby rejects it. If nothing else, the performances of the Cliburn triumphantly refute this view.
The competitors cannot fake their way into the competition, nor can they advance by supporting the “current thing” or having the right look. They need to be extremely good, and have nerves of steel that withstand the pressure of delivering a flawless live performance while maintaining an authentic connection to the music.
Intensity of Competition
Not surprisingly, the competitive element brings much more intensity to these performances. Much like amateur athletes in college sports playing their hearts out of love for the game and the honor of victory — as opposed to money and fame that drive professional athletes — the Cliburn competitors play their hearts out with each piece, often sweating and crying more than most athletes.
True, many of them will go on to record albums, tour around the world, and become resident musicians at prestigious universities, but their run in the Cliburn marks the apex of their careers, where they draw the largest audiences and hit their personal limits in playing ability.
What results from this is an experience of beauty that leaves an indelible mark on the souls of the listeners. For those with little experience in classical music, let alone virtuosic piano music, the Cliburn is a great introduction. And for those who are already initiated in this world and have a personal list of best pianists ever, this is a musical feast that will remind a person just what beautiful music can do.
Sparking an Abiding Love of Music
I say this from experience. Even though I took violin lessons growing up, played in orchestras and ensembles, and had parents who made a point of taking us to concerts at the Meyerson Symphony Center in downtown Dallas, it was the Cliburn that sparked my love for classical music.
I remember the moment it happened. I was listening to Roberto Plano in the 2005 competition playing “Notturno” by Ottorino Respighi and was utterly blown away. I discovered what music could do if one just sat still and listened. I realized what philosophers like Immanuel Kant meant when he talked about “the sublime” or why Friedrich Nietzsche couldn’t help but worship Richard Wagner.
As with any experience of beauty, it kindles a profound love and awe of humanity in one’s heart. To reflect on the countless hours of practice, memorization, meditation, and transformation manifested in these young performers, one can’t help but marvel at a divine element at work. These pianists don’t leave the world with a physical product or immaterial idea, but with a special moment in time.
As Micheal De Sapio explains in “The Imaginative Conservative,” there’s something pure and absolute in classical music: “It exists in its own world and is subject to its own rules and laws, which are not the rules and laws of literature or philosophy.”
It’s no exaggeration to say that the experience leaves one with the reassurance that so long as something like the Van Cliburn Piano Competition exists, there’s hope for humanity. Man really is “a little less than divine” and “crowned with glory” as Psalm 8 proclaims. He really can do great things, and beauty really can save the world.
Although today’s popular culture obscures this important truth, it doesn’t have to have the final say. People can make the choice to remove themselves from the noise, tune in to the performances of our finest musicians (from wherever they are), and allow beauty to do its work and make them a little more human.