Van Cliburn International Piano Competition
May 25 - June 10, 2017

Van Cliburn International Piano Competition

The First Winner

In 1962, Ralph Votapek is the Gold Medalist of the First Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. It was also the year of the Cuban missile crisis, at the height of the cold war. Let’s discover his very personal and vivid testimony.

As they say about older people, you forgot what you did yesterday, but what you did 55 years ago is often still vivid.  

I heard about the Van Cliburn competition from my teacher Rosina Lhevinne, who had been Cliburn's teacher at the Juilliard School just 4 months before. Though it did not yet have the prestige of the Leventritt, the Naumburg, or the big overseas competitions, the monetary prize and concert management offered (Sol Hurok, who was considered the best) were very attractive. I had won 6th in the Marguerite Long the year before and was a finalist in the Leventritt earlier that year, so it was logical to go for this one.  

Many things about the Cliburn that first year have persisted to this day - the chamber music requirement, the commissioned work sent only a few weeks before, the two concerto finals, and above all the incredible Texas hospitality. But many things are different now. The Fort Worth Symphony is much better. The venue is spectacular.    

In 1962 we all had to play a Bach prelude and fugue, any major Beethoven sonata, two virtuosic etudes, a work from your own country, a major romantic work, and a major 20th-century work.  

In other words they were not interested in specialists. We all had to learn one of the four Edward MacDowell sonatas (MacDowell was Van Cliburn's mother's favorite composer). It turned out the jury never heard anyone play MacDowell. But the important thing about the first Cliburn is that the Russians (four of them) were coming to the US for the first time. Their reputation for preparedness and skill were well known. And the competition was theirs to win.

This was the height of the cold war – a month before the Cuban missile crisis. I really believe the reason they didn't win first is that they were put up in the most lavish mansions, and they suffered from cultural shock. I stayed in a modest home a few walking blocks from TCU*. The lady of the household had been a pupil of Josef Lhevinne, and she promptly gave me a lesson. There were lot of parties. The first competition was held in September and it was close to 40 degrees celsius in Fort Worth. I remember at one of them jumping into a swimming pool with all my clothes on.   

Van has always been there, but only to award the prizes – personable as always, never interfering. The first few concerts after the competition were with small orchestras in Texas and a few other places. But suddenly, only three months later, there was a Carnegie Hall recital for which I felt I was not fully prepared mentally. Of course now the winner’s and winners' schedules are carefully managed and it is better.  But I was with Sol Hurok for 17 years until his management went bankrupt, and was always grateful for what the Cliburn had done.


*Initially held at Texas Christian University (TCU), the competition has been held at the Bass Performance Hall since 2001.

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