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Competitive Instincts: the Cliburn's Composers

Extra credit to anyone who can identify the pianist playing with Van Cliburn in this undated picture from the 1950s.

The Van Cliburn Competition, held every four years, has an increasingly hard time living up to its reputation; its winners are often no more likely to have major careers than its also-rans. But the competition's auxiliary branch, the Composers' Invitational, is a fresh smart way to bring contemporary music into the mix.

Yesterday, the competition announced the four finalists it had selected from 28 entries solicited from notable composers. They’re a strong group: Mason Bates (whose new piece for the San Francisco Symphony is having a sneak preview when the YouTube Symphony plays one movement of it on tonight’s Carnegie Hall concert), Derek Bermel, Daron Hagen, and John Musto (known to Washington audiences for his operas Volpone, at Wolf Trap, and Later the Same Evening, the Edward Hopper piece done by the Maryland Opera Studio).

The four works have already been sent out to the 30 competitors who will come to Fort Worth in May. Each pianist has picked his or her favorite. But they won’t get to perform them until the semifinal round, by which time only 12 pianists will remain standing. Every composer whose work is performed in the semifinals gets $2,500, and the composer picked by the most semifinalists wins $5,000, and the competition.

I think this is a nifty way to involve contemporary music in the competition, allowing a lot of different levels of contrast and scrutiny. Rather than having a single piece imposed on them, the pianists get to find what they relate to, and listeners have a chance to compare - altogether a more active and engaging way to connect with music than the usual model of simply having to consume whatever's put in front of you.

The hitch, of course, is that this isn't very much money for a composer to get for writing a piece (although a composer is allowed to submit a work she's already written).


And speaking of competitions: On the local front, the first-place winner of the Advanced Division of WPAS’s 38th Feder String Competition--the 14-year-old violinist Jehshua Karunakaran, a previous Feder winner, who accepted his prize last night--is giving a free recital of Paganini, Bach, and other short pieces at the Harman Center for the Arts at noon today.

By Anne Midgette  |  April 15, 2009; 5:50 AM ET
Categories:  Washington , national , news  
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Looks like Daniel Barenboim.

Posted by: enter_the_lemur | April 15, 2009 10:53 AM | Report abuse

Yes, that is Daniel Barenboim.

Posted by: douglas_bvg_rathbun | April 15, 2009 11:50 AM | Report abuse

Nope, it's not Barenboim. This young man is a bit heavier than Barenboim was at that age.

Posted by: MidgetteA | April 15, 2009 12:21 PM | Report abuse

Is it James Levine?

Posted by: OtherMom | April 15, 2009 1:59 PM | Report abuse

You're right, OtherMom. It is James Levine.

Posted by: MidgetteA | April 16, 2009 9:38 AM | Report abuse

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