At a time when ugliness has saturated the world, with trash in everyone’s eyes and ears from all directions, it’s becoming nearly impossible to discuss concepts like art and beauty without irony. These days, what most people call “art” is really just entertainment, and the closest people have to “beauty” is the dopamine-induced addiction that comes with it. entertainment. Most people no longer see beautiful works of art at their leisure; they gorge themselves on addictive entertainment in their spare time.
Fortunately, there is an antidote, a transcendent experience for our people hungry for transcendence: the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. This is called the Cliburn for short. This event takes place every four years in Fort Worth, Texas, as pianists aged 18 to 30 from around the world perform some of the most complex and technically challenging music ever composed for live audiences in Bass Hall. Over two and a half weeks, the best performers will go through three rounds, with the top three earning cash prizes and medals.
Naturally, an event that has musicians at their peak performing the works of the best composers in history will have an abundance of musical riches. Even weaker competitors who never make it past the preliminary round give world-class recitals that could easily fit in any concert hall or recording studio.
They are beautiful pieces of music that demand everything from pianists, not only in terms of technique but also of soul. It’s the auditory equivalent of tasting the best dishes from the best chefs around the world and trying not to be overwhelmed.
Sometimes the pianists’ repertoires overlap, with several competitors performing the same sonatas by Sergei Prokofiev or studies by Franz Liszt. But instead of inducing boredom, it gives listeners a chance to develop a vocabulary for judging performances.
They’ll sense when performers disrupt dynamics, exaggerate tempos, or misinterpret patterns, all robbing a piece of clarity, logic, and expressiveness. If they watch the pianists, they will also see the facial expressions and exaggerated facial expressions—what my family calls Lang Lang performers—of some competitors as well as the stoic, machine-like character of others.
Modern audiences may take issue with the competition’s format, which pits pianists against each other in a competition that many would consider subjective and opposed to the idea of art for art’s sake. They don’t like the idea that art can be judged by any objective standard, that competition brings out the best in people, and that non-experts in the crowd have the opportunity to judge the expert on stage. These are usually the same people who equate art with self-expression and propaganda.
But it’s a postmodern mindset that sees beauty as relative and indefinable, and therefore rejects it. If nothing else, the Cliburn’s performance triumphantly disproves that view.
Competitors cannot pretend to fight their way through the competition, nor can they advance by supporting the “current thing” or having the right look. They must 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
Unsurprisingly, the competitive element brings much more intensity to these performances. Much like amateur athletes in college sports who gamble their hearts out of love for the game and the honor of victory – as opposed to the money and fame that drive professional athletes – Cliburn competitors gamble their hearts with every play, often sweating and crying more than most athletes.
Sure, many of them would go on to record albums, tour the world and become resident musicians at prestigious universities, but their journey to Cliburn marks the peak of their careers, where they attract the biggest audience. and reach their personal limits in playing ability.
The result is an experience of beauty that leaves an indelible mark on the souls of listeners. For those with little experience of classical music, let alone virtuoso piano music, the Cliburn is a great introduction. And for those who are already initiated into this world and have a personal list of the best pianists of all time, this is a musical feast that will remind a person of what beautiful music can do.
Build an undying 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 insisted on 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 when it happened. I was listening to Roberto Plano in the 2005 competition play “Notturno” by Ottorino Respighi and was completely blown away. I discovered what music could do if you just sat and listened. I realized what philosophers like Immanuel Kant meant when he said “sublime” or why Friedrich Nietzsche couldn’t help but adore Richard Wagner.
As with any beauty experience, it ignites a deep love and admiration for humanity in the heart. To reflect on the countless hours of practice, memorization, meditation and transformation exhibited by these young performers, one cannot help but marvel at a divine element at work. These pianists do not leave the world with a physical product or an intangible idea, but with a special moment in time.
As Micheal De Sapio explains in “The Imaginative Conservative”, there is something pure and absolute about classical music: “It exists in its own world and is subject to its own rules and laws, which are not not the rules and laws of literature or philosophy. ”
It’s no exaggeration to say that the experience provides reassurance that as long as something like the Van Cliburn Piano Competition exists, there is hope for humanity. Man is truly “a little less than divine” and “crowned with glory” as Psalm 8 proclaims. He truly can do great things, and beauty truly 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 retreat from the noise, listen to the performances of our best musicians (wherever they are) and let the beauty do its job and make them a little more human.