Coronavirus impact

Fort Worth's Van Cliburn Competition postponed until 2022 due to pandemic

Fort Worth's Van Cliburn Competition postponed until 2022 due to COVID

Yekwon Sunwoo, 2017 Van Cliburn Piano Competition winner
2017 gold medalist Yekwon Sunwoo gets to be reigning champion one more year. Photo courtesy of The Cliburn

In a move that's not surprising but nonetheless heartbreaking for Fort Worth, the Cliburn is postponing its 2021 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition a full year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The sixteenth edition of the beloved cultural event will take place June 2-18, 2022, at Bass Performance Hall and Van Cliburn Concert Hall at TCU. It originally was scheduled for May 27-June 12, 2021.

“The Cliburn competition is a once-every-four-years opportunity for us to showcase exceptional artists to the world, to bring the international classical music community together in Fort Worth, to create a singular event for our hometown, and, in the end, to launch careers,” says Jacques Marquis, Cliburn president and CEO, in a release. “It’s become clear in recent months that the continuing effects of the pandemic will prevent us from producing an event at the level and with the impact that our patrons, our supporters, and — most importantly — our competitors deserve."

This is the first time the quadrennial competition — named for late pianist Van Cliburn — has been canceled since its inception in 1962.

One ray of light for Fort Worth's biggest piano fans? Two Cliburn competitions will now take place in 2022, as the Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition will be staged in the fall of that year (rescheduled from May 2020).

The Cliburn International Junior Piano Competition and Festival will commence in June 2023.

Uncertainty around the globe
Widely considered the most important piano competition in the world, the Cliburn competition brings competitors, jury members, press, and audience members to Fort Worth from every corner of the globe. They pack into concert halls, local hotels, Cliburn patrons' homes, young professionals' parties, restaurants, and other places around the city. And, while the competition itself is less than three weeks long, preparations begin years in advance and intensify in the months leading up to it, requiring extensive international travel.

But with the coronavirus pandemic ongoing around the world, none of those things can happen in coming months, the organization says. 

Many arts and entertainment companies have pivoted to entirely virtual, live-streamed events or presentations in near-empty venues. While the prestigious 2020 Cleveland International Piano Competition was postponed until next year, a virtual contest was staged in its place over the summer.

The Cliburn is not considering that direction, they say.

"The vibrancy of the Cliburn competition is built around the energy of the audience," the organization says in the release. "Though the Cliburn is a leader in classical music webcasting, the in-person atmosphere is an element that also sets it apart; the competitors remember the warmth of patrons in Fort Worth for many years after."

The Cliburn cites these specific reasons for pushing the competition back a year:

  • Social distancing and safety protocols for in-person events: "The health of the patrons is of utmost importance, and postponing will offer the opportunity to safely gather."
  • International travel: "The international nature of the competition is foundational, and it is uncertain if people from all around the globe (competitors, attendees, press) will be able to or feel comfortable with traveling to Texas in 2021."
  • Planning uncertainty: "The planning of the competition is a complex, multiyear process, which is obviously hindered by the unpredictability of the pandemic globally."
  • Winners’ touring: "The primary goal of the competition is the launch of careers. Doing so at a time when concert tours have been suspended is not in the best interest of the new winners."

"Total disruption" in the concert industry
Unlike other competitions, the Cliburn essentially awards its winners a career by booking their concerts and managing press and other logistics for three years. The organization announced in June that the scope of their management would increase for the 2021 gold medalist, and the cash prize would double from $50,000 to $100,000.

"In normal circumstances, the total value of the Cliburn’s prize packages can be close to $2 million, when you account for income from concert bookings and services provided," Marquis said in June.

Current circumstances for artists are still far from normal, though. With COVID-19 concerns still shuttering concert halls (including Fort Worth's Bass Hall, which has no scheduled events until next spring), social distancing measures keeping musicians apart, and health worries keeping patrons at home, the concert industry is experiencing what Marquis has called "total disruption."

"Concert presenters (including us) and artists are coming up with creative, safe ways to bring people together, which is great; but it will likely be some time before concert life returns to normal," Marquis said in June.

The Cliburn is hoping that "return to normal" will happen by 2022 in Fort Worth and beyond. With its reconfigured schedule, competitor screening auditions will take place March 6-12, 2022, entirely in Fort Worth for the first time. The public will be invited to attend. 

For those who already have bought tickets for the 2021 competition, no action is necessary; tickets will be transferrable to the postponed dates. Premium subscriptions are on sale here, and other subscription packages and tickets will go on sale in 2021, the organization says.

"Now, with a clear path forward," Marquis says, "we can plan a competition that will achieve new heights and be a fitting celebration of international strength and unity after such challenging times.”