The Commerce Journal


June 10, 2014

Judging pianists

COMMERCE — “The Van Cliburn Competition is the most important piano competition in the world,” says John Giordano of Fort Worth, who was chairman of the Van Cliburn jury for 40 years.

He stepped down last year, saying it was time for some young person to take over the job. “I’m not losing any income. You could triple my salary and it would still be zero.” Maestro Giordano has many musical accomplishments. He conducted The Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra for nearly 30 years, taught music at TCU, composed music and performed saxophone at concerts. He played on one of Frank Sinatra’s recordings.

Dr. Giordano was a friend of the famous pianist Van Cliburn, who grew up in Kilgore but later called Fort Worth home. He became the highest paid classical artist. “His fee just before he stopped performing was $125,000 plus first-class airfare and first-class accommodations,” says Giordano. “Everywhere he played he brought his own piano. He had it shipped.”

A group of Fort Worth piano teachers started the Van Cliburn in 1962 with $10,000 in prize money. They wanted to discover the world’s finest young pianists. Some 300 people between the ages of 18 and 30 enter the Van Cliburn competition, which is held every four years. The players are required to know dozens of classical pieces by memory. When John took over as chairman of the judging, he was given a bell. “They’d play a while, than I’d ring the bell and tell the musician to go to another part of the piece. They would play that and I’d ring the bell and say, ‘now let’s hear some Schumann.’”

From all the entries, only six finalists are chosen. Giordano says the difference between first- and sixth-place is miniscule. The winner gets $50,000. Another $50,000 is divided between the players who come in second and third. “The remaining three finalists are not ranked and get several thousand dollars each. All the money comes from private donations. The thing that’s unique about the Cliburn is that part of the prize is three years of management. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be the winner. Anyone who has been in the competition gets help.”

Van Cliburn was 23 years old when he won the International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow in 1958. It was during the Cold War and Premier Khrushchev was called to get his approval to give the award to an American. The Soviet Leader asked, “Is he the best?” The judges said yes. “Then give it to him,” said Khrushchev, who was a fan of classical music. When Van Cliburn returned to the U.S. he was given a ticker tape parade on New York’s Broadway. “Something that will probably never happen again for a classical musician,” says John Giordano.

Tumbleweed Smith lives in Big Spring with his wife Susan. Contact him at 432-263-3813 or

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