Music for the Masses
By Meda Kessler
Photos by Ralph Lauer
The Cliburn extends its outreach for fresh ears and new fans
As tourists amble through the Fort Worth Stockyards on a blistering hot day in May, classical pianist Daniel Hsu takes a seat at a gleaming black Steinway on the Tractor Supply Company portable stage.
Music from Alabama blasts out of a loudspeaker as Hsu warms up. A bull riding competition fills a built-in video screen near the stage steps. Hsu is wearing all black, including a Cliburn T-shirt, and tennis shoes. Two men in jeans, plaid pearl snaps and cowboy hats carry clipboards and make sure Hsu has everything he needs.
Our thoughts: “This has to be the most ‘cowboys and culture’ moment we’ve ever witnessed.”
It’s a phrase that gets used a lot in Fort Worth and is often mocked for focusing on just two of the city’s many assets. But on a weekend when the Professional Bull Riders Association World Finals attracts fans from around the country to Cowtown, final preparations also are being made for this month’s 16th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, which draws talent and attention from around the world.
The Cliburn, like other arts organizations, continues to seek out ways to broaden its audience and attract new listeners. Fort Worth native son Van Cliburn, namesake of the every-four-years competition, mandated that part of the event’s mission be to constantly grow a fanbase for classical music.
While Cliburn loyalists stake out their favorite seats at Bass Performance Hall for the final round and keep notes on various players, new — and younger — fans are always welcome. To give them a taste, that means getting out of the concert hall and into places such as schools, shopping centers, libraries, nightclubs and, yes, even the Stockyards. Jeans and T-shirts replace tuxedos and formal gowns. While casual listeners might not be able to differentiate a great performance from an average one, they still can enjoy the music and appreciate the passion of the players. They can also meet them in person.
It’s why Hsu, the bronze medal winner at the 2017 Cliburn Competition and a California native, has returned to Fort Worth for what ends up being a 30-minute performance, including a collaboration with local hip-hop artist Lou CharLe$ and singer-songwriter Averi Burk.
Their song, Free, made its debut at Visit Fort Worth’s annual meeting celebrating the city’s economic development. The collaboration — the idea of Hear Fort Worth, the music arm of Visit FW, and the Cliburn — surprised everyone with how well it worked. And the trio has reunited for performances at other events in addition to the Stockyards mini concert.
The Cliburn had been looking for a way to make its first appearance in the popular entertainment district and reached out to the California-based management team. “They happened to be in Austin for South by Southwest,” says Kim Blouin, director of marketing for the Cliburn. “They saw the setup and heard Daniel, Lou and Averi perform.” That flipped a switch, and a partnership was born. The trio was invited to perform as part of the extensive entertainment lineup scheduled while the bull riding championship was in town.
This past year, Countdown to the Cliburn events included a concert by silver medalist Kenny Broberg at the popular Levitt Pavilion in Arlington; Broberg also performed in Plano and Southlake. Other pianists gave free shows at Chandor Gardens in Weatherford and at NorthPark Center in Dallas (NorthPark also co-hosted watch parties in the summer of 2020). Cliburn Kids set up at Fort Worth’s Arts Goggle and Main St. Arts Festival, offering a mix of education and music.
Other alternative venues this past spring included Tulips, a nightclub in Fort Worth, and The Post at River East on the city’s eastern edge, where fans could enjoy a cocktail or a beer with a little Chopin or some of classical music’s more cutting-edge artists.
After the pandemic forced the Cliburn to cancel many events and delay the competition by one year, the organization was eager to get out into the community. Cliburn Social, one of the newest programs offering a curated experience, is a combination party/concert.
And while the focus is on the competition, which begins June 2, free festival events include piano lunches, family festival day and the return of the simulcast of the final two concerts in downtown Fort Worth’s Sundance Square.
As Hsu and his fellow musicians wrap up at the Stockyards, the small crowd disperses. Jacques Marquis, Cliburn president and CEO, is dressed in jeans and well-worn cowboy boots. He looks pleased. “I didn’t think this would ever happen, but I’m so happy it did. Classical music speaks for itself; it’s accessible, and there’s something for everyone.” As for the impending competition: “We have all this formidable talent gathered here in Fort Worth, and we can’t wait to share them with the world.”