Playing the game

The Cliburn returns this year for its sixteenth instalment. President and CEO Jaques Marquis tells PAY what it takes to build a great career, the secrets of a good jury, and how he’s taking inspiration from sports broadcasts

“It’s a tradition that goes back to our founder,” affirms Marquis. “Van Cliburn himself wanted to share music with the largest audience possible. He would appear on chat shows, he would work with young kids, he’d perform for presidents. He used his talent and charisma to bring people to classical music. With the Cliburn, reaching out and being accessible should always be at the front of our thinking. And if we do that we will have success, because I believe great music will always talk to people.” 

And on that note, Marquis could not have made a more on-point pick for head of the jury: Marin Alsop. Known as much for her efforts in engaging audiences and supporting young artists as for her incredible skills on the podium, Alsop is the ideal person to push this message of music for the masses. 

“Today, a conductor like Marin can make a huge difference helping a young artist get started in their career,” observes Marquis. “And not only is Marin a fantastic conductor, but she has this desire to help and support young people. 

“She’s also a fantastic exponent for the music itself, and is great at sharing music with a large audience,” he adds. “Every time I talk with her I just get inspired. If we have an idea her first response is always ‘yes, we can do it’. There’s no limitation on what she thinks we can achieve together, and that makes her really fun to work with.

“For example, this year we’ve removed the chamber music in the semifinal with a Mozart concerto, along with the two concertos in the final. When I told this to Marin and asked if she’d be okay to conduct that many pieces she said ‘no problem’. It’s great having someone who is always so positive.”  

As for the rest of the jury, they are all (with one exception) taking part in the Cliburn for the first time – part of a longstanding policy of keeping things fresh. 

“I don’t want to have the same people over and over, because if you do that it becomes a club, not a jury,” asserts Marquis. “Then there’s the different schools: I like to have someone from the Russian school, the French school and the Italian school…as well as someone from Asia. It’s good to have all these different styles and ideas represented in the jury. We’ve had a record 388 applications this year from over 50 countries, so our jury needs to reflect that diversity. 

“Really though, the most important thing is that they come to it with an open mind. I want people who think ‘I would not play the piece this way, but I can accept this proposal’. They need to be open to different interpretations and engaged in the music.”

For the lucky competitors that meet with these jurors’ approval and finish with a prize, the engagement with the Cliburn will continue for at least several more years, thanks to its career building programme. In the past this was mainly focussed on booking concerts, but these days it’s far more comprehensive than that. 

“Booking the concerts is usually the easy part, because everyone wants to have the Cliburn winners on their stages,” says the president and CEO. “In fact, we now have new agents in Europe and Asia, so we’ll have a wider network to offer our winners.

“But actually managing their careers is more important than just booking concerts. We have to teach them about finance, about social media, about contracts. Of course, the playing is the most important thing, but you need to have all these other skills in place so that your artistic vision comes across. That might mean helping them design a website, or teaching them about etiquette so they make a good impression on artists, donors and supporters that they meet along the way. 

“This is also why I like to have jury members who are still performing regularly. They know the challenges of touring, practicing and building a career. We build relationships between the jury members and the contestants so that when they are on tour they can call them and get their insights and perspectives. It can be a lonely life at first before you adjust to it and know what to expect.” 

He continues: “We also have to help them on the artistic side. So, if they have an artistic vision of playing, for example, all the Goldberg Variations, our job is to help them realise this, while also having unique selling point that differentiates them from all the other pianists playing a similar programme. 

“But ultimately, this energy has to come from our artists,” he concludes. “We can open doors, but it’s up to them to walk through those doors. We can’t tell them what to do, but we can help them reach their potential. If we do that, then I think that’s a big success.” 

The sixteenth instalment of the Cliburn runs from 2-18 June. The competition will be broadcast across multiple platforms including YouTube, with full details to be announced prior to the event. For more information head to 

“We have three new programmes as part of the ‘One Hundred Chinese Music Classics Select’ series,” says Chin. “We are also working on a new series to salute giants of Chinese music. We’re calling it ‘Timeless Classics – A Tribute to Maestro Peng Xiuwen’, and we’ll debut with a retrospective concert for this highly revered composer-conductor who played a pivotal role in the early development of orchestral music in China.

“We’ve also planned a series of 15-minute music programmes,” she continues. “For the coming season, we have selected ‘24 Solar Terms’ that will be featured as videos during our regular concerts.” 

Listed as one of UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage practices, 24 Solar Terms is a knowledge system developed in ancient China which categorises different times of a year according to the sun’s motion. The mini video concerts will take this system as their start point. 

“24 Solar Terms has a lot to say about living a nourishing lifestyle by eating foods and engaging in physical activities that are suitable for each season, and in the many festivities celebrated at different times of the year,” says Chin. “We’re really looking forward to creating a music rendition of this fascinating ancient system on the harmonious integration of time, nature and man.

Continues Chin: “And of course, the Hong Kong Drum Festival is entered its 19th year. We featured two young local drum groups: the Refiner Drums and Gekko.  And we premiered a piece with jazz drumming and an oue eco-gehu – which is a bass instrument like Cello – as alongside the orchestra. It was a really amazing experience for everyone involved.” 

As for touring, Chin is hopeful that audiences all over the world will soon be able to see HKCO again – and not just on digital stages: “With vaccination becoming prevalent and international travel restrictions easing, HKCO targets to resume regular tours for Fall 2022. Performances have already been confirmed for Singapore, Japan and Mainland China, and we are working on the resuming of our Europe tour originally planned for 2022. We really hope to see all our loyal fans soon, along with the many new friends we have made during this difficult time.”