Hoo boy. Last week’s Russian invasion of Ukraine came at a parlous time for the Van Cliburn Piano Competition, which is holding its screening auditions starting this weekend. Today, the Cliburn drops the news that Russian musicians will be allowed to come to Fort Worth and take part in those auditions. This news has put me off my lunch. One thing’s for sure: It is going to get sticky.

The Cliburn’s statement does call the invasion “reprehensible and heartbreaking.” That’s good, but it will strike many people as not near enough. If Russian pianists do make the finals, you can expect reporters to ask them to condemn the invasion. They’ll probably issue weak statements the way Alexander Ovechkin did, because they don’t have much choice unless they want to defect to the West like Mikhail Baryshnikov. (Although, how cool would it be if they did that?) The possibility of competitors from other nations refusing to take the stage with the Russians is in play. So is the chance that our audiences boo the Russians when they perform. So is the chance of me joining them.

The most powerful counter-argument, which the Cliburn cites in its statement, is that these musicians had no part in planning the invasion, and banning them from competition would be unfair to them. This is undoubtedly true, but then, since this pressure point is available to us, why shouldn’t we press it? Give China some second thoughts about retaking Taiwan. Why subject the young musicians to a trainwreck scenario like the Olympic women’s figure skating final. Someone could be scarred for life like Kamila Valieva. And if a Ukrainian pianist makes the finals, how are they supposed to feel? How can the sight of Russian competitors not conjure up thoughts of the thousands of Ukrainians who’ve been killed already?


These logistical issues are why worldwide athletic competitions (which you can argue the Van Cliburn is on some level) are excluding Russians and showing solidarity. FIFA, after some watered-down initial half-measures, effectively kicked Russia’s soccer team out of the upcoming World Cup after their potential qualifying opponents (Poland, Sweden, and Czech Republic) all announced they would refuse to play Russia under any circumstances. With some very late prodding by the International Olympic Committee, Russian teams — and in some cases, ones from their ally Belarus as well — have been banned from international competitions in skiing, hockey, figure skating, rugby, basketball, track and field, tennis, volleyball, and Formula One racing. Most Hollywood studios are pulling their movies from Russian theaters, including The Batman. On the music side, pop and rock acts such as Green Day, Iggy Pop, The Killers, and Nick Cave have canceled their planned concert dates in Russia (and also Ukraine, where traveling is clearly unsafe). The Metropolitan Opera is now severing ties with singers and conductors who have supported Vladimir Putin. Chief among these is the famed conductor Valery Gergiev, a staunch Putin supporter who has been fired as maestro of the Munich Philharmonic and disinvited from conducting at La Scala this weekend, all for refusing to say anything about the invasion. I wonder whether Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra would hire Gergiev using the Cliburn’s logic. The maestro has free time on his hands now.

Anyway, the screening auditions start on Sunday at TCU’s PepsiCo Recital Hall. If the gift stand sells Ukrainian flags, they could make a mint.


  1. Why is the journalist writing this article not showing some sort of professional training and pointing out the pros and cons facing all these individuals instead of showing how their lunch was negatively impacted – and how their personal response would be to join the “mob” and boo? Personal opinions should not ever be in the media as this writer seemed to want the public to know how easily they could be influenced by the crowd. It would be politically correct to just not show up in the audience if one felt the need to protest. Your piece should have been sent back with the reminder the public isn’t interested in your opinion just facts. Grow up!

    • Cathy, your comment is ridiculous. Kristian is our longtime arts critic, and he is not bound by the arbitrary rules that you describe.

    • Cathy, you are confusing an obvious opinion piece with a news article. Opinion pieces are a standard feature in almost all print media. I have to wonder how much reading experience you have if you really believe that “personal opinions should not ever be in the media”.

    • Thanks a lot for your article Kristian!
      I think it is very good !

      I do not understand comments about punishing Russian artists taking part at Van Cliburn.

      Russia is a country that use its army, diplomacy, industry, church and all state resources including unfortunately also culture to collect former Soviet Republics – now independant countries including Ukraine. It started with Georgia and Moldowa partially and it will be continued. No more doubts after 24th Feb 2022 .
      It will be continued if we do business as usual with Russia !

      This cruel war has its cost . For Ukrainians
      Many thousands of deaths and millions fleeing their Home countries.
      For Russian pianists and artists No acceptance in western competitions for some time.
      What a difficult choice to make !

      Still almost 60% Russian society supports this War!
      What a power for Mr Putin not to stop but right untill „ all objectives are achieved”.

      I admire many Russian pianists that publically condemned Russian invasion! I am sure they also understand temporary consequences .I am sure you have courage to continue your protest!

      We have a right to expect also highiest standards from Van Cliburn and demand them to make right but difficult choice.
      Also I have a recomendation for those at Van Cliburn responsible for such decision. If you fail with right decision make sure that prize go to Ukrainian widows and orphants . I am sure Russian artists will not oppose to donate Ukrainians !
      Wojciech Wachowski

  2. I do not get the impulse to punish the artists because they come from a country with unethical war mongering leadership. The competition is better with these talented young people in it. I hope they come and stay.

  3. I swung by the screening auditions last night. All references to the competitors’ nationalities have been carefully scrubbed from the program information and from the stage introductions. The same is true for the Cliburn website. I guess that’s a prudent move.

  4. Should the Chinese participants be allowed to perform? What about the pianists from that warmongering country of the good old USA?

  5. Interesting take…. Cliburn gained international fame because of his win in MASCOW!!! Which he won despite being American during the Cold War. His talent wasn’t denied because of his nationality and neither should anyone who is trying to enter now. If he was denied the win irregardless of his talent, this wouldn’t even be a conversation.