Blind, teen pianists share top prize at Cliburn competition

FORT WORTH, Texas — A blind pianist and the youngest contender shared the top prize Sunday at the 13th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Gold medals went to Nobuyuki Tsujii, 20, of Japan and Haochen Zhang of China, who turned 19 during the competition.

Yeol Eum Son, 23, of Korea won the silver medal. No crystal award, or third prize, was given.

The award ceremony in Bass Hall culminated the quadrennial competition, which began May 22 with 29 competitors from 14 countries.

The top prize-getters were remarkable for several reasons. It is the second time in the competition’s history, and the second time in eight years, that the Cliburn has awarded its gold medal to two pianists. For the first time, all three of this year’s top winners are from Asia. And it’s the first time that the Cliburn has awarded a prize to a blind pianist. (But not the first time a blind pianist has played in the competition.)

At Sunday evening’s announcement, a near-capacity crowd gasped as soon as they learned that no third prize would be awarded. Some in the crowd rose to their feet when Zhang’s name was announced as the first gold medalist. Zhang flung his arms around Van Cliburn’s waist for a hug before hoisting his silver trophy above his head.

Tsujii’s name was announced next, and the crowd stood again to cheer. Kay Nakamoto, who served as Tsujii’s translator at the Cliburn, led the pianist up the steps to the stage, then wiped away tears as Tsujii was given his trophy.

The top three winners each receive a $20,000 cash award, a compact disc recording on the harmonia mundi usa label, and — most importantly — professional career management for the next three years. The prize includes concert dates around the nation for Son and, for Tsujii and Zhang, a slate of international dates as well.


Related stories from McClatchy DC