© 2022 Michigan State University Board of Trustees
Public Media from Michigan State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Selected stories from the WKAR NewsRoom in your morning email. SUBSCRIBE HERE

Pianist Ralph Votapek Remembers Van Cliburn Competition Win

Ralph Votapek photo
Scott Pohl
Ralph Votapek, in his practice space at Michigan State University.

Renowned pianist Ralph Votapek is in his rehearsal space in the Michigan State University Music Practice Building, working on Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #4. It’s one of the pieces that helped him win the gold medal in the first Van Cliburn international piano competition in 1962.

MUSIC: Ralph Votapek practicing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #4

Votapek will celebrate the 50th anniversary tomorrow night, joining the Lansing Symphony Orchestra for performances of the Beethoven work and Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto #3. He played that piece, too, when he won what has become one of the most prestigious piano competitions in the world.  

Votapek tells WKAR’s Scott Pohl that it was a big deal because, for the first time, Russians were coming.

RALPH VOTAPEK:  This was the height of the Cold War, and they had never competed before in this country. Of course, I think we all expected that they would win. So, it was a big deal. If they hadn’t come, I think it would have just been another American competition.

SCOTT POHL:  How did the competition run in those days? How many days did it run, where was it held?

VOTAPEK:  Ft. Worth, Texas. It’s always been in Ft. Worth, they’re very proud of that. Like most international competitions, it’s almost a two-week affair, with three rounds, and the last, final round is with orchestra.

Gold medal surprised Votapek

POHL:  And you would seem to indicate that you surprised yourself by winning.      

VOTAPEK:  Yes, I did! I guess I was in the right place at the right time. I always say that I think the Russians suffered from cultural shock, and the reason being that there are a lot of wealthy oil people in Ft. Worth, and the Russians were each housed in some of the wealthiest families.

That’s a nice thing about the competition: you never have to worry about if you’re going to be able to practice. You stay with a family that has a good piano, and you’re given the royal treatment.

One of them that won second was only 18 years old. He was, maybe, a little too young. The other one that was 27, I felt was a little nervous, and I just played.

POHL:  The Beethoven Piano Concerto #4 and the Prokofiev Piano Concerto #3: how were these pieces selected? Were they assigned to the competitors? Did you choose them yourself?

VOTAPEK:  We were given a choice of four concertos: either Beethoven #3 or #4, or Prokofiev 3rd, and the Rachmaninov (Rhapsody on a Theme of) Paganini. I knew them all four, but these, I thought, would make a better presentation. I really, sincerely feel that Beethoven 4th is the best of the five Beethovens, and the Prokofiev 3rd  is certainly a big, virtuoso work.

POHL:  Is it particularly challenging to play these two pieces in the same night?

VOTAPEK:  No. I think the one warms you up for the other. I remember 20 years ago, (LSO Music Director Emeritus) Gustav Meier, who was always searching for gimmicks, had me play three concertos in one night. It was the whole program, including the big Brahms G Minor, but no, one just has to prepare a little harder beforehand, but I think playing the two is maybe not as hard as playing a solo recital.

Van Cliburn award was a "game changer"

POHL:  What did it mean to your career to win this competition?

VOTAPEK:  Well, it was a game changer. I had grown weary of entering competitions and winning some, losing some, placing in some, and the thing about this: not only the cash award was very generous for those years, but you had a contract with Sol Hurok, who was the best manager in the business at that time. I was fortunate enough to be with him until he passed away 17 years later.

POHL:  It’s become the tag line to your name so many times over the years: people refer to Ralph Votapek, the winner of the first Van Cliburn competition. Are there plusses and minuses to having that association with your name all the time?

VOTAPEK:  I remember, maybe about 20 years ago, I tried to ignore it and just took it out of my publicity, but that didn’t work! (Pianist) Earl Wild once told me that winning the Cliburn was like an albatross around your neck.

I was 23 when I won, and I had a big repertoire, maybe too big. I think I should have concentrated on a few concertos rather than trying to play a lot of things, of course, for the first time.

I felt a responsibility to the competition, and really for the last 50 years, I still do. I’m still playing, and I can’t ignore the competition, although I sometimes get a little weary of rehashing it. I mean, I don’t think about it much.

MUSIC:  Ralph Votapek practicing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #4

News from WKAR will never be behind a paywall. Ever. We need your help to keep our coverage free for everyone. Please consider supporting the news you rely on with a donation today. You can support our journalism for as little as $5. Every contribution, no matter the size, propels our vital coverage. Thank you.