It might seem an unlikely proposition, but it could be argued that those responsible for the 1985 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition—held late this past spring in Forth Worth, Texas—have somehow been influenced in their marketing strategy by the deathless advice the great English humorist Stephen Potter gave to failed tennis players: “If you can’t volley, wear velvet socks.” In the case of the Cliburn contest, volleying might well stand for the proper business of a piano competition: choosing, with some regularity, first-prize winners of musical authority and personal magnetism. Potter’s notion of velvet socks surely can be applied to the lavish but meretricious coverage the competition received (and doubtless strove for) on nationwide public television at the end of the festive proceedings in early June.

To understand the present manifestation of this now most famous of American music...


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