The Sound of Music

RussiaProfile.Org, an online publication providing in-depth analysis of business, politics, current affairs and culture in Russia, has published a new Special Report on the performing arts in Russia: Bodies in Motion.  Twelve articles by both Russian and foreign contributors examine the current trends in theater, music and adjacent forms of art both as creative activities and as social institutions. The following article is part of this collection.

The Tchaikovsky Competition Has Been in Serious Decline for Two Decades.

The second half of June will find 121 gifted young musicians from 24 countries—pianists, violinists, cellists and singers—vying for prizes at the 14th installment of the quadrennial International Tchaikovsky Competition. Until now, the Tchaikovsky Competition has taken place entirely in Moscow. But this year, for reasons that seem a bit suspect to some observers, it has been divided between Russia’s two principal cities, with Moscow retaining the piano and cello contests and St. Petersburg playing host to those for violin and voice.

Most major music competitions, notably, the Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw, the “Premio Paganini” Violin Competition in Genoa, the Rostropovich Cello Competition in Paris and the “Singer of the Year” Competition in Cardiff, Wales—are limited to a single discipline. A few, such as the Queen Elizabeth of Belgium Competition in Brussels and the Isang Yun Competition in Tongyeong, South Korea, cover multiple forms of musical performance, but, operating on an annual basis, confine themselves to just one discipline each year. Uniquely among the majors of the competition world, the Tchaikovsky holds simultaneous contests for three different categories of instrumentalists and for singers both male and female.

Cliburn Leads the Way

The first Tchaikovsky Competition was held in April 1958 and drew worldwide attention thanks to the surprise victory in piano of a 23-year-old Texan named Van Cliburn. Before awarding Cliburn first prize, the jury felt required to seek permission from Soviet Leader Nikita Khrushchev. Told that Cliburn was definitely the best of the piano competitors, Khrushchev unhesitatingly responded: “Then give him the prize.”

Overnight, the young pianist became a hero both in the Soviet Union and back home in America, where his return brought him a triumphant ticker-tape parade down New York City’s Broadway and a cover story in Time magazine. Cliburn has repeatedly visited Moscow during the intervening years and he is due to return again in June to serve as honorary chairman of the Tchaikovsky Competition piano jury.

With cello added to the original disciplines of piano and violin in 1962 and voice added in 1966, the competition went on to produce a host of other winners destined to become leading figures on the world’s concert and operatic stages, among them, to mention but a few, pianists Vladimir Ashkenazy, John Ogden, Mikhail Pletnev and Barry Douglas, violinists Viktor Tretyakov, Gidon Kremer and Viktoria Mullova, cellists Natalya Gutman and Nathaniel Rosen and singers Vladimir Atlantov, Elena Obraztsova and Deborah Voight.

Falling From Grace

Over the past two decades, however, the prestige and importance of the Tchaikovsky Competition have suffered a serious decline. Numerous causes have been cited, the most important perhaps being haphazard management, the negative image that Russia so frequently presents to the rest of the world and the abundance elsewhere of more easily accessible competitive opportunities for aspiring musicians.

The competition’s reputation was badly tarnished in 1994, when three of the four juries—piano, violin and cello—found no competitor worthy of receiving a first prize. In all of the nine previous competitions, only three other juries (violin and voice in 1974, piano in 1982) had ever chosen to withhold a gold medal. Adding to the scandal was the cello jury’s decision to award only a fourth and a sixth prize.

The competition suffered further damage four years later, when a badly split piano jury ended up awarding first and second prize to two pupils of jury member and Moscow Conservatory Professor Sergei Dorensky, while handing only third prize to Englishman Freddy Kempf, the clear favorite not only of the competition’s audiences in general, but also, it appeared, of most of the professional musicians who witnessed his playing.

The most recent competitions, those of 2002 and 2007, are perhaps chiefly remembered for their failure to attract more than a very small number of truly outstanding participants either from inside Russia or from abroad.

Musicians to the rescue

In an effort to restore the Tchaikovsky Competition to something at least approaching its former glory, the chairmanship this year has fallen to Conductor Valery Gergiev, artistic and general director of St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater and the most powerful figure in the Russian world of music.

Without much doubt it was due to Gergiev that half the competition was moved to his own home base on the banks of the Neva. The reason initially given for the move was the possibility that reconstruction of the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, which began last summer, would not be completed in time to play its traditional competition role as host to the piano contestants and home to the violinists for their third and final round.

That reason, which seemed rather weak at the time considering the availability of other venues in Moscow that might easily have replaced the Great Hall, has long since lost all validity. Perhaps by some miracle, given the numerous delays in reconstruction of the Bolshoi Theater, work on the Great Hall has stuck firmly to schedule and the venerable auditorium is now due to re-open its doors just in advance of the competition.

Meanwhile, other arguments, somewhat more convincing, have been put forward for dividing the competition between what are often referred to as Russia’s two capitals. Among them are the fact that Tchaikovsky lived and worked more or less equally in both cities and the overwhelming importance of both in the development of the so-called “Russian school of musical performance.”

Whatever may be the pros and cons of dividing the competition between Moscow and St. Petersburg, few would dispute the wisdom of Gergiev’s appointing American Richard Rodzinski as its general director. Undoubtedly, bringing in a foreigner to run one of the holiest of Russian musical holies ruffled the feathers of some in the country’s musical establishment and bureaucracy. But Gergiev had the muscle to do it, and thereby all but guarantee that the competition would be managed with a degree of professionalism sadly lacking over at least the past two decades.

Rodzinski served for 25 years as president of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in the Texas city of Fort Worth. Under his leadership, the Cliburn enjoyed a reputation as one of the world’s best managed and most impartially conducted contests for young musicians.

Cardinal Measures

This year’s Tchaikovsky Competition brought applications to compete from some 583 young musicians in 47 countries. Unlike the past competitions, the numbers chosen to participate were strictly limited to 30 pianists, 25 violinists, 25 cellists and 20 each of male and female vocalists—overall, 40 percent fewer than took part in the competition four years ago. The choice was made by four small “pre-selection” juries, made up mostly of individuals invited to serve on the regular juries in June, on the basis of 50-minute-long DVD-recorded recitals submitted by each of the applicants. Due to a superabundance of talent, an exception was made to allow 27 violin participants, though one eventually dropped out due to an injury.

Among other innovations this year, the second of the competition’s three rounds for pianists, violinists and cellists has been split into two parts, the first, as in the past, a recital, the second adding the performance of a concerto by Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven with the accompaniment of a chamber orchestra. Also a novelty for the instrumental contestants are compulsory pieces written especially for the competition by three eminent contemporary composers: Russian Rodion Shchedrin (for the pianists), American John Corigliano (for the violinists) and Pole Krzysztof Penderecki (for the cellists).

Tchaikovsky Competition juries of the recent past, particularly in the instrumental contests, have been loaded with teachers—and rather notoriously, with professors of the Moscow Conservatory. This time Gergiev has decreed that the juries are to consist mainly of musicians with active performing careers. And thanks not least to Gergiev’s considerable drawing power, the competition juries will boast a truly formidable array of world-renowned virtuosi, among them, for piano, Vladimir Ashkenazy, fellow émigrés of Russian origin Dmitry Alexeev and Yefim Bronfman, Michel Beroff from France, former competition first-prize winner Barry Douglas from Ireland and Nelson Freire from Brazil; for violin, Russians Yury Bashmet, Maxim Vengerov and former competition first-prize winner Viktor Tretyakov, Anne-Sophie Mutter from Germany, Leonidas Kavokos from Greece and Nikolaj Znaider from Denmark; for cello, American Lynn Harrell and former competition first-prize winners Antonio Meneses, from Brazil, and David Geringas, an émigré from the Soviet Union of Lithuanian origin; and for voice, a particularly star-studded array of operatic greats, both past and present: former competition first-prize winners Elena Obraztsova and Vladimir Atlantov plus Olga Borodina and Ildar Abdrazakov from Russia, Renata Scotto and Ferruccio Furlanetto from Italy, Teresa Berganza from Spain, Ileana Cotrubas from Romania and Raina Kabaivanska from Bulgaria.

In addition to those mentioned above, composers Corigliano and Penderecki will join, respectively, the violin and cello juries, and tenor Placido Domingo will act as honorary chairman of the vocal jury.

New voting rules for the juries have also been introduced in the form of a system called “Scores of Harmony,” which was developed in the United States in the early 1990s and has since been used with reputedly great success at the Cliburn and other important competitions. Details can found on the Tchaikovsky Competition Internet site, though the system’s complexity rather defies understanding by almost anyone untrained in the science of statistics.

Prizes for instrumentalists at this year’s competition have been reduced from six to five, while remaining at four each for male and female vocalists. Until now, the prizes have always been awarded in U. S. dollars; this year, the currency has been changed to euros. And though the number of units given for first prize remains 20,000, the shift to euros currently represents roughly a 40 percent increase in value. If it chooses to do so, the competition’s organizing committee is empowered to bestow an extra € 10,000 grand prize on one of the first-prize winners.

Second and third prizes of € 15,000 and € 10,000, respectively, duplicate the first prize’s increase of 40 percent, while fourth prize of € 5,000 is approximately equal to the $ 7,000 of 2007. Only the fifth-prize winner suffers a decrease, from $ 5,000 in 2007 to € 3,000 at this year’s competition. New rules specify that a first prize must always be awarded.

For the first time in its history, the Tchaikovsky Competition is being managed by a separate legal entity, created not only for administrative purposes, but also to provide a much-needed basis for continuity from one competition to the next. Also new to the competition is its state-of-the-art Internet site, thanks to which there will be live streaming, up to 11 hours daily, of contestant performances, rehearsals with orchestra and meetings with contestants and conductors. On demand, viewers will find daily competition updates, interviews in both Russian and English and documentary shorts about the competition. Organizers expect these features to attract in excess of one million viewers.

In addition to money, each of the prize winners will be offered an opportunity that may ultimately prove to be of much greater value. Rather than casting its prize winners to the four winds, as has always been the case previously, the competition is prepared this time to secure contracts for each of them to make concert appearances (and presumably, for singers, appearances on the operatic stage) over a period of three years following the competition’s close. Managing those appearances will be leading concert agencies in London and New York, as well as the Moscow Philharmonic Society.

All That Glitters

There are many in the music world who consider competitions to be little more than sporting events, with technique and feats of virtuosity taking precedence over artist values. Also frequently questioned is the value of a competition prize in furthering a young musician’s career. Many who have won awards at the Tchaikovsky and other major competitions have gone on to make little if any serious impact on concert or operatic stages, while competitions have had no influence whatsoever on the careers of a fair number of highly successful musicians, among them pianist Yevgeny Kissin and violinist Joshua Bell. Yet few can deny that the Tchaikovsky Competition, even in its less glorious recent installments, has played an important role in bringing quite a significant amount of fresh talent to the world’s attention.

For all of its changes and innovations, the fate of this year’s Tchaikovsky Competition no doubt ultimately depends on the quality of its competitors. Judging from their schools and teachers, the awards they have won at other competitions, their previous concert and recital engagements and their other professional experience, the pianists, violinists and cellists appear to be an extraordinarily talented group of young musicians. The vocal contest looks less interesting. With its usual preponderance of competitors from Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union (31 out of 40), the line-up of singers seems not much different from what might be expected at other leading Russian vocal competitions, where the supply of superior talent has proved quite meager in recent years.

Will the 14th Tchaikovsky Competition unveil a new giant like Cliburn or Vladimir Atlantov? Or will it simply show some previously unheralded talent of a sort that demonstrates real promise of building a solid and successful career? The last half of June will tell the tale.

Leave a comment