Scandal at the Tchaikovsky

Scandal at the Tchaikovsky

This year’s International Tchaikovsky Competition was once again mired in controversy and confusion.

Published: July 6, 2011 (Issue # 1664)


Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov was awarded the contest’s Grand Prix as well as the first prize for piano.

Controversial decisions abounded at the 14th International Tchaikovsky competition that concluded in Moscow and St. Petersburg last weekend as the event struggles to regain its international reputation and influence under the leadership of its new head, the Mariinsky Theater’s artistic director, Valery Gergiev.

Held once every four years, the event comprises competitions in piano, violin, cello and voice. 

The competition’s Grand Prix went to Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov, who also won the first prize in his discipline. Both first prizes in the vocal contest went to South Korean singers soprano Sun Young Seo and bass Jong Min Park, while in the violin category, the jury decided not to award a first prize. The first prize in the cello category went to Armenia’s Narek Hakhnazaryan.

Although Gergiev described the event as a great international success, not all aspects of the competition, which was held in two cities for the first time since it was created in 1958, went smoothly.

Following a rehearsal with Hakhnazaryan, cello conductor Mark Gorenstein was heard, via the Internet, making a derogatory remark about the 22-year-old cellist, including a crude reference to his ethnic origin. Gorenstein subsequently withdrew from the competition “due to illness” and was replaced by a pair of conductors from the Mariinsky Theater.

Music critics watching the vocal competition were left speechless when the jury decided to eliminate Mariinsky soprano Olga Pudova, one of Russia’s most outstanding participants in the competition, before the third round.


Armenian Narek Hakhnazaryan won the competition’s cello section.

“Soprano Angelina Nikitchenko was so bleak and colorless that I wondered how the singer made it to the second round, let alone the final,” said Vladimir Dudin, a music reviewer who wrote a blog on the Tchaikovsky Competition’s web site. “By contrast, Pudova was sensational, her every performance resulting in an ovation. Her singing was a triumph of a brilliant coloratura with stunning fiorituras and fantastic range.”

Regrettably, the international element of the vocal competition was scarce. The only European singer to make it through the selection process was French mezzo-soprano Aude Extremo, who was eliminated after the first round.

Canadian soprano Yannick Muriel Noah — again, the only vocalist representing the whole of North America — also failed to make it past the first round.

On the other hand, while 22 of the forty singers competing in the vocal contest were Russian, they failed to impress. Only three Russians made it to the final round, and only one — Moscow soprano Yelena Guseva — went away with an award, winning the third prize.

Those following the pianists’ competition in Moscow were amazed to see Alexander Lubyantsev be eliminated from the contest after the second round. The crowd and critics alike had adored the pianist, who received a spontaneous engagement from the Mariinsky Theater to perform Mozart’s piano concerto alongside the Mariinsky symphony orchestra at the Mariinsky Concert Hall on July 4.

The question of why international participation in the competition was more than modest — in all disciplines, Russian musicians accounted for the lion’s share of the participants — has two possible answers. Either the European and North American participants were considerably weaker than their Russian counterparts, or they simply ignored the Tchaikovsky competition altogether. The latter theory appears far more likely, considering the contest’s deteriorating reputation over recent years, complete with speculation that the jurors tend to distribute the prizes between their favorites.


Jury member Anne-Sophie Mutter.

It is believed that foreign singers decide against taking part in the Tchaikovsky Competition because it entails singing pieces from the Russian repertoire — in Russian. Another consideration that places a role is the country’s visa regulations.

Gergiev has succeeded in attracting some of the leading names in the world of classical music to sit on the competition’s jury. The names of the jurors for the prestigious event were impressive: The vocalists’ performances were judged by Renata Scotto, Ileana Cotrubas, Olga Borodina, Yelena Obraztsova and Vladimir Atlantov, while the jury for the violinists’ competition included Anne-Sophie Mutter, Leonidas Kavakos and Maxim Vengerov.

One of the world’s most acclaimed violinists, it was Mutter’s debut as a jury member at any music competition. Although Mutter admits she does not believe in competitions, as she feels they have more to do with sports rather than the arts, and in her opinion talent and stage charisma do not always go hand in hand, which puts contestants on an unequal footing, the star violinist this time made an exception.

“I have been following the Tchaikovsky Competition since the age of seven,” said Mutter. “Some of its winners became my idols, such as the violinist Gidon Kremer. And I really admire what Gergiev has been doing to restore the reputation of this competition, so I wanted to help him.”

Many of the jury members themselves received a kick-start to their careers at the Tchaikovsky Competition. The jury’s honorary president is the world-renowned American pianist Van Cliburn, the sensational winner of the first Tchaikovsky competition in 1958.

Another innovation by Gergiev was the organization of Internet broadcasts, not only of the competition’s rounds but also of the rehearsals — a great step toward increasing the event’s transparency and attracting younger audiences.

Clearly, however, more efforts are needed to repair the reputation of the Tchaikovsky Competition, as it is evident that potential participants have lost faith in its objectivity. The reputation of any music competition is created not only by the prominent names of the people sitting on the jury: It is the ability of a contest to discover and highlight new talent that makes it high profile and desirable for musicians to attend.

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