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In praise of music competitions - Michael Church [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Michael Church

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In praise of music competitions [May. 15th, 2009|05:20 pm]
Michael Church
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As the competition season comes round again, so do the growls of dissent. Circulating once more are the lovingly-recycled tales – always anonymous, usually apocryphal - of jury members being swayed by self-interest, chauvinism, sexual favours, etc. This year we’ve even had the voguish demand for ‘transparency’, as though the public’s questing eye has the right to invade the competition jury-room, as it does Parliament. Dream on: democratic rights don’t come into it because, as every contestant knows, a competition is a lottery.

There are plenty of corrupt competitions, with chauvinism rampant: that certainly motivated the Moscow Tchaikovsky Competition committee in Soviet times, even if they did reluctantly let a few Westerners win (Van Cliburn, John Ogdon, Barry Douglas). But the greater danger, as I have observed during my own jury-stints, is compromise. Provocative originality can make enemies, particularly among middle-aged professorial jurors set in their ways and accustomed to laying down the law.

That great German baritone Thomas Quasthoff, who has just launched his own competition for Lieder-singers, regards such events as almost wholly beneficial. ‘I need checkpoints to work successfully, because I am generally a very lazy person,’ he tells me. ‘Competitions provide the necessary goal.’ 

And when Fanny Waterman decided to set up the Leeds piano competition, she justified it on sociological grounds: it was, she insisted, ‘the only fair and reasonable alternative’ to the old ladder of patronage. And if you look at the roster of winners in the first few years of that competition, you realise she got some things very right: Radu Lupu won in 1969, Murray Perahia in 1972, and a dazzling trio in 1975, with Dmitri Alexeev hotly pursued by Mitsuko Uchida in second place, and Andras Schiff in third. Those were the days. 

Meanwhile, would the former textile worker Guang Yang ever have become known outside her native China, had she not won the mezzo category in the Cardiff Singer of the World competition? And how did that Croatian dynamo Ivo Pogorelich put himself on the map? By getting knocked out in the first round in Warsaw, and having Argerich storm out of the jury in a rage at this injustice. In other words, not-winning can be just as good as winning. (Good to note, by the way, that after long absence through illness, Pogorelich is slated to appear at this summer’s Edinburgh Festival.) 

But the most valid objection to competitions remains the damage which they can do to fragile young souls, and not just when it’s a case of failure. An award now commemorates the young British pianist Terence Judd, who won the British Liszt Competition in 1976, then a prize at the Tchaikovsky competition, and then jumped off Beachy Head. As Barry Douglas once told me: ‘It’s never written in the small print that competitions can damage your health, but it should be.’ 

I observed this for myself when I arrived in Fort Worth to report on the 1997 Van Cliburn competition. The whole place was buzzing with the news that the young Uzbek pianist Stanislav Ioudenitch, who had been tipped to win, had managed to pour boiling water over his right hand while making tea at six in the morning, and was wandering round with it swaddled in bandages.

Was that really an accident? He’d been out of contact with home for a long period, and he’d got very depressed: the injury, though temporary, put him out of the race, which is where - when I spoke to him - I sensed he wanted to be. Freudian slips don’t often come this glaring. It was nice to hear, four years later, that he’d not only gone back to that competition, but had actually won it. And even nicer to note that in the just-completed London International Piano Competition, the winner was an 18-year-old Uzbek named Bezhod Abduraimov, whose tutor is a certain Professor Stanislav Ioudenitch.   

Information on Thomas Quasthoff’s competition here.