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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Where has the competition gone?

By Norman Lebrecht / July 3, 2002

Two Japanese and an injured Chinese won the quadrennial Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow last week. The results of the world's premier test of instrumental skill don't warrant close scrutiny. The Asian clean sweep does not, for instance, denote Far Eastern musical ascendancy. Both Japanese were taught by top Russians and the Chinese lad was groomed in a Soviet-style, cradleto-concert crammer. Stylistically, they played for points.

Nor is there much to suggest that the results were, as they often are, rigged by a Russian juror in favour of a friend's pupil. This was a ripple-free contest, just another TV game show. Neither the fact that Ayako Uehara, 21, was the first female in 44 years to win the piano section, nor the stoicism of 17-yearold Chen Si - who took joint silver in violin (gold was withheld) despite having his shoulder hurt in a riot after Russia's World Cup defeat - distracted the world's attention from more important matters of sport.

The main significance of the 2002 Tchaikovsky Competition was its staggering loss of significance. This was, remember, an event that used to be a key Cold War indicator, measuring Kremlin tolerance of western winners and Russian losers. When the American Van Cliburn won the inaugural contest in 1958, he received his rouble prize from Dmitri Shostakovich and was greeted back in New York by the kind of ticker-tape parade reserved for successful astronauts. Each year, spooks from Foggy Bottom and GCHQ monitored the competition for potential defectors.

Aside from threats of mutually assured destruction, winning the Tchaikovsky used to be a guaranteed passport to an international career. Three British pianists - John Lill (1970), Peter Donohoe (1982) and Barry Douglas (1986) - achieved instant export value, as did the Russians Andrei Gavrilov and Mikhail Pletnev. Viktoria Mullova's defection to Sweden shortly after her triumph provoked a front-page superpower stand-off.

No such glory awaits Uehara, Chen Si or Tamaki Kawakubo, the other violin winner. There will be no record labels clamouring for their signature, since the classical record industry has abandoned its interest in serious music. There will be no coast-to-coast US tour either; America these days only books the names it knows.

Winning the Tchaikovsky will mean little more to this year's crop than a medal on the mantelpiece and a dollar cheque - 30 grand for gold, 20 for silver. Privacy is no bad thing for the victors, who will lead much happier lives; but for a stressed-out music industry that relies on international competitions for identifying marketable talent, the Tchaikovsky's loss of impact is cause for near-panic.

It confirms mounting evidence that the Darwinian method of talent-picking is itself becoming extinct. The Tchaikovsky's decline is rooted intrinsically in the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emigration of many of Russia's most rigorous teachers to comfortable chairs in Western academies.

Its failure, however, has been infectious. The top competitions, many of them modelled on Moscow, have failed for the past decade to yield memorable and charismatic winners.

The most attentive of pianophiles would be hard-pressed to name any winner of the Chopin prize in Warsaw since Krystian Zimerman in 1975. Van Cliburn founded a Texas competition in his own name, but it has not produced another Van Cliburn. In an attempt to drum up publicity, he now sponsors a competition for amateur pianists - won last week by a Massachusetts professor of artificial intelligence.

The name of the last Leeds laureate eludes me, as does the winner of the London International Piano Competition just three months ago, under the patronage of the Prince of Wales. The Carl Flesch, one of the toughest violin contests, expired last year for lack of funding and public interest.

A flurry of conducting championships has failed to produce great conductors. Watching the Kondrashin finals in Amsterdam a few years back, I heard the Rite of Spring played exactly the same way four times over; the players simply ignored the competing conductors. Another baton round, the Donatella Flick, comes up at the Barbican in the autumn, again under Prince Charles's aegis.

The fame that came with winning was often an intolerable burden. The clarinettist Emma Johnson, now 36 and a serene interpreter, has told me how much she hates being introduced wherever she plays as a "former BBC Young Musician of the Year".

Nicola Loud, 27, another BBC victim, is struggling 12 years on to establish her credentials as a solo violinist. She might have had it easier without the inflated expectations aroused by her crowning moment.

Natalie Clein, the most compelling English cellist since Jacqueline du PrÈ, was 17 when she won the BBC trophy in 1994 and the Eurovision competition for young musicians soon after. Shunning glittering offers, she vanished to Vienna to study privately with Heinrich Schiff. She is now quietly building a reputation in the foothills of Basingstoke and Winchester.

Clein will come good in her own good time because she has the gift, the application and a winning personality. Winning a competition was, in her case, at best an irrelevance, at worst an encumbrance that she must cope with for the rest of her performing life.

Competitions are a Faustian pact that music made with mass media. To arrest its drift to the cultural fringe, classical music offered television a gladiatorial spectacle and television, anxious to seem cultured, presented music as bloodsport to the exclusion of any other forms of musical performance.

But should the world refuse to pay attention - as it did at the Tchaikovsky - television will turn elsewhere and the concert hall will lose its last mass-audience outlet. Don't ask who won the Tchaikovsky last week. The loser was the future of classical music.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001