winning the chainik
The piano section of the International Tchaikovsky Competition is in full swing, and the Cliburns, Ashkenazis and Pletnevs of tomorrow are vying for a single gold medal. But is the very notion of musical competition incompatible with the art of music?
TEXT FRANCIS MERSON
The Great Hall of the Moscow State Conservatorium was packed. There wasn’t even any standing room. A gauche 23-year-old Texan pianist was about to play in the final round of the International Tchaikovsky Competition. His name was Van Cliburn, and the year was 1958. The jury was the most illustrious to be assembled for any musical contest before or since. Pianists Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels were joined by conductor Sir Arthur Bliss and Soviet composer Dmitry Kabalevsky. The General Chairman for the entire competition was none other than Dmitry Shostakovich. But there was turmoil and dissension in the jury, at least in its Soviet faction. The Texan was too good. It was unthinkable that an American should be allowed to win the first ever international piano competition on Russian soil, an event contrived to prove Soviet cultural superiority, to consolidate the technological triumph of the 1957 Sputnik launch. Fearing the wrath of First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev, some jurists deliberately underrated Cliburn, giving him scores of 15 and 16 out of a possible 25. The fearless Richter caught on to what was happening, and set out to rebalance the scores: he awarded Cliburn perfect 25s while giving zeros to other contestants. When confronted by the party, Richter defended his binary scoring pattern with an aphorism now famous among musicians: “People either make music, or they don’t.”
Cliburn’s performance of Tchaikovsky Concerto No. 1 and Rachmaninov’s No. 3 sparked an eight-minute ovation in the Great Hall. To hear Russian music played with such power and refinement by an American was a sensation. To appease the crowd, Gilels led Cliburn back onto stage, in violation of the competition’s no-curtain-call rule, and embraced him publicly. With other state-approved contestants yet to play, Gilels realized that the only way to ensure Cliburn’s victory would be to circumvent the jury altogether. Armed with Minister of Culture Yekaterina Furtseva, Gilels approached Khrushchev himself. “Well, what are the professionals saying?” the First Secretary enquired, “Is Cliburn the best?” Gilels and Minister of Culture Yekaterina Furtsava immediately concurred. “Then in that case, give him the prize!” Cliburn instantly became one of the most famous musicians in the world, and the newborn Tchaikovsky Competition rode on the coat-tails of his renown. Half a century later it remains one of the most coveted, and definitely most elusive, of all musical contests. Its piano section, the centerpiece of the event, began on June 13 last week. Fifty-one participants are competing for a Grand Prize of $20,000, which will be augmented further by a series of concert tours and recordings.
The most striking feature of this year’s competition is the paucity of pianists from Western Europe and America. Of the 51 competitors, all but five are from Asia or the former CIS. The chief reason for Europe’s disaffection with the event, suggests Peter Grote, Artistic Director of piano makers Kawai, is the aura of corruption that surrounded the last competition in 2002. The winner was Japanese pianist Ayako Uehara, who Grote claims was given considerable financial support by piano giants Yamaha. “Seven or eight of the jurists were paid for by Yamaha to go to Paris and meet Ayako personally before the competition,” said Grote.
These rumors of corruption and have not intimidated German pianist Benjamin Moser, a lanky, hunch-shouldered 26-year-old with hands like Rachmaninov and a smile like Hugh Grant, who has already stood out as the darling of the Moscow public. One of the two Western European entrants this year, Moser was assailed after his first round performance last Sunday by a horde of freshly wowed fans clamoring for autographs and singing his praises in a babel of Russian, English and broken German. Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata had already been played five times in the first round, but Moser’s muscular, note-perfect rendition created a human traffic jam outside his dressing room after the performance. Sitting in a cafe twenty minutes after his recital, Moser betrays that combination of exhaustion and euphoria usually seen in the faces of triumphant marathon runners. “I was really nervous at the beginning, my hands were shaking. But I started with a lyrical piece, so by the time I got to the Beethoven I was OK.” For Benjamin, playing in the Tchaikovsky competition is a means to an end. “I love playing concerts, but I don’t like playing competitions. It’s too stressful.” Unfortunately, winning a competition is practically the sole way for young musicians to attract the patronage of conductors and impresarios. It’s a strategy that has worked for the past for other winners of the “chainik,” like piano superstars Vladimir Ashkenazy and Denis Matsuyev (pictured).
Many musicians criticize the whole notion of musical competitions, claiming that the crushing pressure placed on participants stifles the expression of musicality and leads to unhealthy rivalry. “Some pianists come here to play against other pianists,” says Moser. “I think that’s wrong. I just try to play as though it is a concert. Sometimes it works for me, sometimes it doesn’t.” When your career depends on a single 45-minute recital, it’s understandable why some musicians become disillusioned with the competition circuit. Canadian piano legend Glenn Gould was opposed to competition of any sort, and even went so far as to abandon playing in public altogether, claiming that the concert environment was not conducive to music-making. Jacqueline DuPre, dispirited by an onerous touring schedule, once opined that nobody ever asked her whether she wanted to be a famous cellist. The brutal lesson that young musicians learn at the Tchaikovsky competition is that loving to play is not the same as loving to compete, or even play in public. But in order to make a living as a concert soloist, musicians are forced to do battle with their contemporaries. Contests like the Tchaikovsky are a trial by fire, and those who emerge victorious are all too often endowed with virtuosity and an iron nerve rather than sensitivity and musical depth. But occasionally, once a decade, all these traits do combine, as they did in the case of the 1978 winner, an unknown 19-year-old from Novosibirsk called Mikhail Pletnev. Or in the case of a quiet young Texan by the name of Van Cliburn.
The second and third rounds of the piano competition run from June 20 to 29. For full schedule details go to www.xiiitc.ru.