After Shaking Up Tchaikovsky Competition, Gergiev Brings Winner to Carnegie Hall

Email a Friend

WQXR to Broadcast Mariinsky Orchestra Concert on Tuesday, Oct. 11 at 8:00 pm

When conductor Valery Gergiev became chairman of the International Tchaikovsky Competition last year he promised to clean house, ridding it of its historic corruption and favoritism while repackaging it for a 21st-century audience.

Founded in 1958 and held in Russia every four years, the Tchaikovsky is divided into cello, voice, piano and violin. Past winners have included Vladimir Ashkenazy, Van Cliburn and Mikhail Pletnev while former judges have numbered such legends as Sviatoslav Richter, Nadia Boulanger and David Oistrakh. Every entrant must prepare reams of repertoire for a gladiatorial, six-round contest in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatoire, a setting music critic Richard Morrison called “scarier than center court at Wimbledon.”

Despite its prestige, in recent years the Tchaikovsky had fallen prey to all sorts of malicious practices that can afflict music competitions sooner or later. Teachers were voting for their students while voting against others. Judges were drawn mainly from Moscow, thus putting international competitors at a disadvantage. The balloting process was murky with accusations of bribes and cartels.

Gergiev moved to banish teachers who were voting for their students and brought in a new jury that included several international classical stars: Anne-Sophie Mutter and Yuri Bashmet were on the violin jury; Nelson Freire, Peter Donohoe and several others judged the pianists. The cello jury included Lynn Harrell, Ralph Kirshbaum and Clive Gillinson, the head of Carnegie Hall.

New management was brought in and the voting was remade using a scoring system modeled on that of the Van Cliburn Competition in Texas.

One of Gergiev’s other intended reforms were to give the competition winners high-profile performing opportunities, for without proper career support, finalists can fade into middling obscurity. So when the conductor leads his Mariinsky Orchestra at Carnegie Hall on October 11, joining him will be 20-year-old pianist Daniil Trifonov, the first-place winner at the competition in July.

“Daniil Trifonov is playing a very important Tchaikovsky Concerto performance – not only for him but for the reputation of this competition,” Gergiev told WQXR’s Jeff Spurgeon. “It will be important for him to be on top of his game."

Last month, London audiences got a taste of Trifonov’s playing when he performed the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 with the London Symphony, also under Gergiev’s baton. Critics had measured praise for the young performer. “He possesses almost boundless potential, but on this evidence is not yet a fully formed player,” wrote Martin Kettle in the Guardian. “The charismatic young Russian tore into the Tchaikovsky first piano concerto with exhilarating confidence and formidable technique.”

Born in Nizhny Novgorod in 1991, Trifonov trained at the Gnesin School of Music in Moscow before entering the Cleveland Institute of Music in 2009, where he studies with Sergei Babayan. His win at the Tchaikovsky Competition in July came just weeks after he snagged a Gold Medal at the 13th Arthur Rubinstein Competition in Tel Aviv. He has over a hundred engagements on his calendar this season and has been signed by two major management companies.

Gergiev praised the pianist’s ability to play with “a wonderful sonority, a precision, a balance,” without showiness, adding that he hopes the pianist’s competition days are behind him.

“I want to move away from sports and discussing how a young musician of 19 or 20 years old can simply sustain the pressure of being in six or seven rounds and always playing consistency very high quality,” said Gergiev. “It’s good news that he can do it. But let’s hope for him it will be something of a past.”

Weigh in: What do you think of piano competitions? Take our poll by voting below: