Judging Music by the Rules of Sport: Can Competitions Identify New Talent?

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Van Cliburn with Haochen Zhang, the gold medalist at the 2009 Van Cliburn Competition Van Cliburn with Haochen Zhang, the gold medalist at the 2009 Van Cliburn Competition (ALTRE MEDIA)

"Competitions are for horses, not musicians," Béla Bartók famously sneered. Many classical musicians would agree. But even the most high-minded of us find something compelling about these talent contests, which now number more than 700 worldwide.

The charges against competitions are familiar: they turn art into a sport; they are poor barometers of future potential; losing can damage morale and possibly even a career. And there is often least one verdict controversy − whether it's the audience disagreeing with the jurors, or the jurors disagreeing with one another.

And yet, competitions may have a newfound relevance in an era of televised talent contests like "American Idol" and the "X Factor."

As the 75th Queen Elisabeth Competition gets underway this week in Brussels, Naomi Lewin asks four guests whether competitions can help to identify talent in a crowded field, or if they are, as their critics argue, a weak measurement of artistry and potential.

Guests:

Jon Nakamatsu: the concert pianist and the gold medalist of the 1997 Van Cliburn Competition

Norman Lebrecht: the cultural commentator, Artsjournal.com blogger and author of several books on classical music, including The Life and Death of Classical Music and Why Mahler? 

Yoheved Kaplinsky: the chair of the piano department at the Juilliard School, who has sat on numerous competition juries including the Van Cliburn

Susan Elliott, the editor of MusicalAmerica.com, which has a new industry report out on competitions


Weigh in
: Are competitions good for classical music? Leave your comments below:

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Comments [5]

Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

Like it or not politics exists everywhere, even little children manipulate their parents and other children.
The gains in quick recognition and a lucrative career if the performer proves himself or herself is undeniable.
I won the Alice Ditson Award for Operatic Singing at Columbia University many years ago. But that was before the mega attention one lavishes on contest winners today. Then it merely enhanced one's motivations tom do better and persevere. A true artist in any of the arts, fine arts, performing arts or composing or authoring must have that all-consuming passion for his/her art and the time and stamina "to stay the course" no matter what the contemporary status. Our successes tell us much, but our failures reveal wherein ewe must improve. May the FORCE be with all who choose to "test the water." I am a Wagnerian heldentenor, an opera composer ["Shakespeare" and "The Political Shakespeare"] and the director of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, where there is voice training and coaching in all the roles of the Shakespeare plays and the operatic roles of Wagner's oeuvre.

I am a Wagnerian heldentenor, an opera composer ["Shakespeare" and "The Political Shakespeare"] and the director of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, where there is voice training and coaching in all the roles of the Shakespeare plays and the operatic roles of Wagner's oeuvre.

May. 05 2012 09:39 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

One of my mentors befriended his fellow countryman in the USA,having him reside with this maestro as well, and published a book on Methodology in music quoting BELA BARTOK.. That instructor was the maestro LASZLO HALASZ, with whom I studied the Wagner roles and other rep over a period of thirty years, yes, THIRTY YEARS. Competitions are essential to have the artist, singer or instrumentalist, demonstrate his/her abilities and personality. We all know that often politics is involved, not the politics of government, but equally as sanguine. Besides all else, contracts for appearances and recording are "a foot in the door." All the great composers have spent a large quotient of their creative years merely smooching for funding especially where a staging is the concern Opera demands considerable effort and talent and time and competitions for composers IS DE RIGEUR, unless of course if one is lucky to head a music conservatory, allowing time for composing and providing for the creature needs. I am a Wagnerian heldentenor, an opera composer ["Shakespeare" and "The Political Shakespeare"] and the director of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, where there is voice training and coaching in all the roles of the Shakespeare plays and the operatic roles of Wagner's oeuvre.

May. 01 2012 03:54 PM
Fan of Béla

There is integrity in Bartók's music, and an efficiency of expression. He possesses intellect and brilliance. He is quoted additionally as saying: `I cannot conceive of music that expresses absolutely nothing.` or `In art there are only fast or slow developments. Essentially it is a matter of evolution, not revolution.` It's so important to view this subject with broad scope, not to muddy the discussion with contemporary references or references with limited prevalence. Bartók lived in a different time - 1881-1945. He adapted to his listener's needs and answered musically to the challenges of daily life. His music is uniquely constructed and brings out the best from all who listen in a terse and powerful manner. Who truly knows what Bartok would say or articulate today as he observed classical music competitions or concerts? What would he write and compose for his countrymen and patrons? I feel assured that his first quote included here - `I cannot conceive of music that expresses absolutely nothing.` - narrates a quality found in many competitions today. There is a drive to protect and foster meaning, unique insight and innovation from pianists at certain competitions. What is being overlooked, in my view, is that there is so much more going on within `competitions` than just the `competition` - that the pianists can potentially grow so much through the process of the competition. Musical growth is elusive, and can be invaluable. Deep musical growth and distinct identity in music is hard to acquire. Everything that allows these pianists to find this is key. The competitions and festivals that prioritize this direction within their musical mission will serve classical piano properly, and as well, survive. I think Bartók would be pleased to know that there is evolution within the environ of competitions today and that there is plenty of meaning!

May. 01 2012 12:59 AM
Bill from NJ

The problem isn't with competitions per se (though there are too many of them, many of them mean very little) it is often who is running and what they measure. The big competitions, like the Queen Elizabeth, often have as judges performers, people like Maxim Vengerov, Manehem Pressler and the like, who understand what performance means and they judge based to a large part on the whole package. On the other hand, a lot of competitions have as judges pedagogues and 'professional judges' who seem to judge on one attribute only, technical fireworks. For every Ray Chen (prior winner of the Queen Elizabeth on violin) you have the so called virtuosi who to watch performing are like watching the grass grow, yet pedagogues go crazy over them. The problem here is what is being measured, how well the person performs or how much they raise the blood pressure of a music teacher?

Competitions have value in that they often come with recording contracts and performance opportunities and artist management, and especially with the piano world it is how pianists get noticed. Some competitions seem better predictors of success, like the Queen Elizabeth, others seem to have much less correlation between doing well and success.

I think comparing these to the X factor and American Idol is silly. While these competitions are available via the web the only people who watch them are people in the know, either uber fans or music students, and they have very little appeal to the general public and I doubt very much they do much to bring people to classical music. It would take a competition with real production values, where they played it up, where they were making an effort to have competitors that relatively unsophisticated audiences could relate to, for that to happen. Some kid sawing away perfectly at a Paganini caprice isn't going to catch someone's imagination, whereas a performance loaded with charisma and stage presence and excitement, like the Piazzola piece in the recent Menuhin finals, will. Unfortunately a lot of the people who win these competitions lack the kind of things that would attract people, they have little stage presence, charisma or inherent musicality that would attract people; they thrill pedagogues who know how difficult what they are doing is, but that doesn't appeal to audiences.

Apr. 30 2012 04:38 PM
fwso-patron from USA

I tend to be black and white on these things or take things to their logical extreme - but I wish that Lebrecht would celebrate that these young musicians are being showcased in so many more venues and given many more opportunities to play, gain visibility and become well defined. I think he's missing the point. Anything that pushes classical music into the mainstream's eye is extremely valuable. I say the more competitions, festivals or keyboard institutes, the better! The nature of today's competitions is just a facet of contemporary times. Things evolve and change naturally, if there are too many competitions or they don't bring return or value, the number will dissipate. But, in the mean time, they should be leveraged for their value and impact.

Apr. 30 2012 02:29 PM

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