Top Five Competition Controversies

Friday, May 04, 2012

Whether generated by the appeal of reality television or the means of promoting talented musicians, competitions seem to be more popular than ever these days. While we’ll let the experts debate the worth of these contests, they certainly have made the careers of some musicians and also created scandals, of which we’ve collected the five most notorious:

1. 2006 Villa-Lobos International Piano Competition
Brazil created the Villa-Lobos International Piano Competition in 2006 to promote the country’s most famous composer (participants were required to play his pieces). Instead, it started an international controversy when its director Ilan Rechtman accused organizers of interfering with the list of invitees. Rechtman was fired but the competition is still staged annually.

2. 2011 International Tchaikovsky Competition
Conspiracy theorists took special interest in the 2011 International Tchaikovsky Competition, a contest with roots in Soviet-era cultural politics, when judges sent favorites home early. Critics in Moscow and around the world suggested favoritism toward musicians trained in Russian schools. The resulting Russian sweep in all the instrumental categories, except violin, where no top prize was awarded, didn’t quell the rumors.

3. 1980 International Chopin Piano Competition
Perhaps no competition has been as divisive as the 1980 International Chopin Piano Competition. The field featured a 22-year-old Yugoslavian (now Croatian) pianist Ivo Pogorelic, who split the jury. Fans included judge Martha Argerich, who called him a genius. When Poporelic was eliminated after the third round, Argerich walked out. Her defiance didn’t help Pogorelic’s chances in the contest, but it did catapult the young pianist to instant fame.

4. 2009 Van Cliburn Piano Competition
A pair of gold medals, instead of one, had onlookers second-guessing the judges’ priorities at the 2009 Van Cliburn Piano Competition. Though not completely unprecedented — the 2001 event also ended in a tie — cynics wondered about the motivations behind giving the top awards in a talented filed to 20-year-old blind pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii, and the youngest competitor, Hoachen Zhang, who’d just turned 19.

5. 2009 Geza Anda Competition
The Geza Anda competition in Zurich was founded to commemorate the Hungarian pianist who died in 1976. Still run by his widow Hortense Anda-Buhrle, the event was embroiled in furor in 2009, when Anda-Buhrle publicly criticized the jurors’ first-round selections, saying they had chosen the musicians with the fastest and loudest styles.

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Comments [7]

albert moore

The only thing controversial about Tsujii's win at the Cliburn was the ignorance of the opinions expressed by critics
who questioned it. All knowledgable musicians in attendance at the competition performances knew clearly that Tsujii was the most musically compelling pianist in the event. It is sad that there is such a lack of knowledgable, perceptive musician/journalists who can serve as critics for major newspapers, that we get these misguided pronouncements.

Feb. 17 2013 01:38 PM
Michael Meltzer

The point, Mr. Lane, is that winning competitions is not necessarily "proving oneself." If one has not caused the racing of pulses, the "goose bumps" and a few gasps from the audience here and there and the thundering applause, the winning of a competition is no more than another academic credit.
The old-fashioned debut, the critical acclaim and rave reviews, the follow-up invitations, the word-of-mouth among fellow musicians, all of these things have been supplanted by a highly politicized process, the results of which often remind one of the definition of a camel: "a horse designed by a committee."

May. 05 2012 10:48 PM
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 09:31 PM
Michael Meltzer

What years ago was almost impossible is now commonplace: a young pianist can go straight from the competition circuit right into a conservatory or university music department chair, without ever being required to have moved an audience. The impact on artistry among younger pianists of the last couple of generations has been nothing less than stultifying, and contributes to the decline of classical music.

May. 04 2012 08:04 PM
Shirley Kirsten from California

Sadly, these competitions put music-making into the sports arena where it doesn't belong. And performances become standardized and not individualized as they should in a creative, artistic spirit. I would have walked out, if I were a judge at the Cliburn Competition when Bohzanov was passed over but for a chamber music performance award.

May. 04 2012 04:13 PM

Ms. Angel's article is welcome one. Controversies such as those she lists breathe life into what many wrongly see as staid and stuffy events. I say: good for classical music that we start talking about these competitions and their winners (and losers).

One quibble I have is that I'd like to see another article about competitions, but those competitions for other instruments than the piano or violin. What about viola? Or cello? Or trombone? Or organ? Let's hear about those events please.

May. 04 2012 10:45 AM
M. L. Liu from California

In the U.S., how many people know about piano competitions? Even fewer know the winners.

I happened to catch the 2009 Van Cliburn Competition documentary when it was aired on PBS, and have been grateful ever since.

Controversy? I so love it. That gold medal awarded to young Japanese pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii has changed his life -- in Japan, it has been impossible to get tickets for his concerts ever since, and he is now performing concertos with the likes of Vladimir Ashkenazy (May 23,24, 29 in England)and Valerie Gergiev (July 8 in Russia).

And, it has also changed mine - I have become an avid classical music lover and dusted off my piano after some 20 years to play the instrument again.

I tip my hat to the 2009 Van Cliburn jurors for their collective valor in making that controversial decision.

May. 03 2012 04:50 PM

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