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Can classical competitions survive in the age of Simon Cowell and Jackie Evancho?

This was not the exact title, but it was the substance of a discussion I had last week on WQXR with Jon Nakamatsu, gold medalist of the 1997 Van Cliburn Competition, Yoheved Kaplinsky, chair of the piano department at the Juilliard School, and Susan Elliott, editor of, which has a new industry report out on competitions.

We disagreed on almost every aspect of competitions, from the value they add, to issues of corruption and the validity of controlling judges in an age when the public has been encouraged to choose its own winners.

You can listen to the 30-minute feature right here.

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  1. John Parfrey says:

    Your link to the discussion doesn’t seem to work, at least not on my PC.

  2. FYI: The Competitions report will be posted on May 1. No subscription required!

  3. Competitionator says:

    Hi Norman,

    I’m the winner of a past competition(I would rather stay anonymous, so you can choose to believe me or not) and I have to disagree with you about one point. I found the imposing load of repertoire that I learned to be incredibly helpful for my development, and friends of mine who have entered competitions have also expressed the same feeling. Learning the huge load of repertoire gave me the confidence to say yes to a performance at the last minute with repertoire I did not know well, simply because I had gone through the process of learning so much repertoire in a short time in the past. I only had 3 months to learn the something like 18 pieces for my competition, so learning 1 or 2 at the last minute always seems to be an easier task now that I have done that. It taught me to juggle different 12 pieces over the course of a 4 week tour because I had learned 18 pieces for one week. Did I learn the 18 pieces as thoroughly for the competition as I would have had I done a performance of just 1 of those pieces that week? I can’t answer that, but the incredible amount of hours that I put into studying and practicing for my competition certainly helped my development as a musician and as a performer. I’m better than I was at my art than before the week I entered the competition I don’t disagree with you that competitions can be horse races and can be musically vacuous, but I think that the right competition can send forth into the world incredible artists who just needed a little bit of exposure.

  4. Stephen Runnels says:

    Jackie Evancho is certainly a once in a century talent that has benefited from competition. Although Norman is correct that the importance is waning in regard to competitions, there will be spectacular gems like Jackie who will enthrall masses of music lovers for many, many years. The value of judges and the competitions themselves are basically irrelevant, as exemplified by Jackie being displaced from her rightful 1st place in the Americas got Talent competition. The winner of that competition went on to fulfill his level of talent, then quietly faded into the background of obscurity. Jackie, however, has gone from a second place finish on that show to performing for world leaders and with international artists, sold-out performances, television and a movie, and a headlining performance with world renowned classical artists for the upcoming St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. All in less than two years. The competitions (even classical) do have a positive aspect in showcasing talent that may otherwise never be discovered.

    • Serious classical competitions, as the lady in the clip says, are useful mainly for showcasing new talent to managers, music directors and the interested public. It doesn’t really matter who happens to win on any particular day, but it is always interesting to hear so many young soloists at one opportunity.

      Competitions like America’s Got Talent, with empty-headed celebrity judges like Sharon Osbourne and David Hasselhoff, are entirely irrelevant. They’re purely for entertainment.

  5. Charles Hoff says:

    Going a little “tabloid” with the headline, aren’t we Mr. Lebrecht? The only mention during the entire podcast of “Jackie Evancho” was made by you, and not commented on by any of the other participants.

  6. anonymous says:

    Norman, in the interview with WQXR you state that competitions are “a fairly recent invention”, and compare them with cattle markets. Having inaugurated his own competition, Arthur Rubinstein might have disagreed.

    Rubinstein took part in the fifth Anton Rubinstein competition in 1910. Previous prize winners had included Ferruccio Busoni, (1890), Nickolai Medtner (1900) and Wilhelm Backhaus (1905). Rubinstein lost to Alfred Hoehn, but was later awarded “a special fist prize” – though none of the prize money (Arthur Rubinstein: A Life, Harvey Sachs, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1995). Amidst the controversy over the result, Sergei Koussevitzky offered him a series of solo engagements in Russia later in that season.

    • And then don’t forget the prix de Rome, a competition for composers that started in 1803, and continued annually until 1968.

  7. One can agree with Mr. Lebrecht and more , but to expect a reasoned response from the two ladies other
    than what he got would be pushing the envelope – Ms. Kaplinsky and Ms. Elliott both know on what side
    the bread is buttered and both answered to serve their interests one in heading up a piano dept. at a music factory and the
    other running a music magazine of sorts . Both being somewhat disingenuous in their response to the
    points Mr. Lebrecht touched on – the only honest response to Mr. Lebrechts’ position was by Mr.Nakamatsu and
    even he was careful to dance around touchy points . Think future bookings !!!!!
    Now they have a new competition seemingly to the memory of Joachim who taught at the Berlin Hochschule
    whose teaching had not produced a single violinist of note . It would be interesting to know what competitionator as the voice of experience meant by the” right competition .”

    • Auer studied with Joachim, and he produced a huge number of violinists of note. Joachim also wrote much of the Brahms Violin Concerto.

      • Elaine-as usual with the uninformed you miss my point which concerned Joachim as a teacher of the violin ..
        Auer was already formed as a player when he reached Joachim who supposedly took the” high “road of
        violin playing (though playing the Bruch leaves that open to question ) probably because he couldn’t
        manage to compete with the likes of Wieniawski whom he considered the greatest of violinists . He didn’t
        write much of the Brahms concerto – he advised Brahms as to how much of the Brahms concept was
        playable on the fiddle .Joachim also wrote a violin concerto which most sensible players ignore .

        When a student achieves great fame it is always the last teacher good or bad who is given due as part of
        the success and Auer was no dummy – it is interesting to note that his most famous student
        made a wry observation on just how much he was taught (as in how to play ) by Auer .

        • Joachim has indeed been getting bad press lately, and perhaps he was not as great a fiddle player (or teacher) as one would like him to have been, but he was an important part of the Brahms and Schumann circle (and I suppose the person who indirectly introduced Brahms to Schumann through the Hungarian fiddle player he worked with).

          Joachim was certainly the “power player” of his day, and knew how to use his position relative to the making or the breaking the careers of composers who were his contemporaries. I’m not sure that I would have liked the man, but I can’t belittle his importance as a player and even as a composer (he did write more music than the concerto you avoid). He also wrote an interesting violin method

          I suppose the fact that he taught Maud Powell (who, like Auer, was already developed as a player) wouldn’t mean much of anything, but that he was able to exert his influence to further her career does. If competitions are there to improve the chances for people to develop ways of having solo careers, I can’t think of a more appropriate namesake for one than Joachim.

          I read recently that the cadenza of the Brahms Concerto was written primarily by Joachim, but perhaps I was misinformed. Uninformed is a harsh word.

          • Depends on how you came to your opinion. Uninformed is just a word , nothing harsh about it
            You are correct in that he was a power and quite important and supposedly on his good
            days was a fine player. The Cadenza is by Joachim ” Brahms in a letter refers to his Cadenza (Joachims’)
            being applauded right into my Coda .It also seems evident that with all the pencil markings of both
            men on the violin concerto score Brahms went his own way, as in a note to Joachim he Brahms states
            he will go his own way in composing the work even though he asks for Joachims’ opinion , but that
            (interesting enough ) Joachim can perform it as he sees fit . His school had a great many students
            none who became noted players . His methods were old fashioned and the manner of holding
            violin and the elevated bow arm brought in by Wieniawski changed violin playing forever . I would
            ignore any observation that links Joachim to Auer and on down . It just ain’t so .

  8. Pacer1 says:


    You can chart the lineage many ways. Joachim to Auer to Heifetz and Zimbalist and Elman. Or, Joachim to Auer to Mostras to Galamian to Zukerman and Perlman and Bell and Rabin and Laredo.

    • Pacert = again !! what uninformed nonsense concerning history of the violin .

      • A quote from Auer: “joachim was an inspiration for me and opened before my eyes horizons of that greater art of which until then I had lived in ignorance. With him I worked not only with my hands but with my head, studying the scores of the great masters and endeavoring to penetrate the very heart of their works.”

  9. Bob Burns says:

    Norman, your point about the sustainability of the top 5 or 6 or 10 (piano) competitions, as an example, is well taken. But 700??? A bit much.

    These things are beginning to look like music as sport. First place gets a million dollar career. Fifth place? Well, back to bussing tables.

    The thought occurs? Is there a percussion competition? (“A 10 on the tymps, but fails miserably on the glockenspiel. Triangle need improvement.”)

  10. Raymond Hubbard says:

    Could someone direct me to some online examples of the kind of future opera/classical singers, 10-12 yrs of age, who make Jackie look as Mr. Lebrecht sees her?

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