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What the Cliburn must do to survive Van Cliburn

I have offered some thoughts to a New York Times reporter on how the competition can outlast its founder.

van cliburn time

And I will add one comment of mine which was not used in the report: There is justified and growing suspicion of the judging panels and the pre-selection. One of the Cliburn judges has, I think, nine students in the contest. How can that possibly be perceived as a fair and open measure of the talent available?

This round of the Cliburn Competition is pretty much make or break.

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  1. I think that if there is ever any “dirty work” to be done by the jury at such competitions, it is usually carried out in the first or second rounds which are usually not open to public scrutiny. Although it sounds good to say that a jury member cannot vote on his or her own students, in reality it is most likely done a lot like the way it is in the governmental legislative bodies: You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours.

    And the reluctance about discussing upper management mentioned in the article is very simply explained: Powerful sponsors want to be able to have a voice in picking their favorites, too. The founder of the Zurich Géza Anda competition, his widow Hortense Anda-Bührle, was quoted during one of the earlier competitions as complaining that only the loudest and fastest of the contestants were passed on to the more advanced rounds by the jury at that time (you can Google for the title “The Dark Side of Piano Competitions”, an article published by the NY Times in August 2009).

    Some competitions like to invite former prize winners of their own competitions to serve on their future juries. Sometimes, these are artists whose own careers haven’t exactly blossomed in the meantime. How much incentive do you think they have to pass a candidate who is obviously much more gifted than they are? They want to remain in the game themselves!

    Also, some jury members are more figureheads than actively listening to what is going on down on stage. When I was a participant in one important international competition back in the late 70′s (won’t say which one), there was one distinguished jury member (a composer and a rather elderly gentleman) who was wearing hearing aids … I could tell because I sat behind them during the second round, having been eliminated after the first round.

    But the idea of letting the audience put in a meaningful vote reminds me much too much of Roman gladiator games … besides, most people in the audience have no idea about music at all and simply go along with the current hype. The circus that competitions has become has been seriously broken almost from the very onset.

    • “But the idea of letting the audience put in a meaningful vote reminds me much too much of Roman gladiator games … besides, most people in the audience have no idea about music at all and simply go along with the current hype.”

      Don’t we perform music for the benefit of the audience? Aren’t they the one who buy tickets to concerts, help put pressure on businesses to provide sponsorships, and encourage their children to explore the arts? Why would we ever consider cutting them out of the picture in anything we do? Aren’t they the most effective judge, since they will vote for the performance that they hear as the best?

      • I’m all in favor of letting the audience vote, or having a special audience prize. But it shouldn’t count with the jury votes. What we need are better jurors, and for that we need a better system of jury selection and competition proceedings so that the shortcomings about which Norman and others have spoken are addressed.

        I’m not sure that we should be performing for the benefit of the audience, if you are implying that what the audience likes best is the most beneficial. Not all of us, anyway. I would like to think that we perform for the benefit of the music, and that the music in turn is what is beneficial for the audience.

        Otherwise, you might have performers like Liberace, etc. winning all the competitions, and I don’t think that would be beneficial to anyone. Performers such as he never needed competitions, anyway.

  2. James Creitz says:

    Having served on the juries of numerous string quartet competitions, where jury members who taught or coached competitors always recused themselves, this situation is incomprehensible to me (presuming the facts are correct). Ultimately it is up to the competition to decide if it wants to remain credible and, if so, to institute regulations to this effect. It seems obvious *to me* that the teacher of a competitor should not even be on the jury.

    • “It seems obvious *to me* that the teacher of a competitor should not even be on the jury.”

      Seems obvious to me, too. However, the people (mostly professors) who serve on a lot of juries would fight such a regulation tooth and nail if it were to be enforced globally, because this might be one of the few enticements — sometimes the only one — for many good students to come study with them. It’s really a self-perpetuating, vicious circle as the older article “The Dark Side…” clearly points out. And this also corresponded to my own perception of the situation when I was still young enough to participate in these events.

  3. I also think it’s quite fitting, after more than 70 years of a closed society under the Communist regime, that the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow has taken a leadership role in the openness of its proceedings to the general public.

    To that I can only say: “Молодец!”

  4. This reminds me of the Metropolitan Opera Competition. One of the recent winners, Michael Brandenburg, was judged by both his personal coach and his personal voice teacher at two different levels of the preliminary rounds.

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