It is very likely that those of you reading this want to know all about the Cliburn competition. Normally, I would have led with that, but on a more personal, as well as musical level, there was a more important day that took place for me.
After six successful years, I led my final concert as music director of the ONL. That is not meant as a boast, but is simply a fact. When I first arrived in Lyon, the orchestra and its administration were facing a great deal of unrest. There was a controversy regarding a cancelled Japanese tour. The management was changing personnel, and the entire institution was under the threat of severe budget cuts.
My appearance came after a lot of musical disappointment. Although the ONL resumed recording, it was the Opera of Lyon that was securing the headlines. Many within the industry believed that I was becoming the conductor of that venue. Lyon is only one of two cities in France separate orchestras play the symphonic and operatic repertoire.
It took a little over a year to begin getting things in order. The orchestra also had to get used to my sometimes brisk and straightforward manner of rehearsing. My lack of proficiency in French did not help, but gradually we all learned to communicate in Franglais.
With three Asian tours, one in Germany and one in the United States, the orchestra got back to the international stage. We recorded prodigiously. Audiences got fuller and younger. The orchestra had established strong connections with its own city. And the quality seemed to grow week after week.
For the final set of concerts, we had the pleasure of collaborating with Anne-Sophie Mutter as soloist. Playing Takemitsu and Mendelssohn, she showed why her artistry is unmatched. And we had the opportunity to spend some time together. She is absolutely delightful on every front. The first concert was in Ravenna; Maestro Riccardo Muti attended and then invited us for dinner. It was getting close to two o’clock in the morning, but it felt as if the lively conversation with his wife and him could have continued all night long.
There was not a lot of turnaround time, as we would play the last concert back in Lyon just 16 hours later. And our flight was delayed by an hour, so there was limited time to have a quick sound check before the performance. But everyone was in a good mood. I had not thought much about the significance of this moment, and I knew of no after-concert plans for celebration.
However, in my dressing room, our artistic administrator, Christian Thompson, did something a bit unusual. There is a monitor that shows how many minutes remain until the start of the concert. He made his way over and turned it off. That is when I thought that something was up.
Anne-Sophie started the concert with the two pieces with orchestra, then during the bows she asked me if I wanted her to play a fast or slow encore. I opted for the latter, and she obliged with the Sarabande from the D Minor Partita. The audience, which had already gone crazy during the Mendelssohn, demanded and got two more movements from the same work. No one would have minded if she finished up the entire piece.
We brought back one of our standards, a piece we had played on our tours 18 times this season. It seemed like a nice present for saying goodbye, and the Fantastique did not need to be rehearsed. I just wanted the orchestra to have fun. The ONL played as if discovering the symphony for the first time. I let everyone enjoy themselves and smiled with pride throughout.
After three bows, Aline Sam-Giao, our new CEO, came out with me, as I was going to say a few words to the audience and needed a translator. As I arrived near the podium, I noticed one of the brass players signal to the others in his section, and they started playing “Hail to the Chief,” in an arrangement made by our tuba player and librarian. Eventualy the whole orchestra joined in.
I was in shock. How did they put it together? Then I knew why Christian had turned off the monitor in my room. I had to tell the audience what the piece was, and how it signals the entrance of the President of the United States. And of course, I could not resist the quip, “I hope I have done a better job than he has.” After that it was simply heartfelt thanks to everyone for the six years of a lifetime. Happily, I am not leaving entirely. There will be at least four or five weeks a season plus tours and more recordings ahead.
Lastly, the orchestra had a party for me in a garden area on the Auditorium grounds. It was so lovely and touching to hear all the nice things that were said about me. It seemed the orchestra thought I had made a difference. I could not have been happier.
Okay piano enthusiasts. Here is what happened in Texas.
I have often spoken out against competitions in music. This echoes Bartók’s famous line, “Competitions are for horses, not artists.”
Four years ago, I conducted the finals of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Mind you, I was not a judge and was only consulted regarding my thoughts on the collaborative process with the contestants. A few months later, I was asked to preside over the jury for 2017. After some consideration, two thoughts came to mind.
Since I had never done anything like this, perhaps I would learn something that would change my mind about competitions. But more important was the realization that every time I audition musicians for vacancies in my orchestras, that is tantamount to a competition. So I decided to give it a go.
There were four days of preliminaries, with two rounds on the first and last days, and three rounds on the other two. Each contestant played a 45-minute recital, with music of his or her own choosing, other than the required performance of the work written for the competition. In this case, the piece was Marc-André Hamelin’s Toccata on “L’homme armé,” lasting about five minutes.
The jury was seated in two connecting boxes, somewhat surprisingly not on the keyboard side of Bass Hall. But there was a screen above and behind the pianists upon which each contestant was projected from a single camera angle, allowing us to see the fingers at work. None of us was told how to judge the candidates, so we had to come up with our own system.
This only came into focus for me as I walked to the hall for the first set of pianists. Our job was to whittle the 30 contestants down to 20. In what was clearly a subjective field, all the jurors had their own methods for determining the end result of the first round.
The variety of pieces chosen was intriguing. Surprisingly, a number of the entrants chose the new piece for their opening work. The Toccata is a fine work—tough as expected, but with many different ways to interpret the cascade of notes.
There were several pieces that were new to me, a few of them very engaging, others mostly virtuoso vehicles, where pianistic gymnastics prevailed over musical value. Usually there was one work of about 20 minutes, and I was very pleased to hear the Barber Sonata three times. A little less satisfying was the number of times we had Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata. I love the piece but got tired of the “faster and louder is best” train of thought that permeated most of the performances.
Not very much Schubert or Debussy in this round, something that also took me by surprise. But at least Haydn got a nice representation. A bit less Chopin than I expected, and I do not need to hear any more Liszt Reminiscences, Paraphrases or the like for a while. No Hindemith and very little Bartók. Bach made appearances both in his own voice and in transcriptions. There were a couple of living composers, other than Marc-André, with a Prelude by Leah Auerbach making a striking impression.
Following the first two days, and the first 15 recitals, it became clear how the fatigue factor might set in. As opposed to an orchestra audition, we had the fortune to hear a variety of repertoire, and that kept things fresh. But the days with nine hours of listening could be very tiring. At least there was always food and beverages waiting for us in the green room. And exchanging stories with my fellow jurors was always delightful. We were not supposed to speak about the competitors, but there were times when each of us needed to get something off our chests. We just had to do it in a way that did not violate the secrecy of the process.
By the end of the third day, certain patterns were evident. It was easy to see how the entrants decided on their repertoire for this round. The idea seemed to be simply to get to the quarter-finals. Most had a classic Haydn/Mozart work; the commissioned piece; sometimes a shorter, unusual excerpt; and one 20-minute-or-so larger piece. I found the four-selection entrants more satisfying than the pianists who chose just three. Some of the programs were very well thought out on both an intellectual and emotional level. Having as much contrast as possible gave the jury a good indication of what to look for in the next round.
The final day of the prelims began in the morning but only contained two recitals. Some of my colleagues were sorting through their copious notes in anticipation of how their voting would look. Since I had my own system, all that was necessary was to total the numeric order of my choices. After the last note of the now ubiquitous Prokofiev Seventh was sounded, we headed to the green room to begin our selection process.
We were handed a list of the pianists, told to circle the 20 we believed should move forward and then asked to select three more, in case there were ties. None of us knew how the others voted, and at no time did we ever discuss the competitors. There was no talking prior to the ballots being distributed, so I felt that there was a complete fairness to the process. No “collusion.”
Indeed, 20 were selected and ten eliminated. We then proceeded to vote on the person we felt played Mark-André’s piece best. Although this award would not be announced until after the finals, we had to choose the winner at that moment, as it would not be played again and was still fresh in our minds. Of course, we tried to coerce the composer to tell us who his favorite was, but he stood up strong and did not divulge.
The moment of reckoning was at hand. The chairperson of the competition, Carla Thompson, Cliburn President/CEO Jacques Marquis and I marched onstage after 45 minutes. Carla gave some opening remarks, Jacques introduced all 30 competitors, and then it was my turn. The jury had told me that I had a tough job, as I had to be the one to tell the ten who did not make it through. At no time did I use the words winners or losers.
We had learned from Jacques that almost half a million people had tuned in via the internet. That gave me my cue. I said something to the effect that if any pianist touched even one person, they had fulfilled the reason they became musicians in the first place. My explanation of the role of the jury was clear and concise. Hopefully I alleviated just a bit of anxiety.
Then I read the names of the 20 who made it to the quarter-finals. By this time, the contestants had returned to the seats in the front of the hall, and I could see each of them. I purposely left out the countries they represented because it was my opinion that it did not matter. Music is music and should not have a border.
The names were randomly generated by a computer, so no one knew the actual voting results in terms of placement. When I got down to the last six or so, you could see hope fading on the faces of the competitors. As the last name was announced, the ten did not look quite as disappointed as I had thought they might. Perhaps some of them were here just to say they took part in the Cliburn.
The 20 were onstage, photos were taken and the jury was sequestered. Actually, we went to a fine Italian restaurant, continuing what so far had been an eating binge, all provided by the competition. This was not the time to start the full body cleanse.
With 20 pianists left standing, the next stage of the competition was the most demanding for the nine supreme court judges. There were ten pianists per day, rather than the nine in the previous rounds. That added almost an hour to the already demanding schedule. This would be the second recital for each competitor, and I assumed that they would play a bigger program, one that contained a lengthy work. After all, they had already done the variety show in the first round.
As it turned out, several of the entrants chose more or less what they had done previously, just with different repertoire. Some even kept close to the composers and styles they had played in Round One. Clearly this was the time to start separating the wheat from the chaff.
There were some substantial works on a few of the programs—Pictures at an Exhibition, a Chopin or Beethoven sonata or a large-scale set of variations. There were curiosities as well. Czerny made his first appearance, as did Ligeti, Clementi, Kapustin (new to me), Granados, and—shock—Bartók. The order of the contestants was determined by placing each one in the same place as the first round, minus the ones who did not move forward from the previous cycle. This meant that no one knew if they would be first or last on the two days of quarter-finals until the end of the prelims.
With one half hour less break time, we jury members were wiped out by the time the last pianist appeared. By sheer luck, in this case bad, the final pianist had included two Chopin Nocturnes, leading one of us to remark that he had succeeded with the performance because we were all ready to go to sleep.
On the second day of the quarter-finals, we did not rest. Ten more pianists, most of them exceeding the 45-minute recital time limitation, plus deliberations, voting and presenting, made for a very long day. Once again, we had a few rarities, such as the First Rachmaninov Sonata along with three complete sets of the Chopin Preludes. Some of us were putting together lists of pieces that we never felt compelled to hear again.
A few of the contestants were starting to show fatigue. This resulted in some technical mishaps, usually toward the end of their programs. It gave us some insight as to whether or not they could handle the demands of the remaining two rounds. Others seemed to get stronger, but for the most part, each confirmed the impression they made at the first stage. Most of my picks stayed within a safe range under the system I devised for scoring. My initial impressions remained largely unchanged.
Listening to 20 pianists in two days was grueling. In future competitions, this should be avoided. Over the course of five days, we heard 50 performances and almost 200 pieces. Still, we managed to select the 12 who would move forward. Although we did not discuss it, I suspect that most of us already had a pretty good idea of who would advance to the finals, barring any unexpected collapses.
The third stage was the first of two very complicated rounds to judge. Four years ago, the 30 candidates were narrowed down to 12, causing some concern regarding more than half being eliminated. So an extra round was added to the competition, meaning that instead of two recitals there were now three. Each of these was an hour long. Added to this semi-final recital was the performance of a Mozart Concerto, making comparison during the round very difficult.
With a full hour to perform, the pianists usually played one big piece and a couple shorter works. One person played Kreisleriana followed by the Prokofiev Sixth. There were numerous performances of Pictures at an Exhibition. I longed for someone to deviate from the original a bit, but alas, that was not the case. During one of our breaks, I mused about taking the Ravel orchestration and transcribing that back to piano. Of course, one of the jurors said that he had already done that.
A couple pieces were new to me and made immediately positive impressions. Carl Vine’s First Sonata and the First of Shostakovich are very impressive works that I hope to encounter again. But other pieces became a little tiring, including some Schumann and Liszt. I never get tired of Brahms or Ravel. More Chopin started appearing but no American or British pieces. All works played were selected by the candidates. In fact, the program book listed all the works the competitors would play throughout the competition. You had to feel really badly for those who worked so hard on all the repertoire, only to be eliminated early.
For the Mozart round, there were six K.466s. I felt a little sorry for Nic McGegan, who conducted all this. It is hard enough to remember what one pianist will do. In fact, out of the 12, there were only four different concerti played. The Fort Worth Symphony was onstage, and being in the audience gave me ample opportunity to judge balance. From my perspective in the boxes, I believed that for the works I would conduct, I needed to get rid of the risers and get the orchestra to sit closer together.
Several people in the audience who were located on the ground floor felt that the balance was fine. But the decision rested with the nine of us jurors, as we had to be able to hear clearly. Once the first four played their Mozart, we could not move anything, as that would have been unfair to the other eight. But for the final round, I would definitely alter the setup. This would require some delicate negotiations with the Medici television crew, as they had to consider camera angles.
All of the pianists played on the same instrument, although three were available from which to choose. The poor Hamburg Steinway took a real beating over the course of the entire competition. There were fears that it might commit suicide toward the end. Nevertheless, it held up very well, and there were only a few times when a few notes went out of tune. It was amusing to see the stage crew wipe off the keyboard after each performer, ridding the black and white of any residual perspiration.
After four days, it was decision time again. We were given our ballots and told to select six with one alternate. My own list ended up containing five of the persons who would move on. Once again, I still had reservations about the nature of competition in music, but at least I knew that the judging method was fair and played no favorites.
Now I knew that I would be leading six different concerti and listening to three piano quintets.
One could not ask for more diversity in terms of the various approaches to piano playing. Some of the entrants were aggressive, others suave, and some encompassed both qualities. There were two parts to the last round. First came chamber music. It is my feeling, at least from a jury point of view, that this was somewhat unnecessary, as we knew pretty much all we needed to know already in order to make a clear judgement. Piano quintets are wonderful works, but they do not tell us that much about the pianists. And the Brentano String Quartet did not have a say in the outcome.
Only three works were chosen from the original list of repertoire. Dvořák scored the highest, with three pianists selecting this delightful and marvelous work. César Franck came in with two, a bit of a surprise to me. And the Brahms was represented just once. No Schumann or Shostakovich. However, the majority of the pianists were either reticent or played at an unacceptable volume. I was told that no one was allowed into the rehearsals to assist, and that could have made a big difference. This was also the time when we saw full houses, with managers, agents, critics and piano aficionados coming to Fort Worth.
Since these works and the big concerto count together in the finals, we had to balance giving each pianist adequate rehearsal time as well as trying to make some coherent sense of the individual programs. For the concerto round, I would lead six different pieces for piano and orchestra, a bit rare for this competition. Rachmaninov would be represented by the Third Concerto and the Paganini Rhapsody. Prokofiev 2 and 3 would be played, as well as the First of Tchaikovsky and Beethoven’s Fourth. Certainly enough variety for the audience.
There were some unavoidable obstacles associated with this round. Engaging a full symphony orchestra is an expensive matter. The pianists only have one 50-minute rehearsal, followed by the dress rehearsal, which is basically a run-through. The repertoire choice must be limited by default. It would be nice to have the Barber, Lutoslawski or Bartók 2, but there just is not enough time to prepare these works with the orchestra. Since we only found out which of the concerti would be played following the announcement of the finalists, it was of course pointless to even consider rehearsing with the orchestra alone a few weeks in advance. So, as with all competitions, the music in the concerto round consists of the usual suspects.
While three of the pianists rehearsed with the quartet, I met with the other three to go over the critical spots in their chosen concerto. We then went onstage for one of only two rehearsals. The older competitors had played their pieces with orchestras previously. The younger ones had not as much experience with orchestra, and I had to explain the spots where visual communication was needed. They all seemed surprisingly calm. On the first day, each of the pianists stayed true to the form they exhibited during the previous rounds, so there were no surprises.
I did my best to treat each pianist equally, giving advice where needed and paying attention to what each of them wanted. The rehearsals went without problems, and the orchestra was extremely flexible throughout.
For the most part, I tried to encourage flexibility from the soloists in the concerti. Certainly the Prokofievs are fairly straightforward, with mostly tempi and color being the wild cards. The Beethoven demands a great deal of thought, and the two Rachmaninov works need both virtuosity and command of structure. Each pianist had his or her own distinctive sound, and the Fort Worth Symphony did a terrific job of making the needed adjustments.
We had full houses, and worldwide, we had almost five million viewers, with the majority tuning in for the finals. Audience members participating only in the finals may have developed opinions quite different from those of the jury which, of course, heard everything. Fan clubs had emerged among the Bass Hall crowd and there was much cheering for each of the pianists.
It is also important to remember that we are supposed to base the award on whom we thought would best handle the next three years, with its 100 concerts per season, management, and a recording contract. This grueling schedule has the potential for burnout. So the jury decision was not only about all of the performances, but also included our own predictions as to stamina over this period of time.
The audiences were enthusiastic, with clear favorites. When the final note of the First Tchaikovsky sounded, it was time to vote. We voted, again anonymously. For this round, my vote would not count unless there was a tie. If that were to occur, my ballot would break a deadlock without anyone ever knowing I was involved. Some competitions actually list the point totals for the audience to see. We did not evaluate in this way. Papers were handed to us, and we selected our picks for 1, 2 and 3 separately.
It is against the rules for me, or any juror, to speak about whom we preferred. My own criteria included program content throughout the rounds as well as thoughtful and insightful performances.
The jury was really incredible. There were no fisticuffs or body-slamming incidents. It was a great honor to be with them for these three weeks. Our lengthy discussions about music reminded me of how much I love my profession. And of course, there were stories, anecdotes and jokes. One of the better lines came when we were informed that there was going to be a panel discussion about the National Endowment for the Arts. One jury member quickly quipped that their theme music will be the slow movement of the Second Chopin Sonata.
We had previously chosen the winner of Marc-André’s piece, and now there were three discretionary awards given to pianists who did not advance to the finals, as well as the selection of the three winners.
Jacques told us the results, and now, for the first time, we were permitted to speak about the pianists. We did keep the discussion on more general terms, but there was a consensus that the concerto proved to be the weakest round for five of the entrants. Maybe it was fatigue, or too much adrenaline, but only one actually did better than in previous rounds. This was all subjective, but with such a diverse jury in agreement, one could not argue with the voting procedure.
The presentations were made onstage. I said a few words about Van Cliburn, announced the winners and all of a sudden, we were finished. Three long weeks had passed. A great deal was learned. I have more respect for how a competition works. My understanding of how it can advance or diminish a career is clearer, but there remain doubts as to music contests being an accurate way to judge artists. There is no question in my mind that at least two of the competitors will go on to have outstanding careers. Maybe others will too.
All in all, it was a most interesting experience. Very demanding as a listener, but with such wonderful discussions with the jury members and hosts who took care of all our needs, not to mention some great music making, I was very glad I decided to do this. There will always be naysayers and those who look for controversy, but I can say categorically that the judging procedure was as fair as it can get in a music competition. But it still comes down to being subjective. We all had our own set of standards, but we never knew how the votes came out until the end.
There was one really hard day when I had to fly up to Detroit to do a concert for the League of American Orchestras. The program was not difficult, but the travel was. With only two days off during the competition, one of them taken away because of this event, I was pretty tired. I tried not to let the exhaustion affect me and held on well through the subsequent ONL concerts.
Now I have a couple of downtime weeks.
See you when I wake up,