Tchaikovsky Competition: Why Listen?

Van Cliburn at 1958 Tchaikovsky Competition

Van Cliburn at 1958 Tchaikovsky Competition

I’ve put life on hold to spend these last weeks of June at my computer with my headphones on listening to (and watching) the most talented young pianists from around the world.  I even sent home a listening assignment with my students hoping that some of them would tune in but I’m afraid they are too young to appreciate the history behind this competition.

The International Tchaikovsky Competition, first held more than 50 years ago, is not only a valuable asset of Russian musical culture but is also one of the major events in the international music community. Participation by previous generations of musicians, including Dmitri Shostakovich, David Oistrakh, Emil Gilels, Mstislav Rostropovich, Heinrich Neuhaus, Tikhon Khrennikov and Georgy Sviridov, have enabled scores of young people from many countries to gain international prominence and to become established luminaries of the world’s leading concert stages. Past editions have spawned such renowned musicians as pianists Van Cliburn, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Mikhail Pletnev, Grigory Sokolov; violinists Viktor Tretiakov, Gidon Kremer, Victoria Mullova; cellists David Geringas, Nathaniel Rosen, Antonio Meneses and singers Evgeny Nesterenko, Elena Obraztsova and Deborah Voigt.

The International Tchaikovsky Competition is held once every four years. The first, in 1958, included two disciplines – piano and violin. Beginning with the second competition, in 1962, a cello category was added, and the vocal division was introduced during the third competition in 1966.

Perhaps the most famous winner came out of the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958 when Van Cliburn’s concerto performance was said to have been followed by an 8 minute standing ovation and had the judges asking Krushchev for permission to give first prize to an American. Cliburn returned home to – imagine this! – a ticker-tape parade! For a classical musician, no less! The cover of Time Magazine declared him “The Texan Who Conquered Russia!”

So all of this grand tradition aside, why should our piano students watch the XIV International Tchaikovsky Competition? Here’s why….

—It’s SO much better than any reality TV show (and that includes The Voice). It’s real life, seat of your pants, drama. These pianists are pouring their heart and soul into their music. They’re playing to their audience, but ultimately they will be judged by a jury of top pianists and master teachers from around the world. There’s no audience voting,  behind the scenes dirty-work or over-the-top hype.

—The contestants are young, hardworking, and talented. They’ve put in their 10,000 hours and more. Some may go on to long careers and may even become household names. But others may spend their lives behind the scenes teaching, or accompanying. In any case, for these two weeks, they are all in the spotlight and they all have a chance to shine.

—The repertoire is the best! I’ve enjoyed the Romantic literature, particularly the Scriabin and Rachmaninoff Sonatas. But I’ve also loved the surprises, particularly Yeol Eum Son’s performance of  the Variations, Op. 41 by Kapustin. What a treat! For a couple of pieces I actually opened my browser to IMSLP, downloaded the score and followed along during the performance.

—The hosts are wonderful! I love the commentary from online hosts Irina Tushintseva and John Rubinstein. I haven’t had a chance to tune into the violin competition, but I am enjoying the cohost Jade Simmon’s fun blog Stalking Superwoman with stories about her experiences in St. Petersburg.

—Surprise…the judges are human! I’ve enjoyed Irina and John’s conversations with Peter Donahue and Barry Douglas, two former competition winners.  All of the judges that have been interviewed have shown compassion and admiration for the contestants. (By the way, Barry Douglas is tweeting from Moscow, which just adds to the feeling of being there. )

—The mere fact that we can have this inside look at what’s happening in Moscow at the very minute it’s going on is amazing. Up to this point, the Tchaikovsky Competition could have been happening on the moon for all I knew. At least that’s as close as I thought I’d ever get to it. Thanks to 21st century technology, I now have a backstage pass and a front row seat!

So are you ready to tune in? Tomorrow we hear the final four Mozart Concertos. Then it’s on to the final round. Look at the schedule here. Find a link to the webcast here.

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