A Rubinstein winner on the perils of finals

A Rubinstein winner on the perils of finals


norman lebrecht

June 02, 2014

Kirill Gerstein, who won the Rubinstein in 2001, has been talking to our SanFran pal, Elijah Ho.


kirill gerstein



Gerstein: The funny thing about competitions is that one has to be careful about the final rounds. By the time they come around – there’s probably web-streaming and more people are tuning in – very often the performers are tired, and they haven’t toured with their concertos with orchestras in thirty or forty different cities over the past ten years. So I sympathize with the finalists. It’s not an easy experience. Very often, the finals of the larger competitions are actually weaker than some of the playing in the earlier rounds, and this certainly invites criticism. Some will say, ‘well, this year wasn’t very strong, how could this be the best ?’. The ‘meat’, I would say, is probably found in the earlier rounds.


To win a competition, things probably went very well for about two or three weeks against a group people and under whatever circumstances. From then on, everybody says, ‘well okay, let’s hear the new Rubinstein or Cliburn winner’, and every presenter and musician you come in contact and play with, is a test. It’s a much more serious situation than the competition, which is a prelude to that.

If I practiced a lot before the Rubinstein, I was practicing and working in various ways a lot more after I won. They will ask you if you can play this piece or that piece, and it’s no longer perfect lab-conditions, where you can prepare for as long as you’d like, where you select your own repertoire, etc. My advice is that it’s important to be prepared for that eventuality, to learn as much repertoire as possible.

There’s also the necessity to try to quickly convert yourself from a Rubinstein winner, or a Leeds winner, or a Van Cliburn winner, to whatever your name is. Because there is going to be a ‘next winner’ in the coming years. If presenters and audiences simply identify you as the current winner, your shelf-life is only three or four years. So this is where individuality and personality needs to be projected.

Click here for full interview.




  • Jeffrey Biegel says:

    Wise words from Kirill, a former competition winner. Being 18 years senior to my respected colleague, as I look back on the competitions, it became apparent to me, whether I won first prize or not, it prepared me for the challenges of post-competition life. Actually, aside from the standard repertoire, the one aspect of competitions which had a profound effect on me as a musician, was the requirement to learn a new work by a living composer. We become quite used to playing music by composers whom we cannot ask questions about interpretations. But the competitions, many of them, afforded the opportunity for us to meet the composers and get their feedback on our interpretations of their music. That opened many doors of thought to me, with new projects, which I took several steps further many years after the competitions. The competitions can surely open doors to the winners, and, in many cases, the non-first prize winners and finalists. But bigger than that, the competitions are seeds of new ideas, meeting new people, colleagues and exposing the craft and artistry to an international audience.

  • Martin Malmgren says:

    Glad this got shared here too – Kirill is a fantastic and thoughtful pianist, had the pleasure of hearing him do the Berg Kammerkonzert quite recently. He offers a perspective we don’t always consider, and on top of what he says, there is another reason for why competition finals typically aren’t the most enjoyable part of a competition. With the amount of concerti to be rehearsed, and so many finalists to make an acquaintance with a new conductor and a new orchestra under stressful circumstances, things are bound to end up dissatisfying. This is a reason for why many competitions limit the concerto choices…
    Way back when the Maj Lind piano competition first turned international, the concerto choices for the finals consisted mostly of obscure concerti, which is extremely rare – Hindemith, Bartok 2nd, Rachmaninoff 4th, Englund 1st etc. The Finnish Radio Orchestra criticized the competition committtee for this however, and the concerto choices have been mostly standard since then.
    I was fortunate to enter a competition recently where the Prokofiev 5th concerto was one of the concerti for the final round – a risky choice given that there was only one (1 hour) rehearsal plus a run-through on the day of the concert. This, however, is rather typical in competitions, and yet we compare these poor finalists with our favorite recordings of these works, where the artists have had the piece in his/her repertoire for years, and there has been an acceptable amount of practicing time.
    In addition, in most cases you have no idea what sort of conductor you will end up working with. One that is flexible and cooperative? That would indeed be ideal, but I have had friends in competition finals where the conductor showed very little interest in real collaboration, and I’ve been in such situations myself. So yes, Kirill certainly has a point when he says that the ‘meat’ is found in earlier rounds.