In defence of the Indy: A judge speaks out

In defence of the Indy: A judge speaks out


norman lebrecht

September 29, 2014

Our friend Philip Setzer, violinist of the Emerson Quartet, was one of the judges at the Indianapolis Competition, which was tainted by controversy over the high number of judges’ pupils among the finalists.

Phil had no students in the finalists line-up. Nor had he ever agreed to judge a competition before. Here’s his frank and open account of what he saw.

Hi Norman.
As far as Indy goes, I certainly understand your suspicion and how it looks from the outside.  I’ve been invited to sit on several juries in the past but never wanted to do it because I wasn’t sure how fair/political they were.  I decided to go to Indy because I know and trust Jaime Laredo completely and had heard nothing but good things about the way this competition was run and respected the rest of the jury for their knowledge and reputation of honesty.  I also wanted to do it in memory of Mr. Gingold, who taught me for 3 years when I was a young boy (I LOVED my lessons with him).  I think the process was as careful and honest as I could imagine.

I think it’s fine to question these competitions.  I don’t love them myself but they are set up to help young musicians get a career boost that they deserve, or at least something to work toward–a goal, if nothing else, at a time when young musicians perhaps need that. There are certainly other ways to build a successful career, but this competition is set up to help the new generation.  At a certain point, which I think we have reached, the questioning and difficult to support accusations only hurt the winners of the competition, not to mention the competition itself and the people who have worked so hard and contributed so much to enable it to exist at all.


I gave JinJoo Cho a very high score for her performance of the Korngold Concerto because she played it with great warmth and sincerity (and technical prowess).  Some parts of her  earlier rounds had some inconsistencies, but that was true for everyone and the points were tallied from the whole competition, so it really was an overview of each contestant.  She had something special that reached the jury and the audience.  I wish you could have heard her at the closing ceremony, playing the difficult Carmen Fantasy by Waxman, in a very dead acoustical space, literally facing the jury, who were sitting in the front row on the side directly in her line of vision, and in front of the 5 other finalists she had defeated.  I wish you could have seen the warmth she showed those 5 and their reciprocated support and happiness for her.  The jury all cheered her too and I know we were proud of her courage and felt good about our choice, her potential, her future.  I agree the pots need stirring in the music biz, but let’s not “throw out the baby with the bath water”.

Anyway, I wasn’t going to allow myself to get embroiled in this, but wanted to elaborate and give you a bit of the other, more positive side of things.  Hope this helps in some small way.  I am either an honest man or a fool–probably both!


all the best




P.S.  You are welcome to put this on the record as a respectful view from the other side.


  • Martin Malmgren says:

    If only one person would have been more careful not to “throw out the baby with the bath water”, things would indeed look a bit different for the competition, the winner and everyone else involved.

    Was the competition ‘tainted by controversy’? According to Norman, yes. Who else? And more importantly, according to whom that can substantiate such a claim beyond unsupported accusations?

  • Emil Chudnovsky says:

    Having just come back from judging the Chengdu International Violin Competition last night, I can echo Mr. Setzer’s comments with complete and resounding agreement. In Chengdu, we also had points carrying over from round to round with the result that, if you heard some of the finalists in earlier rounds, you might wonder how they ended up ranking in the top five. And if you heard one or two of the top prizewinners only in the final round, where their earlier, immensely strong performances gave way to a weaker showing in the homestretch, you might be excused for wondering whether a top prize ended up such because of nepotism or accomplishment.

    The short answer to the whole competition question is that it is NEVER free of “politics”, but that few people examine just what they mean by “politics”. Is it “politics” for a non-teacher to find themselves in accord with interpretations honed by a colleague of theirs? When a competitor who studies with a friend of mine – whether I know that to be the case or not – plays in a manner with which I’m in aesthetic agreement, is it “politics” for me to vote for that competitor? Surely not. It’s the basis of a competition: you vote for the performances with which you agree. If there are three such performances, and they happen to be from the studio of a professor with whom I’m friendly, is it seriously fair to expect me, as a judge, to penalize performances I like simply because they happen to come from the same studio? Or because they happen to come from a studio whose professor is on the panel? Surely THAT would be truly dirty, truly unmusical “politics”, not the other way around!

    Moreover, what if, due to listening to everyone in a competition (as a judge does, and as a member of the audience might not), I hear that everyone in a given round had fallen short of their previous performances? In such a less-stellar round, what if I give higher marks to the person who may have stumbled more but who had already demonstrated themselves to be a solid and interesting player? Is it “politics” for me to vote for them, giving them the benefit of the doubt? Surely an outside listener, who hadn’t heard every contestant’s similar stumbles might be excused for wondering why a jury advanced a player to a subsequent round who made errors. But their suspicion would be borne of incomplete data, not of viable accusations.

    I could have presented dozens of such “is it politics” scenarios even in the days when I was a competitor myself. I stopped doing it, both to myself and to the outside world, because it ocurred to me that I had colleagues who made the final rounds of most competitions in which they participated in spite of never having had a teacher or other ally on the jury. And because, in examining what such players had in common, and in learning to emulate those elements, I managed to fairly routinely find myself in international final rounds. It wasn’t a sudden bout of “politics” but a critical examination of how jury members’ impressions are formed that made the difference. And now that I’ve sat on the other side of the jury table a few times, I can say that the suspicious-mind explanations usually come from a hypersimplified view of jury members’ motivations and the mechanics of their deliberations.

    Now, this isn’t intended to assert that there is NEVER a case where votes are rigged, where blatantly inferior players are pulled through from round to round due to their protectors’ behind-the-scenes manipulations. Those in the industry – and, more specifically, on the competition circuit – know many specific cases and many specific names. But such names and such competitions usually shoot themselves in the foot, tarnishing their reputation to the extent that they can no longer attract the circuit’s best competitors to their contest, and to the effect that their winners fail to establish post-competition careers.

    But among the tarnished and soiled, the Indianapolis most emphatically does NOT figure.

  • Steven Honigberg says:

    In a regional competition here in Washington DC, in the final round, I was one of three judges. On my walk back to my automobile I found myself saying never again. The top prize the first year was not my first choice. Instead, I succumbed to my elder colleague in the room. Was I bullied? In retrospect, yes I was a bit. The second year, a violin student I had been coaching for quite a while was competing – this her second year as well. Again, in the confines of the judges room I found myself, in vain, trying to place her even though she was just beneath the cut of the other judges. Yes, I tried but now realize I was not insistent enough. For me, it was all about empathy. I was concerned that I may be playing a small part in destroying this young woman’s dream of becoming part of a fabric I love so much. She never did show up for another coaching with me.

  • Boris says:

    Why is no one in favour of open scoring? You may think such and such competitor deserved to score a zero out of a hundred? Fine, but be prepared to back it up, instead of hiding behind the approximate score that comes out.

  • NYMike says:

    Norman: that’s “our friend” Philip SETZER – no l…..

  • Rackon says:

    Steven, perhaps you aren’t familiar with the judging procedures for IVCI – jurors do not discuss or converse in scoring process.

  • jack says:

    Norman has finally done the right thing by publishing this thoughtful letter here, after he irresponsibly instigated this controversy!

  • Jennifer says:

    “Phil had no students in the line-up.” While it is true that no student of Setzer’s made it to the finals, from 2010 to 2013, 2014 IVCI participant Andrea Segar studied with him. Segar didn’t make it out of the preliminaries.

    • Martin Malmgren says:

      While it varies from competition to competition and from juror to juror, some do argue that current and former students are two different things. Not that I necessarily agree, but competition rules vary in this regard. Also, since all competitors are very well aware of the procedure of any high-standard competition and their take on the whole student/juror-issue when applying and reading the rules, then…it should have been known to everyone involved that jurors were not allowed to vote for their students in the IVCI competition. Having Phil’s version of things indeed seems to suggest that there was an honest and fair competition taking place in Indianapolis.

      • Jennifer says:

        I have no issue with the jury or the finalists from this competition and agree that it was most likely honest and fair. I was just clarifying an editorial statement that was vague and inaccurate. Should those who think the competition was fixed want to overlook Andrea Segar as a former student of Setzer, then they will also need to overlook the Fried connection for both Dami Kim and Tessa Lark as they also are not current students.

        • Martin Malmgren says:

          Yes, I agree with all of that, and just to illustrate how differently various jurors deal with this issue: there was recently a fairly big international piano competition where I live, and two among the finer pianists participating happened to be ex-students of a juror. When they turned out to be finalists, this very honest and decent juror decided not to take part in the discussion/scoring of either of his ex students. Just that…one of those ex students studied with this teacher when he was 13, which at that time was over six years ago, and from what I understood, irregularly and for only half a year or so. Still, the juror felt a need to distance himself from his ex students. Meanwhile, another juror was less honest about a finalist who had taken private lessons from her prior to the competition…The jurors all stayed at the same hotel, with grand pianos in their rooms, and some of them were surprised to hear precisely the repertoire that this very competitor was going to perform, from the room of that particular juror. In the end, it became clear that she also taught him DURING the competition.

          The end result? The competitor that came for private lessons to the jurors hotel room presented an awfully boring Rach 2 in the finals and got 2nd prize. Meanwhile, the two students of the ‘honest juror’ who stayed out of voting/discussions relating to his ex students delivered artistic, honest and meaningful (though perhaps not flawless) interpretations of Brahms 2nd and Chopin 2nd, but were left without a prize. At least one of them maintains a highly active performing career – also composing, improvising, conducting, etc. Meanwhile, the 2nd prize winner does not appear to be performing too much lately….

  • Milka says:

    Mr. Setzer has written a letter concerning the Indianapolis competition .. In being a judge
    he carefully avoids the questions raised, which
    is quite understandable, he is also
    disturbed that the questions raised
    may not be to the benefit of all
    concerned and will “hurt ” the
    winners and supporting staff etc .He
    believes it was as careful and honest a competition as one could imagine We then are given a
    most sympathetic picture of Ms.Cho
    and the reasons he voted for her. If he
    had addressed the concerns that prompted
    Mr. Lebrecht and others to question
    the process it might have been a seemingly less
    cautious self serving response .

  • I’ll just note the not-well-thought-through rhetoric of the passage where he says…

    …”the questioning and difficult to support accusations only hurt the winners of the competition,…”

    but then he immediately adds two or three more sets of victims

    “…not to mention the competition itself and the people who have worked so hard and contributed so much to enable it to exist at all.”

  • Peter Lovett says:

    Why should we have competitions in the first place? They are artificial, often fail in their goal of promoting young talent, are subjective in judging and open to allegations of favouritism. Music is not a sport and should not be judged as such.

  • Emeritus Prof Doug Grant says:

    Why on earth are contestants with links to jurors allowed? Or, I guess, why do jurors with links to contestants not resign? Surely that is just Ethics 101. I write from the perspective of having chaired the Professional Standards Board of a major professional society.

  • Amati says:

    I don’t feel like I was listening to the same competition as Phillip Setzer. She was one of the weakest competitors, both technically and musically. Anyone making a mistake as badly as this in Mozart, should not get a prize in my opinion, let alone win a competition. Even to the untrained ear, one can tell that something is seriously wrong!

    Music performance pedagogy/competitions are a big business. As someone alluded to on another discussion, kids from Asia bring big money over here to fund the conservatories, or else they wouldn’t survive. I wouldn’t be too surprised if she’s another one of those.

    • Joshua Geren says:

      OMG, a little memory slip in a concerto! Every famous soloist slips like that from time to time. Using that as an example of why she does not deserve 1st prize is idiotic.
      If anything, you can tell she is an excellent player despite the slip. Beautiful style and very elegant bow strokes.
      And the person that put that video on YouTube must be truly pathetic; I feel sorry for them.
      Jinjoo won. Get over it.

      • Amati says:

        I’m sure you’re one of Jinjoo’s friends or her in disguise. Because you are the only group of people ignorant enough to think that she is a good violinist or that this outcome was actually based on merit.

        That video of her playing in the wrong key certainly is enough to get most people knocked out of a fair competition or audition (although I’m starting to doubt there is such a thing these days).

        Who cares if she won? It was a fix. Her teacher was the President of the Jury. As someone else said on another article, celebrating the winner of a rigged competition, would be like praising a politician who won through voter fraud.

        • Joshua Geren says:

          Nope. Don’t know her, never met her.
          You must be quite silly to think that little slip should be held against her. So she accidentally started to play the passage from the recap and then she quickly adjusted. So what? To highlight that mistake from the performance of an entire concerto is to miss the purpose of music completely.