What’s the point of a competition if it won’t give first prize?

What’s the point of a competition if it won’t give first prize?


norman lebrecht

December 02, 2014

Over and over again, we see fortunes being spent on competitions that can’t reach a decision.

It happened in the violin jury of the last Tchaikovsky competition. It happened again last night in the flute section of the Concours Genève.

After performances by three young flautists who were ranked by leaders of their profession, watching at home on live broadcast, as ‘stunning’ and ‘outstanding’, the judges refused to award a first prize.

The audience voted for a 17 year-old Korean, Yubeen Kim.


yubeen kim


The judges grudged him joint second prize with the Portuguese finalist, Adriana Ferreira.

What’s the point of that?

Now, the best the winners have to show for their efforts is ‘I was best in Geneva in a bad year’.

This has been a great year for new flute talent. And a very bad year for competitions.



  • Simon S. says:

    Well, why not? AFAIK, the ARD competition does so, too.

    If the competition has clear and transparent rules and criteria (and being a jury member’s student isn’t among them), I don’t see a problem in awarding a first prize only for really ouststanding contributions which don’t happen every year. This doesn’t devaluate the second prize, it rather enhances its value.

  • Max Grimm says:

    If the jury is split down the middle or cannot agree on choosing one candidate over the other, it’s not at all pointless to award two second prizes ex aequo.

  • StopTheMusic says:

    While ideally winning a competition means you were the best, most often it simply means that everybody else played worse. True star-quality “genius” talent is all too rare these days, and juries shouldn’t be obligated to award a 1st prize unless someone truly special appears. One need only look at the Chopin Competition in Warsaw, which didn’t give a 1st prize in 1990 or in 1995 — and in hindsight they were right to withhold the 1st prize: 1990’s 2nd prize went to Kevin Kenner, and 1995’s 2nd prize went to the late Alexi Sultanov.- so, safe to say that neither of them was a Pollini or an Argerich. The jury’s actions indicated their collective opinion that Kenner & Sultanov were the best players there, but that their performances didn’t rise to the level that would merit the1st prize. Thus, the jury did their job!

  • Robert Holmén says:

    I propose a “sudden death” playoff system… the first flautist to take a breath during Paganini’s “Moto Perpetuo” loses.

  • Mikey says:

    A competition is between those who presented themselves to the competition. Not between those in competition and other musicians from previous years, or even musicians who never participated in that specific competition.

    Whether the top performer in a competition is equal to or inferior to some previous Great is entirely inconsequential.

    I don’t believe that a competition should get away with not awarding a 1st place. There is ALWAYS someone who stands out above the others. You have five participants? Well ONE of those five is better than the others. If two are equal, then let them share the 1st place prize.

    It is completely irrelevant to state that none of the finalists in a competition are an Argerich or a Pollini. The only moment those names become relevant is when Argerich and Pollini are IN the competition.

    • StopTheMusic says:

      That depends on the goal of the competition: They can either choose to give their 1st prize for the best student-performance (which is what happens 99% of the time), or they can defend their artistic standard by withholding the 1st prize unless someone truly rises to the level of “artist”. In all music competitions, the vast majority of competitors are in fact good students (nothing wrong with that)– but a true artist is a rarity, and the Warsaw Chopin competition made that important distinction in 1990 and 1995. Certainly a 1st prize is no guarantee that someone is a major artist (i.e., the many 1st prize winners of the Van Cliburn and Queen Elizabeth competitions — most of whom disappeared shortly after winning). There are too many competitions, and too many winners — but too few artists. And today’s educational system can well be faulted for that — our music schools train competitors, not artists.

    • Max Grimm says:

      While I agree that competitors should not be judged based on the performances of instrumentalists not playing in the competition, the notion of one competitor being better than the rest, only holds true if the only things being judged are skill and technique. If you take into consideration a musicians musicality, individual artistry and personality, things become very subjective and one persons “best” might be an others “second or third best”.

      • Mikey says:

        ALL aspects of making art are to some degree subjective, even those that you call skill and technique.

        Whether the judges are judging only skill and technique or the artistry that goes along with them, the judges can still choose a “favoured” person once they have tallied up the points. There is simply no justification for saying “we aren’t awarding a first prize”. If two competitors come up ex aequo then they both deserve to share the 1st place.

    • @StefaanVdPutte says:

      Great answer! I totally agree!

  • Max Grimm says:

    If anybody is interested, the finale of the flute competition of the Concours de Genève is available for free viewing on ARTE Live under this link:


  • atarah ben-tovim says:

    As this competition was broadcast, we viewers cant make a truly ;fair judgement- but Now 2 days later- which performer , which performance does one remember? and is there any one that you would like to see/hear again.? That would be my verdict – The young mans intelligent .musical and yet creative of the Mozart is still with me today.

  • Pamela Brown says:

    Unfortunately, the entire jury system is flawed imo. The tendency is to force square pegs into round holes, rather than nurturing the individual gift and voice that player may have…

  • Chuck says:

    Since Sultanov had already won the American Van Cliburn competition, it was a political way of saying Polish standards are higher than American. He could have never gotten the prize but they would look incompetent fools if they awarded it to anyone else over Sultanov.

    • Musicmatters says:

      Totally agree. I attended the 1989 Cliburn Competition: It was a very dull affair, with NO clear-cut winner amongst the 6 finalists, but the rules stated that a 1st prize had to be given. So, they awarded it to Sultanov, whose “slash & burn” keyboard attacks & crude musicianship appealed to the lower tastes of the local audience. His Chopin Waltz (Op. 18) performance at the winners concert was an utter travesty, and within a few years his career ran out of steam. That he then claimed 2nd prize in Warsaw 6 years later only speaks to the low level of Warsaw’s contestants in 1995.